No museums, no galleries, no fairs, no art schools; no openings, no studio visits, no arguing over beers, no gauche private-jet partnerships. In a matter of days, the world of contemporary art went from a reverberant global network to a ghost town, sheltering in place as the coronavirus endangers our cities and our livelihoods. Like every other sector, art is having to go digital. There is no shortage of artists and critics (including me, all too often) who have bemoaned the way Instagram and other platforms have transformed contemporary art. Count your blessings: Now Instagram is almost all we’ve got.
These first days of physical isolation and cultural deprivation have been a furious gyre. The absolutely requisite closure of the museums — promptly in the United States, more tardily in Britain — may aggrieve those of us who find solace in art, but they have shuttered before: The Louvre’s collection was evacuated during World War II, and New York’s museums were padlocked, briefly, after the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Sandy.
Ticket sales at museums account for a smaller percentage of total income than they do at opera houses or dance companies, yet already the carnage is mounting. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a princely endowment of $3.6 billion, has projected a loss of $100 million; institutions with smaller reserves are drawing down fast, and may never reopen. This week the Met launched a lobbying campaign, #CongressSaveCulture, seeking billions in federal relief funds for museums — and philanthropists, too, will have to step up, even as their investment portfolios are diving.
Just as endangered are the commercial art galleries, especially the midsize institutions for whom sales and fairs constitute an ever greater percentage of annual revenue. They are the ones bearing the brunt of the impact of the cancellation of this month’s Art Basel Hong Kong, and of Frieze New York in May.
And then there are artists, who need cash right now as much as any citizen (perhaps especially since they have little recourse to unemployment or paid time off). Already, they are collaborating to assemble emergency resources as their exhibitions and teaching gigs get canceled, and forging networks of solidarity through Instagram, WhatsApp and other platforms.
In their studios, if they can somehow make the rent, some artists may learn to focus as intently as Hilma af Klint, who painted for decades in secret, or the Philadelphia Wireman, who made more than a thousand compelling sculptures of tangled metal without exhibiting or even leaving his name.
But I suspect an af Klintian concentration will be the minority case. For most artists, for most citizens, the experience of social distancing has not been peace and quiet, but perpetual bombardment with news and images on a smartphone screen. Maybe it’s therefore time to look again at Amalia Ulman, the Argentine contemporary artist who posted selfies to Instagram for months in the guise of a basic birdbrained wannabe “influencer.” Maybe it’s time to ask whether this social platform can be not just a promotional tool for art, but a medium in its own right.
While reproductions can never make art truly accessible, I’m glad to see efforts to expand digital offerings are also underway, in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. Directors of museums in Italy’s hard-hit northwest, including the Pinacoteca di Brera and the Fondazione Prada, in Milan, and the Castello di Rivoli, in Turin have launched rough-and-ready virtual renderings or video walk-throughs of their shuttered exhibitions. New York museums with robust digital assets, from the Frick Collection in Manhattan to the Corning Museum of Glass upstate, have resurfaced their 3-D tours and video interviews, and new offerings are coming soon from, among others, the Museum of Modern Art. And the dealers who would have been in Hong Kong last week — bitter paradox: that city is probably safer now than the western art capitals — are selling their wares, or trying to, through Art Basel’s digital viewing rooms.
“Everything will be taken away,” forewarned the Berlin-based American artist Adrian Piper — who for years has repeated that aphorism, with the violent anonymity of the passive voice, on prints or mirrors or old-fashioned school blackboards. We are set to lose lives, careers, but also institutions, practices, traditions. Perhaps it’s best now, to reflect on what our present isolation teaches us about what art has become, and what we want it to look like when we re-emerge.
Contemporary art, in the last few decades, has morphed into a round-the-globe, round-the-clock industry, and just as disruptive as the closure of our local museums has been the locking down of borders and the grounding of flights. The Romantic cliché of the artist as genius, carving beauty out of marble, was replaced by the artist (and later the curator) as traveling entertainer, constantly on the road. Its paradigmatic images come from a Swiss duo, Fischli/Weiss, whose “Airport” photographs, more than a thousand of them, picture the mundane departure halls and jet bridges they passed through for decades, en route to this biennial or that lecture. On Lufthansa or Air France, in a Japanese museum or an Australian converted loft, the artist is the person moving through neutral spaces, once thought of as sterile, now vessels of contamination.
What Fischli/Weiss captured in “Airports” was the way the art world assigns relevance through motion, and how even local institutions conceive of themselves as nodes in a global network of images and objects on the move. (Think of the new MoMA: once a temple where you’d reliably see the same Picassos on the same walls, now a place where artworks shuttle back and forth, and no room is the same for long.) As the critic Kyle Chayka brilliantly observed in Frieze magazine, art used to justify itself with stories of historical progress, whereas now it relies on “constant juxtaposition against new people and places,” perpetually en route to no destination in particular.
The rise of digital media did not arrest this globe-trotting but accelerated it. Now I can’t count the number of artists and writers I know who purported to be working from at least two places at once, “between Brussels and Los Angeles,” “between Berlin and Accra,” and who now have had to hunker in place.
Their patron saint, and mine, too, is the narrator of “Flights” (2018), a chain of related fragments by the Nobel-winning author Olga Tokarczuk, who tells us: “Fluidity, mobility, illusoriness — these are precisely the qualities that make us civilized.” For so many artists and critics and curators of my generation, your career has to fit in a carry-on.
We knew, as the climate crisis deepened, that this global art world constantly on the move was coming under necessary pressure. Now the prophylactic stasis demanded by this pandemic has violently accelerated the art world’s reassessment of what all this travel was good for.
The task of artists in this new plague year will be to reestablish 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.