“The New Art World” plus “Life after the Pandemic” written by Debra Hand
I just love artists. I mean “real” artists: those who choose to use their creativity to uplift humanity in some way. And I love them regardless of race, religion, gender, or geographic boundary. I can’t even begin to imagine a world without art, but I do know one thing: apocalyptic doom “ain’t got nuthin’ on” a world without artists.
“If you thought art was frivolous prior to this historic moment of “shelter in place,” perhaps you might think again. Today all of us are leaning on artists (from every genre) for our emotional support. We are nourishing our spirits with the fruits of their talents as we endure the current headlines and uncertainty. It is our artists and their creative imaginings that are keeping us sane and civilized at this very moment.
The truth is, we have always been reliant upon artists to assure the things we enjoy most about existing. I think Winston Churchill said it best. When he was asked to reduce the arts’ budget in order to increase the budget for fighting the war, allegedly Churchill replied, “Then what are we fighting for?” That was a great question then, and it’s an even more profound question now. In the face of this pandemic: what are we fighting for?
Well…as humans, we need something to make the hard work of survival worth it. Yes, I know we have “love” itself, but even love requires art somewhere along the line. Human mating rituals across the globe require, at least, a minimal dip into the art of hair, makeup, fashion, and style. Every culture — every civilization — has managed to incorporate an art aesthetic into its customs. The fact is, art informs each and every part of our lives to some extent. And it’s obvious that human beings are the chosen “creative” species. Whatever our reasons for being allowed to inhabit this planet, one thing is clear: we are here to create.
But, create what precisely? Apparently the finite reality of a pandemic has a way of getting humans to stop and think deeply about profound questions such as “what is life?” Instinctively our hearts search for deeper meanings and truths. Surely life is about more than human infighting; surely it’s about more than border wars, social upheaval, Internet trolls, celebrity gossip, and surviving shelter-in-place orders?
Yes. It is about more…so much more. It’s about imagination, and culture, and exploring our own possibilities as a collection of microbial-hosting vertebrate roaming the face of this globe. It’s about being here with each other and all of the gifts that come with the ability to experience our own consciousness; it’s about the gift of challenging our own imaginations to make our lives and, thus, the world better, in some way. It’s about the dreams of what we can become, individually, and collectively…scientifically and technologically. It’s about the thrill of shared communal experiences as we watch ourselves walk on the moon; the thrill of cheering wildly in unison at stadiums when one among us surpasses what we thought was possible. It’s about setting goals, enduring, pressing forward, and discovering us. And when we really analyze life down to the greatest common denominators, it turns out that the answer to one of life’s most profound questions has a lot to do with art and artists. I’m not asking you to take my word for it, just look at your own life in the face of this global pandemic.
As we sit here currently, locked in our homes — sheltering in place, we have all turned to our artists to get us through this. We have turned to our televisions, our film-makers, directors, set designers, and cinematographers. We have turned to our phone screens to sedate ourselves with a constant infusion of images, songs, videos and other content brought to us by artists. We have turned to our books, curled in the fetal position, searching for momentary escape and refuge in other worlds provided to us through our writers. We have turned to our artists, and we have never needed them more than in this moment…or so it might appear on the surface. But the truth is, we have always needed them this desperately, we just tend to take them for granted.
Something I once wrote rings even truer now, so I think I’ll just quote myself here. This is from an artist’s statement I wrote at least 20 years ago where I said:
“…without the ability for humans to create beauty through the arts, our existence would be reduced to nothing more than the mundane task of survival: gathering food, etc. Our artists help to capture and articulate the depths and heights of human existence in a way that can unite us in compassion, empathy and love…that can inspire us with deep appreciation for life. The ability to create art…to cause something to be there where nothing once was…the ability to perceive beauty, these are the real elements that separate us from the wild animal kingdom. Unlike animals, as a human family we can imagine our own visions of what it means to exist. We can imagine it and create it, and when it’s finished, we can bask in the beauty and wonder of it.” To me, that’s a pretty great deal.
