top of page

Art in Time of Plague

Covid19 landed on the arts industry like an exploding paint bomb. Art galleries closed. Concerts were cancelled. Emerging artists, basking in heady anticipation of their first gallery show, replete with a gloriously wine drenched opening night, dealt with broken dreams.

With the sudden absence of physical spaces to dispay their work, art makers scrambled to get their work online. Hastily constructed art studios popped up in artists’ own kitchens and basements. Advertisements for Zoom workshops on everything from painting to pottery making popped up in my FB feed like Spring dandelions. After all, artists are an adaptive bunch. In its essence, creativity is defined by radical acts of adaptation, transformation, and above all, the courage to keep moving forward into the unknown.

Brave words. On March fourth of this year I returned from a restful vacation in sunny Honduras. I'd heard rumblings about the virus before leaving on vacation but was blissfully unconcerned. After all, it was just a bad flu bug. No biggy. For two weeks I continued to go to the studio which I share with three other artists. I even began an ambitiously large painting. As an emerging artist, I had high hopes that maybe this year I might get my work into a real art show! Then WHO announced that COVID19 was in fact a global pandemic - effectively the greatest challenge to humanity since WWII. Suddenly, my little attempts at painting seemed irrelevant at best if not downright self-indulgent. Along with almost everyone else, judging by the panicked run on toilet paper, I went into survival mode.

What does it mean to be an artist in times of crisis? Is making art even justifiable when basic survival is of immediate concern? These are huge questions. Fighting a bad case of brain fog, brought on by obsessive news surfing and Purell fumes, I hunted the Internet to find answers. Surely somebody out there had ideas about the role of art and art makers in our shuddering world?

This is Heather O'Neill writing for the March 24 issue of McLean's Magazine

Pandemics are notorious for upending all of society. Artists are notorious for creating their art under the most perilous and inopportune circumstances. They create in poverty, under repressive regimes, in prison, in the margins, after long late night shifts at a diner.
Fear, suspicion, pain can divide people unless those negative emotions are understood within the larger story of collective meaning- art unites by telling 'meaning stories" about what is happening to us. Death and suffering that feels meaningless, random, is far more painful and has the potential for creating far more suffering by alienating us from one another than do death and suffering which are understood as part of a collective experience.

I also appreciated New York Times writer, James Farago's observations..

The task of artists in this new plague year will be to re-establish painting, photography, performance, and the rest as something that can still be charged with meaning, and still have global impact, even when we're not in motion. Or at least that is the long-term mandate; the short-term task is to survive.

How do we make sense of human suffering on such a large scale? What has COVID19 taught us about ourselves, our society, and our place within the universe? Most of all, what type of people do we want to become, as individuals and as a society, as we move forward into our "new normal."

Further reading when you need a break from the news:

Art is an essential service that saves us during times of crisis, by Toula Dimonis.

How Art Deals with Disaster from Guernica to the Climate Crisis, by JJ Charlesworth.

'It feels like wartime': how street artists are responding to coronavirus, by Nadja Sayej.

16 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page