Art, apart from being a representation of the human condition, is a reflection of society. It is a creative process that is constantly undergoing evolutionary change. Artists’ reflections about the world are transmitted through their art, and in times of crisis, these reflections are ever more evident. To understand how the current health crisis of COVID-19 is affecting the artistic process, one must look into the past in order to understand the effects of this pandemic in the contemporary art world.
Throughout time and history, we have seen humanity undergo challenges that have profoundly affected the artistic process. Take a look at the Black Plague. After the pandemic spread, Europe saw a decrease in not only artistic production but also in the overall number of artists. European art underwent a change that, to a certain extent, highlighted the humanity of individuals and the appreciation of more realistic artwork that was birthed out of a sense of guilt and religious response. Christopher Knight from the LA Times made a point in a March 29 column discussing the effects of historic pandemics in art. This is most evident in the comparison of pre-plague medieval artwork that lacked a sense of physical space and accurate proportions and the post-plague artworks that emphasize naturalism and volume in space.
And in more recent times, one could argue that the effects of World War II were the prime influence on the modernists of the second half of the 20th century. Many artists saw themselves displaced from not only their homes but also their former styles. Surrealists, abstract expressionists and more all looked to explore an external yet internal force of the human self. New and interactive ways to approach the artistic practice began to develop. Stepping out of the conventional was the norm and creating revolutionary work was a common thing.
Many of those individuals were already established artists. They had built a career for themselves as creative people. We cannot help but wonder what would be the case if they were still art students.
In the times of COVID-19, that scenario is a reality for many art students across the world. College students all over the country saw their world stop last spring. Many were forced to return home while others were forced to stay on college campus as they were unable to safely go back to their families. As an art student, but more importantly, as an artist myself, I have seen how the effects of the health crisis have affected not only my creative well-being but also my art. I have wondered about the effects of the crisis on my peers as we try to navigate this new reality in our artwork. These students are the ones that will carry the next generation of artists and the art world. Their stories and their creative evolution in this crisis is very likely to change how we see contemporary art in the upcoming years.
Abigail Conte ’20, a recently-graduated studio art major at Wellesley, said that leaving campus at such an unanticipated time last Spring decreased her creative output. Art that needs to be thoughtful, like her senior thesis, was difficult to create given the circumstances after leaving campus, she explained. In the months since, Conte has slowly gone back to her artistic work in the time surrounding her virtual graduation.
Daniela Contreras, a First-year student at the Parsons School of Design at the New School, shares a similar perspective. Contreras, who described herself as always having a full pencil case with her at all times before the COVID-19 pandemic, has found it hard to approach work with only those supplies and her computer. By buying supplies from a former architecture student, Contreras was able to obtain materials online. She commented that she is privileged in the fact that her professors have been as supportive as possible moving into remote education. However, she feels it is important to acknowledge that other students are in worse situations than she is, emphasizing the importance of mental and emotional health.
Carlos Ochoa, a sophomore at Columbia University, speaks about the creation of artwork in a different perspective. Ochoa was constricted to making art in brief periods of free time while he was in school, but now with remote education, he has all the free time on his hands. However, he misses the way it feels to make art in such a limited time. He has begun to experience different brushstrokes as he now feels less committed to the final result. “I am realizing that I appreciate spontaneity more now that I have more time to polish work … I am trying to communicate more with less work,” he said. Ochoa, like other students, misses student interaction and said that inspiration comes in different ways nowadays. He has decided not to share his recent work with others before he accepts the changes to his artwork himself.
Down in the south, Lydia Liu, a sophomore at the University of Florida, has found it hard to learn about her artistic progress during remote learning, as she is required to submit her final artwork without any feedback along the way. She is able to get supplies through online orders and makes the best of working on her dining table and sketching outside (though, due to mosquitoes, she is only able to do that for short periods of time). Liu, who is Asian American, is disgusted at the fact that other people have used the crisis as an opportunity to be racist to people of Asian descent. After learning about the hurtful comments and stares her Asian friends have experienced in recent months, Liu has decided to create artwork in response to COVID-19-associated racism.
This crisis has taken an emotional toll on many individuals. Artists’ reaction to coping with the crisis is changing the way they approach their work. Although working spaces, medium and feedback for work has changed, art has emotionally evolved. For me, my art has become more emotional and, as my art professor has put it, more dramatic and honest than it ever was in class. Art for us students can be a coping mechanism to understand our new reality. Student art during times of COVID-19 is racing towards finding some sort of certainty in a world of uncertainties. If emotion is the driving force of art, then our artwork is a showcase of our anticipation as we wait for a better tomorrow.