No-one predicted that the 3rd decade of the 21st century would begin with the world in a sudden stasis, populations forced to stay at home, tourist spots turned into ghost towns, planes remaining on the ground.
We are currently experiencing an unexpected, and in some ways unprecedented break with normality. Though on the surface, everyone tries to make the necessary adjustments to continue with their lives. Yet at the same time everything is cast in a strange and uncertain light. The pandemic forces us to improvise.
This is not an artistic crisis. A lifeless virus has brought about a global biological danger to all humanity.
In the midst of this pandemic, with full hospitals, rising death rates and an economic malaise that has a real chance to deepen, it may seem unethical to occupy ourselves with seemingly less important concerns such as art.
Yet this crisis situation presents situations and challenges that artists in particular have been familiar with for some time: distorted reality, insecurity, alienation, trying to find one’s way by touch, feeling one’s way through unfamiliar terrain.
‘Everyone is an artist, but only the artist knows it’. The French artist and filmmaker Pierre Bismuth once inscribed this text on a museum wall in Lithuania.
He was not the first to consider art as having an inherently human dimension. For example, shortly before his death Marcel Duchamp stated in an interview that the distinction between artist and non-artist was superfluous, artificial and restrictive.
The German Joseph Beuys regarded community as a ‘social sculpture’, an object formed by the behaviour and choices of each individual in society, which results in the assertion that everyone is an artist.
Duchamp recognizes the implicit creative dimension in humanity, Beuys points to our common social responsibility, and perhaps Bismuth’s statement is about the possible superiority of art. Art is a possibility that is immanent in everyone, but that not everyone can ‘see’.
‘Everyone is an artist, but only the artist knows it’. It’s a sentence that runs the risk of ending up on coffee mugs and in Facebook posts, an amusing quote, which does not encourage us to think through the consequences.
The current break with the status quo reveals that our world is not an established fact for which there is no alternative. The semblance of normality, the assumption that the world is as it is, can be transformed by art into its opposite. Nothing is certain or normal any more. Democracy, global capitalism, prosperity, human rights, privacy: these are all constructed by us collectively. They are not a necessary outcome dictated by natural laws, they are our social sculpture, which we have shaped collectively, progressively through the generations.
It is frightening to be open to the fact that nothing within our social sculpture is absolute and unshakeable, and that there are always alternative possibilities to any certainty. At the same time it can be liberating to accept this. It is precisely this ambiguous, disruptive interplay that artists have explored.
The artist can make us aware that we can collectively use our imagination to give shape to social sculpture.
‘Nous sommes en guerre,’
declared French President Macron. Mark Rutte called it the most serious crisis ‘outside of wartime’. We’re fighting a biological enemy, but which one? Is it really only about that virus, that non-living flotsam of genetic material, or also about the world we built which has made possible the rapid global spread of the virus?
The corona crisis calls into question our global growth economy, the way we treat animals, bio-technology, mass tourism. All those parts of our social sculpture that until recently we thought were inevitable and inescapable, it is suddenly revealed, could be brought to a standstill in an incredibly short period of time.
With the same surprising speed, it seems that human rights and personal freedoms once considered inviolable can be pushed aside. We are under collective house arrest. Surveillance cameras monitor us, sometimes on drones, to make sure we are at least a metre and a half away from each other. Rights that were untouchable, turn out to be expendable. The social sculpture is suddenly extremely malleable, not cast in bronze.
Are there other, more far-reaching measures to imagine? If the physical lockdown is ultimately an effective remedy against the spread of a virus, mightn’t there also be an equivalent in terms of economic consequences? A kind of ‘economic lockdown’ to counter the impending impoverishment of a society?
Imagine if the government were to demand that, from now on, no one takes more than they need. We now know that there is enough for everyone. What would a ‘monetary quarantine’ look like?
What would be more difficult: being locked up at home with your family for a few months, or not asking for more than you need for a certain period of time, and sharing what you do need?
Imagine that the richest 1% of the population would take it for granted that it must guarantee the well being of the remaining 99%.
