Sometimes art truly tells a story. You stand in one of those big, white galleries, in front of a piece you don’t fully understand, and feel as if it’s speaking directly to you. Like that scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” where Cameron seems entranced by Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
He stares at it, and the people hanging around a park together seem to stare right back. They sunbathe, picnic, fish, walk their dogs and have simply no worry about the possibility of catching something. That piece now feels like a lifetime away. With social distancing or pause enforcements across many of the states, we’re now more likely to paint ourselves curled up in bed in sweatpants than at a park with all of our friends.
Although Cameron is connected to the entrancing Seurat dots, my connection is with Keith Haring’s purposely unfinished piece. He only painted the top left corner, leaving the rest of the canvas blank and unfinished, as if he didn’t have the time and left in a hurry.
Finished in 1989, this would be one of Haring’s last paintings.
A few months later he died from AIDS-related complications at the age of 31. This painting remains as a reminder of the brevity of life and the impact the AIDS crisis had on the world.
Maybe this piece just speaks to me because I’m an art history major. Yeah, that’s right, someone chose to major in art history. I know from the hundreds of comments I get about my major and the “why would you even want to do that?!” questions that it’s not a popular subject with the Fairfield University student body.
I get it guys! It’s not fun to spend hours going through flashcards just so you can get a B on the final, or waste hours looking at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website for photos of Egyptian sculptures when you could already be home for Thanksgiving. Fully understandable!
But, whenever anyone asks me, “why did you choose to major in art history?,” and wants an honest answer instead of just an opportunity to complain about a grade they probably didn’t deserve, I tell them about my high school art history teacher.
She told us that art speaks for the era in ways that other things cannot. It allows those without political or social power to speak about how the world truly looks to them and the majority of people. It allows the silenced to have a voice.
I see that now. I see how art exposes the truth, pain and beauty of history. During times of trouble, art and artists find a way to tell the truth about the human condition and attempt to find a way to bring beauty back into the world.
During the Renaissance, where many diseases and plagues ran rampant through society, Matthias Grünewald painted the “Isenheim Altarpiece.” I’m not going to give you a big long history lesson; that isn’t what the point of this article is, and nobody would care. But, this piece was hung in a place where the sick and dying would look upon Jesus suffering and know that they’re not alone.
It also could be folded in a certain way that would make it look like Jesus was losing limbs. As amputation was common practice during this time due to infection, patients could find a further connection to a man they revered.
Or, after the destruction that World War I had on society, and tens of millions of lives were lost in a war that should’ve never been fought, we see artists react to art in a similar manner. At the time, Marcel Duchamp’s best-known piece, “The Fountain,” angered the art community. All he did was take a urinal, spin it around, scrawl a word across it and say, “Art.”
Lots of people don’t get it, and this piece is the start of many discussions that end with someone angrily saying, “Well then anything can be art! This rug could be an art piece!”
But, after witnessing a generation of men killed in a war that should’ve never been fought, Duchamp had had it with the art world. How could we continue to be obsessed with the trivial when friends, brothers, fathers and cousins were being buried among the tens of millions.
These pieces speak for their era.
Hering speaks for the talent lost during the AIDS epidemic, Grünewald speaks for the hope needed during times of struggle and Duchamp speaks for how we react to life after crisis.
So… what will be said about this snapshot? What will future art historians say about the art that was created during this time?
I picture a gallery filled with the chalk drawings that neighborhoods around the country did. Those drawings across driveways and sidewalks that read out multicolored messages of comfort, saying, “it will get better,” “we’re in this together” or “thank you to essential workers.”
I picture essays written about the technology available and the deconstructing of the elite quality inherent in the museum space. This forced separation and the closing of many museums has shown that with just a wifi connection or a smartphone, you can travel around the world. Google’s Arts and Culture website is actually a lovely example of this, as they’ve photographed many of the world’s most famous paintings in such a high resolution that you can even zoom in and see the individual brushstrokes of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Or, if you want to tour a specific museum, you can choose from Google’s selection and take a walkthrough in the Frick Collection of New York, the National Museum of Nature and Science in Japan or, my favorite museum in the world, the Tate in London.
I picture artists moving to curate their own exhibits on digital platforms. They can increase accessibility and create the idea that maybe we don’t need to see art in person to appreciate it. These are the same artists who will create pieces inspired by the themes of this period. These can include dark ideas like death, disease, plague, isolation and sadness, but also the bright ideas that seem to peek through, like compassion, kindness, leadership and cooperation… all the things that have made this situation more manageable.
I don’t know what the world will look like even a day from now. We’re living in such uncertain times that I sometimes turn the news on half expecting aliens to be added to the mix of things we have to worry about. But, what keeps me going is the possibility of the future. Not just tomorrow, but the thought that centuries from now, our children, or our children’s children, will look to the art of this era. They’ll look at the art and see an insight that can only be provided by artists. Just as I look to the art of the past to hear voices ring the truth from an era long since gone.