The Role of Art in a Pandemic

Social Distance (Illustration)

[With this post we begin a series in which we will offer some responses to the pandemic now unfolding across the globe, disrupting everyone’s lives. As we do on this blog we will speak from our own disciplinary positions, in the hope that people from other fields might find their own attempts to understand this crisis enriched.]

Pandemics, like climate change, are strange combinations of human activity and other natural processes. We make pandemics through all that we do — moving, touching, caring, talking, and so forth — because viruses thrive on our capacity to find them new hosts. They are crafty and we are crafty, artful without necessarily knowing that we are artists. Lacking our usual doings, viruses cannot replicate or cannot replicate as quickly, hence the current drive amidst the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world to shelter in place, to limit the vectors through which the disease can continue its passage through our species. As we turn off our artistry to limit its activity, our action (as well as our inaction) can make things better or worse for us. The social distancing that we are currently practicing becomes a kind of passive activity, an anti-art “inactivism” — which is precisely what we will not tolerate from leaders and media that have failed to respond sufficiently to the crisis. Our sluggishness, as we bumble around bewildered in our homes, helps; theirs kills.

As with other things affected by the spread of COVID-19, art is shutting down or being shut down. Amazon has deferred shipping music and books to prioritize basic household items and cleaning products. Museums and galleries are closed and festivals are being cancelled or postponed, facilitating social distancing and slowing the spread of the virus to mitigate beleaguered and underfunded healthcare systems. Art’s status as a luxury or leisure-time activity — and thus something “inessential” — has been foregrounded at the expense of its other capacities. At the same time, culture is proving to be a refuge. We may turn to books and stories — Giovanni Boccacio’s The Decameron, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, and so on — to while away our suddenly abundant downtime and instill in ourselves the resolve that comes with a sense that what we face has been overcome before.

But, crucially, art offers more than solace. The role of art in a pandemic is to constitute the visibility of vital knowledge. As a number of artists and artist collectives made palpably clear in the 1980s and 1990s during the AIDS pandemic (which is still ongoing), this is a subtle, if also blunt, art that must be practiced with care and strategy. We need art to say what others — governments, media, etc. — do not say, and we need its messages to get across amidst the din of information competing for our attention. Here are three examples of the artistic astuteness that such times demand:

  1. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) [https://actupny.com/], while not really an art collective per se and perhaps best described as an activist organization that performs direct action on behalf of people with HIV and AIDS, especially LGBTQ people disproportionately affected by the disease, understood this well (and still does). In part because AIDS so forcefully impacted the arts community, a number of artists worked with the group to develop a visual culture capable of making the realities and magnitude of the crisis clearer to the general public. The SILENCE = DEATH poster, developed by six artists who gave ACT UP permission to use it in the group’s actions, makes stark use of typography to assail the social invisibility of AIDS as unacceptable and as something overcome through acts of speaking out and creating the visibility that comes from it. Its use of a pink triangle — a symbol appropriated by the LGBTQ community after having been used in Nazi concentration camps to identify its members, only here reclaimed by being inverted to point upwards — aligns the silence of the contemporaneous right-wing Reagan administration with earlier fascist persecutions of marginalized groups, rightly laying blame for deaths from AIDS as much on government malfeasance as on the virus itself. The poster continues to be used in direct actions by ACT UP to this day, and its message remains true. Its effectiveness resides in its expertly calibrated balance of doing and not-doing, of saying only what needs to be said and not confusing the matter with the unnecessary or tangential. It is simultaneously restrained and unrestrained, and this key to its strength.
  2. While ACT UP’s poster does not mention AIDS explicitly, the Canadian artist collective General Idea does in a work that, like the ACT UP poster, appropriates preexisting images and symbols by modifying the artist Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture to create an equally bold and assertive AIDS logo. It then, like an advertising campaign, appeared in a range of places, including, in addition to art galleries and museums, subway cars, where the general public would encounter it, and the covers of medical publications, where doctors and other health care professionals would see it. Crucial to how this image works is the fact that appropriations preserve their associations with their sources, so  AIDS here comes to be associated with love rather than hatred or fear, but another part of the ingenuity in General Idea’s work resides in the group’s ability to think like a virus — “infecting” Indiana’s work with AIDS, “spreading” the easily replicated logo around the world — thereby learning from and reclaiming the logic of a pandemic to disseminate not disease but awareness and empowerment. Ultimately, two of the three members of General Idea, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, died of AIDS, and AA Bronson, the group’s other member, had the courage to make art about the deaths of his friends, including producing a loving and devastating portrait of Partz on his deathbed just after he died, the photograph Felix Partz, June 5, 1994 [https://whitney.org/collection/works/16348]), which is unflinching in its willingness to look at disease squarely and to confront us with our own obligations to do so as well.
  3. A third example from the AIDS crisis that builds on General Idea’s sense of responsibility is a work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) from 1991 is an installation comprised of wrapped candies that ideally weighs 175 pounds but dwindles as visitors take pieces of candy from the pile, an activity that Gonzalez-Torres encouraged. Inviting transgressions against the generally enforced prohibition against touching art, Gonzalez-Torres’ insistence on the priority of generosity, proximity, and intimacy appears all the more powerful and complicated when one learns that Ross is Gonzalez-Torres’ partner Ross Laycock, who died from AIDS in 1991, and 175 pounds was his weight before the disease began ravaging his body. By participating in Gonzalez-Torres’ work through the act of taking a candy, we are reaching out, forming the impossibly real community that joins us to others, including Ross, Gonzalez-Torres, and everyone else who has taken or will take a candy, and we are thereby made complicit in Ross’ death, perhaps caught unaware in our reenactment of his incremental wasting away as we take a few empty calories in the form of something sweet, and this aligns all of us, even those who do not have a close personal association to AIDS, with our responsibilities concerning the disease. Perhaps most powerful of all, Gonzalez-Torres’ work does not loudly advertise itself as an artwork about AIDS, and this quality, found throughout all of his work, enabled him to exhibit, for instance, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. (which is part of the Smithsonian Institute and thus under the control of the federal government) at the height of a culture war in which politicians such as Jesse Helms were attacking and suppressing art and culture that they viewed as immoral for, among other things, addressing LGBTQ people and their lives.

Our moment is, of course, different from the onset of the AIDS pandemic, but the basic messages of these images are still relevant enough (government is failing us; love, don’t fear, those who are sick; we’re all in this together) to learn much from the precedent of the sophisticated and complex yet simple and incisive images delivering them to us. Many, many bad things will come from the COVID-19 pandemic, but one good thing that can come from it is a more knowledgeable public, a public more knowledgeable particularly where our inextricable capture in natural and social processes is concerned — so that our obligation to care for one another and for the planet becomes more evident and more integrated into our artful ways. We are all set to learn a good deal about what all that we do (and don’t do) does—the fact that we explore on this blog, that how we live changes everything. Powerful forces want things to return to “normal,” but we would all be better off if, having learned all that we will from this pandemic, we carry on with a much deeper appreciation for the consequences of our activity and inactivity, especially our “normal” doings. Everything we do, all of it artful, constitutes what we see around us (and what we don’t see), and all of it is now on trial. A crisis is like a sieve: some things pass through and others do not. Art is among the keepers of this most important of gates.


Robert Bailey is an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Oklahoma.

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Detail, Lorenzetti Allegory of Good and Bad Government

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Baronstown West Man, found in County Kildare

Baronstown West Man, found in County Kildare

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Claudia Hart (artist/sculptor), “Resolution, Reification,
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Petro Pete's Big Bad Dream

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Joseph Beuys, “7000 Oaks” adapted under CC A-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons

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Satin Bowerbird at his bower JCB.jpg

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