Right now, in this moment that not one of us has ever experienced before, art has become a global support system and artists have become our sustainers, in so many ways. It’s really something to think about as we move forward.
But!…how will the art world look after this global event? How will it be changed?
That depends on where you look. If you look at the artists, themselves, some will be forever changed by this moment. Some are already creating new concepts for their work…digging deeper internally as they try to process their own existence in the face of this global event. Others artists are just waiting for the restrictions to lift so they can get back to selling work so they can eat. Economically speaking, this is a particularly trying time for artists. Self-employed artists have no alternative for unemployment when their studios are closed to the public; and most working artists rely on exhibiting their work in venues where people gather in large groups. These artists are being hit hard.
Even still, I think it is the infrastructure of the art-world that is most likely to undergo the greatest upheaval. Art-fair producers, Museums (even those with big endowments), as well as galleries, are in the people assembling and gathering business; the bigger the crowds, the better. Most top-tier mainstream galleries rely on International art-fairs to preassemble huge crowds of cultural connoisseurs. These collectors, in turn, insure these galleries a large percentage of their annual revenue. Now, across the whole wide world, live art-fairs have come to a halt. The doors of mid-sized and small galleries are likewise shuttered, and their walk-in sales have come to a halt. For public museums, who rely on exhibits, programs, visitors, gift shops, fund-raisers, and local/federal funds, in-person activity has come to a halt. And although a lot of the art-fair and gallery activity has moved online, potential buyers are most moved by art when they can see and experience it first-hand. So none of them will be operating within a “business as usual” scenario for a while. Even with no further data, it can be deduced that not everyone will be able to regroup after such a hard hit. When doors reopen, many will be operating with unimaginable deficits.
No part of the art ecosystem is unaffected – from the art makers, to the distributors, to the collectors. The only thing that is certain is — for those of you who can afford art now – it’s a darn good time to dispatch those down-payments to artists whose works you have always admired. It’s a darn good time to start your payment plans and secure some great buys.
At the end of all of this uncertainty, artists will be needed more than ever to help us normalize our lives, to help restore the beauty and depth that gives them such meaning. This is one of two things that we should take from this moment in our shared existence: we need art, we need artists, and we need them desperately! As Churchill said, without art “then what are we fighting for?”
The major, most significant thing we can learn from this moment presented to us by the pandemic so loudly and clearly, is this: we are a single, undivided species…one huge collective of microbial-hosting vertebrates inhabiting this Earth; and we will absolutely not survive our inhabitation here without each other’s cooperation. This is an absolute truth and there is no way around this truth for anyone: rich or poor, male or female, Black, White, Brown or other.
This is the first time in human history that we have been collectively presented (on every part of the globe) with the notion that we are all absolutely dependent on each other and that we are equal in this boat. What threatens the lowest in rank can and will eventually take out the highest. We are all interdependent upon each other and no one is exempt. Not one country can war-monger its way out of this fact. Not one person can racism-their way out of this fact. We cannot “billionaire” our way out of it. We cannot gangster rap, pop-sing, or rock and roll our way out of it. We cannot border-block our way out of it. We cannot build-weapons-of-mass-destruction our way out of it. We cannot scientifically argue our way out of it. We cannot action-hero movie-with cool-one-liners our way out of it. And we darn sure can’t politicize-it-by throwing-shade-at-other-countries our way out of it. There is only one way out of this. We have to work together as a single, united species. We have to accept the absolute truth: we are all equal, and we need each other.
