As I wrote this piece, I was in the sixth week of self-imposed house arrest because of COVID-19, as was most of the rest of Canada. These are dangerous times, as the world faces a deadly pandemic unlike any we have faced in our lifetimes. As an art writer, I find myself divorced from that which makes my life worthwhile. That, of course, is physical contact with art and, generally, artists. I have been writing professionally about art since 1968 and in this magazine since 1972. I am a bit depressed as I realize that my life is running out while I’m sitting indoors. It is rather like watching the doomsday clock and knowing when the hands reach twelve, I will be dead. So, I need to know why art is important in my life, dangerous times or not.
This is a good time to engage our memories and think about how art has moved us and why. I am being a bit like Marcel Proust in his In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927), but limiting my memories to visual art. Art can be about thing’s content or a thing, itself. Content, particularly in the postmodern era, can often supersede technique (or beauty) in a work’s importance. Conversely there is the school of thought, to quote the poet John Keats, that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” An example of the former would be Robert Rauschenberg’s exhibition of his White Painting c. 1951; the latter, a painting by Guido Molinari.
Art can act rather like a social science and remind us of things we should know or even try to avoid—the plight of Indigenous people, violence against women, racism, and other issues. Art can, however, act purely on aesthetic terms in an effort to produce the sublime, for instance as in Colour Field painting and the work of Clyfford Still. Exceptional art can both deliver a message and be sublime. Velázquez’s Les Meninas (1656) certainly fills the bill for me on both counts. There is no question that technically it is a masterpiece, and I was in awe when I first saw the painting at the Prado in Madrid. It is a painting that raises the prescribed goosebumps in viewers, me included. It also raises questions about inequality and status in society.
When this pandemic is tamed, we may have to find new methods of expressing the visual arts that will reflect a new time.
We can easily view images of artworks on the Web, as I did with Velázquez’s Les Meninas, but this is a poor substitute for seeing them in person, and this is where the Web fails us. However, it can stir our memories as we relive the experience with artworks that we have seen physically—memories that can be more vivid than the reproductions on a device screen. Again, I am back to Proust: reliving my past. Like the first time I visited the Louvre in 1953, as a fourteen-year-old boy, and encountered the massive paintings of Delacroix and Géricault. I see those works in my mind like it was yesterday. I recall the smell of the museum. Yes, there is a smell unique to museums. There was my first visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in December of 1956 and seeing a large Jackson Pollock retrospective. That show changed how I saw art forever. I was on leave from the American army waiting to be shipped to Korea the following month. I decided then and there that I wanted to dedicate my life to art.
Events like these live only in my memory and cannot be duplicated. It is not that I want to live in the past, but that now that I am denied physical access to visual art, I am reduced to my memories. We are social animals that need the things that make us human. Art is one of the things that humanize us, and it is something that we have making for millennia. Art needs both a maker and a viewer. Without art we are less than human.
I know that artists are working in their studios in this dangerous time, making art just as artists did during other plagues; assuming we survive this one, there will certainly be an artistic record of COVID-19 that history will look back upon. The period that we are living through should provide us with an understanding of how fragile our civilization is—like past civilizations, from which all that is left are traces of wall paintings or dusty artefacts. Even in these cases, it was art that was left to tell the tale.
Technology alone will not save art, much less civilization. We can hope that humans of goodwill and genius, using science, will find a way to save us from our political stupidity by finding a way around COVID-19. Art has done a good job of recording our history, from cave art to art made last week. When this pandemic is tamed, we may have to find new methods of expressing the visual arts that will reflect a new time. This much I know: the persons who traced their hands on a wall in dark caves thousands of years ago were trying to saying something about themselves. Today’s artists are trying to say something, too. The challenge is for us to understand.