Art is a Comfort During a Global Crisis

The past few months have been like nothing we’ve seen in our lifetimes. While Covid-19 spreads rapidly around the globe and pressure continues to mount, most of us have retreated inwards, into our homes, into a quiet isolation as we ride out this storm. It’s created a unique phenomenon: on a macroscopic level, our societies reel with anxiety, despondency, and grief, while at the same time, on a personal scale we’re doing our best to whittle away the time as we spar with boredom and loneliness. These feelings commingle inside of us, and the result is that weird stress that we’ve all sensing right now.

For you and me, that means we’ve got an awful lot more time to stare at the walls than we did before. These walls make us feel confined as spring bubbles up just beyond them. We’re stuck inside; we hardly even notice the cherry blossoms falling. But what if we could open a window into a different scene? What if we could see into another time, somewhere wild, free, and expansive, or maybe even a place that’s locked away in memory?

Since the social distancing measures went into effect, I’ve noticed myself spending a lot more time looking at the art on my walls and putting up different prints. From this experience, I’ve come to know what a great solace these photographs, paintings, and sculptures are during this troubled time.

In this blog post, we’re going to explore this theme. Why is art so crucial during such periods? And what can we expect to see from artists as they react to this situation?

Let’s dive in.

Transported to Another Landscape

Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849)

Landscape art has a special property. It puts us there. When I wake up and look over at Hokusai’s boy viewing Mt. Fuji woodblock print hanging on my wall, I can see myself on that hill looking at Fuji towering over the valley before it. I can picture myself in Japan, and I’m reminded of my trip there and my plans to return.

In a time where going places isn’t possible, landscape art may be the next best thing. Rhiannon Cosslet puts it nicely: “We need art in an emergency. Since lockdown began, I have found myself turning to it, especially landscape painting, which had never especially interested me before. When you can’t really go anywhere, looking at Van Gogh’s Provencal harvest is soothing and evocative.”

While this has elements of escapism, there’s more going on here. After all, it’s hard for fine art to out-compete streaming services in this department. Instead, a landscape provides a steady refuge for the conscious to nestle within, unburdened by changing seasons or deadly pandemics. In their stillness, these pieces offer safety and certainty.

Now, I’ve always loved landscapes. Most of my work captures grand settings: cityscapes, seascapes, mountains, rivers, and lighthouses. These images have long had the power to sweep me away into their own little microcosms, but now, more than ever, we’re finding out just how important that power really is.

“Art connect us to the foreign, the exotic, and the impossible—but in our current context, it also connect us to a world where anything is possible,” writes Louis Netter, “a world out of our grasp for now.”

Art for Healing

When we are sick, we crave nothing more than health. And today is dominated by sickness. Whether you’re quarantined with illness or just getting hot in the head from cabin fever, this plague taxes us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Art can help.

This is especially true when we look at health from a holistic perspective. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines holistic health as “viewing man in his totality within a wide ecological spectrum, and… emphasizing the view that ill health or disease is brought about by an imbalance, or disequilibrium, of man in his total ecological system and not only by the causative agent and pathogenic evolution.”

With this in mind, Heather Stuckey and Jeremy Nobel published a paper titled The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature in the American Journal of Public Health that concludes their studies “complement the biomedical view by focusing on not only sickness and symptoms themselves but the holistic nature of the person. When people are invited to work with creative and artistic processes that affect more than their identity with illness, they are able to ‘create congruence between their affective states and their conceptual sense making.’ Through creativity and imagination, we find our identity and our reservoir of healing. The more we understand the relationship between creative expression and healing, the more we will discover the healing power of the arts.”

Engaging with art does for the mind and soul what exercise and diet do for the body. It nurtures and grounds us, helps us to connect with each other at a distance, and gives us a warm place to rest our tired selves. Science demonstrates that filling hospitals with art reduces patient stress, anxiety, and pain. That’s one good reason to seek art in the time of coronavirus.

A New Movement Rising

When we look back at history, we see that times of great turmoil gave rise to new movements in the arts. For example, the combined horrors of WWI and the Spanish Flu spawned Dadaism and surrealism as a way to capture the absurdity of man’s condition. Even though the coronavirus pandemic is still in its early days, we’re already seeing some cultural shifts that may result in a coming cultural divide.

Bay Area creatives Jeff Roy and Drake Paul, for example, started a project called The Art of Quarantine where they stripped famous paintings of their inhabitants. Hopper’s “Nighthawks” left the diner after it closed, Jesus and his disciplines canceled Michelangelo’s “The Last Supper”, and the farmer and his wife in Wood’s “American Gothic” are stuck at home, peering out their windows like the rest of us.

Empty paintings quarantine: The Art of Quarantine rendition, Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942, source: The Art of Quarantine.

Meanwhile, British painter David Hockney recently released a new painting of daffodils captioned do remember they can’t cancel the spring as a way to provide a respite from the news for self-isolationists. We also hear this message of hope and resilience come from Yo-Yo Ma’s Songs of Comfort on social media. Like water for the thirsty, these gifts are an uplifting salve for a troubled mind.

Artists have a unique capacity to process the inner workings of a culture. We are sensitive to the pain and hardship that so many must bear in this age, and our job is to find a creative way to ease the suffering or at least give it a stage to shake itself out on. Art helps us to make sense of ourselves and our times, and when so much uncertainty pervades the air, we look to art for clarity and insight.

“Art in a period of widely-perceived global crisis can never be the same as art in more stable times,” explains Kazuaki Tanahashi, a Zen monk and calligrapher. “Placid ripples of lake water on canvas may reflect the deadly poison of factory waste. A photograph of family dinner may convey messages about the millions for whom half an egg is a mere fantasy. A tender voice singing a lullaby may compel us to remember the massive nuclear attack that could occur at any moment.”

In this new era, we may find ourselves not only creating a different type of art, but we may also interpret art from another perspective. For both creator and viewer alike, the sands are shifting. Have you seen any pictures or shows with crowded subway cars or packed music halls recently? Our minds are already beginning to change.

So, now we ask: what of the arts in isolation? Nester concludes, “It might be too early to write that book and paint that picture that captures the buzz of anxiety we all feel. We probably need more time and artists need more sunrises and sunsets to rise and fall on the full, nervous houses. They need more time to listen to the sounds of life interrupted and to mourn for the ‘world that was,’ watching it drift further into the shadows.”My takeaway from this is that now is the time to engage the arts. Visit a digital museum. Take a few minutes to stand in front of your favorite piece of wall art. Pull out your camera, pencils, paint, or clay. And, of course, always feel free to get in touch with me to talk about art or if you want help picking the perfect piece from my gallery of transportive landscape photography.

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