History has shown us that absolute truths are inconvenient for humans. We have become far too accustomed to the truth being elastic and interchangeable with myth, trickery, and manipulative wordplay. But the thing about truth is — it doesn’t require acknowledgement on our parts in order to exist. It just “is”…regardless of our opinions or preferred realities. Truth can’t be merely dismissed into nothingness because we manage to find clever words to say it isn’t there. It is persistently there, and it is speaking loudly to us now. It is saying that our existence is a question of the “survival of the fittest: not referring to just the fittest among us, but our fitness as an entire thinking and evolving species…our fitness to address things that threaten our existence. This is the first “absolute truth” that has been illuminated by this pandemic — a truth as indisputable as gravity. We all know that even if a room full of scientists were to suddenly argue that gravity doesn’t exist — and they jumped from a cliff to prove it, not one of them would fall “up.” It’s the same with this pandemic. It is telling us that not one of us will fall “up” and this is no time for nations to argue. Mankind has been too long left alone to construct his own version of the truth…so long that we have no real basis for what is real or important when it comes to our existence, yet the real truth has remained true. And now we are being forced to face it; not just one of us, but all of us…every human being living on this planet.
Our truth is simply this: each and every one of us is merely a part of a much larger ecosystem where every living thing in it is fighting and adapting to stay alive: plants, animals, bacteria (good and bad), and viruses. And while humans have been fighting amongst themselves, creating rockets to point at each other, and busily maintaining an infrastructure of classism, racism, sexism, age-ism, and consumerism – this teeny tiny microorganism called a virus – that (according to science is 10 million times smaller than a human) has been mutating its way into infiltrating our species. Over time, it has been made more powerful by our own delusions. A virus has no delusions about our truth. It recognizes that all humans are equal and can be compromised by it for its own survival. As a species, we have failed to understand our “equal-ness.” As a result, we now sit foolishly atop piles of nuclear weapons while something 10 million times smaller than us threatens to back-hand us all into oblivion.
Had we been a smarter species up until this point, maybe we would have chosen to sharpen our defense systems against viral attacks by nurturing every capable mind among us through educational opportunity. Maybe we would have been more open to looking at “every single child born to us” as a potential contributor to our sciences, medicines, and overall well-being.
Faced now with a pandemic, mankind scrambles for answers in the absence of gifted minds kept out of science and medicine by systemic racism and sexism. For all we know, the potential cure to this virus lies dormant in the mind of some street-kid named “Pookie” who, as we speak, is being swept along by the rushing current funneling into the pipe-line to prison system. Or maybe the cure lies dormant in the mind of some young lady who never found the resources to attend college, or was never cultivated by society to believe she had the potential to contribute to science, medicine, or technology, in any way. As a species, these are the mistakes we are paying for now. We are looking in the mirror at our own reflection – a species sagging with the weight of gifted, yet undeveloped young minds left to atrophy, or turn wayward with anger.
Yes, this pandemic has arrived in our lives, with all its absolute truths, and only us working together as a human race toward the development of our full intellectual capacity will give us any real chance of surviving its future attacks. The pandemic has made it indisputably clear that, unless we come together to protect each other, we will all be defeated. Even enemies must work together for us to survive this.
But, once we have survived this pandemic…once we have flattened out the curve and returned to our lives with a new prospective on how interconnected and interdependent we all really are in “truth,” it is art and the imagination of our artists that will restore us to experiencing life, as opposed to mere survival. Artists will be right there in the forefront, continuing the work of immersing us in the beauty of being human.
In the meantime, to all of the collectors and patrons of culture, if you can buy art now, PLEASE consider doing so. Do so with the knowledge that you will be making a critical contribution to our artists, precisely when they need you most. And for those who can’t buy art right now, yet want to contribute to sustaining culture, it would be a great time to start or renew a museum membership.
Finally, from both Najee Dorsey, Black Art In America, and myself, a sincere THANK YOU to those of every race and gender (across the globe) who are serving on the front lines to save us all…the doctors, nurses, medical staff, first responders, grocery store and warehouse employees, delivery drivers, utility and sanitation workers, meal preparers, daycare workers, volunteers, and all others who are making such a supreme sacrifice to get us through this extraordinary time in human history.
As always, please share your thoughts below where you will also find a link to share this article.
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Debra Hand is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer. She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park. Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma; Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.
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