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We Need to Talk

Jurriaan Benschop

08.03.2021

Art in the time of lockdown

In Covid times, some galleries are encouraging their audience to window shop. They put on the lights at night so that you can enjoy the exhibition. Does that work? I tried it one evening in Berlin – I went to see a painting behind the glass as I stood on the street. But what happened was that instead of being satisfied, my longing to move in closer and enjoy the real thing grew; I became aware of what I could not have. What can we do when art is not accessible and we are blocked from the regular format of gallery visits? Can we enjoy art in a different way?

Most lockdown policies imply that art is not essential or ‘system relevant.’ In the eyes of politicians, art is like the cherry on the cake. Nice and tasty, but you can do without it. Most people might even agree that it is more important to get vegetables, have soap, bread and milk, or even a bottle of wine, than to see art. But what if the situation lasts, which is the case in many countries? What happens when museums, galleries, and theatres stay closed for months? Life starts to become shallow, repetitive; people find themselves unmotivated or indifferent. It is taking too long. Art is not just a cherry, it is part of the fabric (or dough, if you wish) of culture: of reflecting the stressful times we live in, of phrasing ideals we share. Art, for instance, allows looking into people’s problems with a refreshing distance; it can offer a reflective space or a shift in perspective and the possibility to engage with the irrational and unconscious. It invites and reminds us to be more than just a functional, economic being that eats, sleeps and works.

Art is not just a cherry, it is part of the fabric (or dough, if you wish) of culture: of reflecting the stressful times we live in, of phrasing ideals we share.

Recently I watched the film At Eternity’s Gate, about Vincent van Gogh. Made by artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, the film did not give the experience of looking at a Van Gogh painting as much as it transmitted what it means to be an artist and what it takes to make a painting. In Van Gogh’s case, there is something inescapable about his choice. It has to be. At first he tried to become a pastor, but his character was not a good fit – he was too rough of a diamond. Then he focused on art. Apart from watching the film, I also spent time reading Van Gogh’s letters, which gave different insights. He was eager to discuss work and to learn from other artists; he had, so to speak, a daily practice of questioning himself. He was modest, insecure, yet highly ambitious and determined. Without seeing any paintings – only through letters and film – I was drawn into Van Gogh’s world of making art; it made me start to wonder how much of Van Gogh there is in contemporary artists. Is his approach still relevant? For Schnabel, clearly yes. He shows Van Gogh not only as a sensitive soul, having moments of despair and outbursts, but also as a rational being, perfectly able to analyse his precarious condition.

Apart from window shopping, many galleries are offering online viewings. Again, this does not give me what I am looking for. Some things, like films, are good to watch digitally at home, but for works of sculpture, painting or installation, the actual space and materiality of the work are essential. Instead of having a filtered version, I prefer to accept that I can have neither the cake nor the cherry. I’ll have to wait. After years of abundance, of many possibilities to see art and travel the world quite easily, there is a period of scarcity now. And maybe more will follow. But being in that waiting room, there are still different ways of addressing art such as reading books or artists’ letters, or watching movies. The waiting time also allows one to think about the changes that are needed and to reflect on ‘the inconvenient truth’ (as Al Gore put it in 2006, but in the context of climate change). What kind of changes in the organisation of art are necessary in order to match the needs of our time?

Looking back at pre-Covid times, it seems that we have lived through a period in which art had developed into spectacle, with ‘more’ and ‘bigger’ the key words for success. More visitors, more artists, higher prices, more mobility and so on. Meanwhile, you could hear complaints about the pressure of attending art fairs and pushing gallery owners to their limits, as well as about the superficiality and loss of serious conversation about content. For many, the market has become a major compass, overruling art criticism or one’s own proper judgment. Now, in lockdown, we are forced to look into other aspects of art. It seems a good opportunity to rediscover the immaterial aspects of art that have been neglected. And to shift from the exterior to the interior. We can speak, read, reflect and discuss in order to attain a deeper understanding of what art is or how we would like it to be.

Looking back at pre-Covid times, it seems that we have lived through a period in which art had developed into spectacle, with ‘more’ and ‘bigger’ the key words for success.

Does art have the power to heal? Can it help us in these difficult and lonely Covid times? This will depend on whether we are able to establish an active relationship. This is what Schnabel did – he started to imagine how Van Gogh lived. He created his Van Gogh with the help of actor Willem Defoe, and similarly, we can shape our own image of such a famous artist. And as soon as we start to be participants rather than consumers, it no longer feels that art works are unreachable; it does not matter that they are behind glass – they start to come alive in our stories. An easy way to become a participant is by opening one’s mouth and phrasing what we think, what we do not understand, or what we wish for. In other words – by starting a conversation.

Does art have the power to heal? Can it help us in these difficult and lonely Covid times? This will depend on whether we are able to establish an active relationship.

Covid has forced us to rethink our lives. It affects our dreams, our sense of freedom and mobility, our sense of justice, and our visions. And thus, it affects art and what we expect from it. We should keep in mind that art does not only consist of physical works or actual performances and get-togethers. It is what we make of it, what we imagine, the discourse we spin around it – the resonance room that we construct by making an effort to interpret and question and respond. Van Gogh gave us a good example, including his esteem for what other artists did. He was an inquisitive man who wrote letters.

We should keep in mind that art does not only consist of physical works or actual performances and get-togethers. It is what we make of it, what we imagine, the discourse we spin around it.

We cannot just sit and wait for the next guided tour to start. Or for the curtain to lift. We have to start talking even while institutions are closed. There is enough material available in books and films, in libraries, in thoughts and memories, and in our imaginations to start a conversation. As an exhibition maker, I have often done tours for visitors. Usually they start with ten adults looking at me in silence and expectation, waiting for the magic words that explain everything. And usually they end with ten people discussing, exchanging views, and bringing different perspectives to the table. It is not that hard. The only thing you need to do is ask some questions and make a start. And do not be afraid of ‘not knowing’ about art. Access to art does not start with knowledge or with being rich enough to buy it, but with being curious and investigative. As Socrates has already taught us, insights can be developed in dialogue.

Access to art does not start with knowledge or with being rich enough to buy it, but with being curious and investigative.

During a studio visit in Vienna, the painter Helmut Federle told me: ‘I’m also an artist when I don’t paint.’ With that he was saying that the point of being an artist is not just to do the actual work in the studio. Unlike Van Gogh, Federle makes only a few paintings a year. Nevertheless he is an artist every day, and with full conviction. For him, art resides in a lot of things – it is closely tied to reflecting existence and inner values. To being aware. ‘To paint a picture, for me, is like petting a cat or pruning a tree,’ he remarked. It is about how you look at things and where you place your attention. In times of a pandemic, when museum doors are closed indefinitely, we can still turn inwards and activate the intangible aspects of art. Even though lockdowns are a nuisance, art is not over as soon as there are no events to attend. Art is what we imagine, what we cherish, and what we talk about.

Title image: Helmut Federle. 19 E. 21st St., Six Large Paintings, Kunstmuseum Basel, 2019