After the crisis in 2008, everything was aimed at getting back to normal as much as possible. The banks had to be rescued, the financial structure had to be restored, the economy had to get back on the track of ever accelerating and rising growth.
Which society do we want? Are we going to rebuild the old status quo brick by brick, or are we going to seize this forced interruption to imagine an alternative?
What the arts have demanded is now suddenly relevant. Rather than a global economy that exploits the earth, we can fashion one on the local and small-scale. We have long lived in a world where things were more important than ideas. Now we discover that our spiritual existence determines our humanity.
The world before this crisis was one dominated by competition, profit, efficiency. This crisis could be a radical turning point, in which such priorities give way to thinking from the point of view of possibilities.
Now that the world of the rentiers has virtually come to a standstill, we must explore new possibilities. Should we start experimenting with a basic income, helicopter money, fairer taxation of the multinationals? What was almost taboo just a few months ago is no longer unthinkable, in fact it is generally discussed now that nothing is fundamentally unthinkable anymore.
This is the no man’s land where the artist feels at home, in the void between destruction and creation, where only the imagination - the power that sets us apart from other organisms - can guide us into possible futures.
The corona crisis confronts us in an unprecedented way with our conflicting human desires. While we accept staying home because it promises safety and order, at the same time we cannot accept it, because we experience it as unbearable. We are driven by conflicting desires, on the one hand for stability and on the other hand for transformation and renewal. The sandwich we crave in the morning gives us the energy we need to make sure we don’t spend the rest of our lives eating the same sandwich over and over again. At the same time it is impossible to think about this sandwich without it.
This process, that tension between continuity and renewal, determines ourselves and shapes society. In that respect, our ‘social sculpture’ is always a work in progress
. It will only ever be completed when humanity no longer exists: the grand finale, in Beuys’ understanding of art.
In 2015 the German authors Christian Saehrendt and Steen Kittl published a contemporary art manual. On the cover is a cartoon in which a man is looking at a painting. The painting consists of large white letters against a black background, which say ‘Kannst du nicht’. The man responds: ‘Das kann ich auch’.
Not being able to do something is often more difficult than being able to do it. Take the current situation, where we can’t go to the theatre, can’t meet up with friends and better not go to the beach. Of course one can argue that not being able to do all these things goes together with being able to stay home. And while this can be seen as a difference in perspective, it is of course ultimately about a much greater inability, namely, not being able to act freely in correspondence with what you want or don’t want to do. We experience this as a hindrance to our freedom. We are afraid of not being able to live our own lives, but those of others.
In the spirit of Johan Cruijff one might say that in order to make a choice, you have to be able
to make choices. In short: a choice can only be made if the choice is available for us. Where it is important to realize that it is not enough to know what choices are available, we have to be able to comprehend them. Take, for example, a person, who chooses to give away all his possessions and live on an island. Even though one has read about this choice, this choice can not practically become a possible choice until one comprehends this man’s choice.Until that point, the choice remains inconceivable. Doesn’t art work in a similar way?
Though we have not chosen our existence, we are confined to it. The only choice we have is to decide what to do with this existence. In short, that we exist
will always remain an incomprehensible fact for us; what we are
is determined by our choices. This distinguishes us from each other and thereby shapes society. It is up to each of us to choose between staying at home and going to the beach; between reading a book or sitting at the cash register; between thinking of profit, or thinking of art.
Maybe the crisis gives us a new appreciation for art, by revealing our inability to know. This is a perspective in which Pierre Bismuth’s statement is suddenly as meaningful and logical as quarantine at home, itself unthinkable until recently. This is the perspective whereby we recognize that we are the artists we have always been.
Art and crisis — Thinking about art in times of corona
The arts are taking a break. Theatres, museums, concert halls and galleries are closed. To a large extent, the art that is so desperately needed right now is inaccessible. Imagine being quarantined at home without films, without books, without music.
Though we may not access the art, we can still think about it. The enforced rupture of this isolation can also be an opportune moment to reflect on and from, the arts.
Every Sunday for the coming weeks we will feature new writing on the arts under quarantine. Today we have the first offering from the initiators of this series: Akiem Helmling and Christiaan Weijts.