All great art in some way reflects the state of the world at one particular moment. And as we’re currently experiencing the biggest health crisis for a generation, it’s no surprise the coronavirus is influencing contemporary artists. We’ve already seen creative responses to the pandemic from major art figures like Antony Gormley, Banksy and Damien Hirst, and with no indication of exactly how long the virus will impact our lives, there should be many more works like these to come.
This certainly isn’t the first time artists have been inspired by a global crisis, and these previous creative expressions may hint at what we can expect from today’s artists. Here are three key points in history that have been uniquely marked by the powerful artwork created in response to them.
The AIDS epidemic
The AIDS crisis began in the early 1980s, rapidly spreading and claiming lives in huge numbers. Though countries all over the world were impacted, the most well-known artistic responses were related to the US epidemic, particularly in New York City. The Big Apple was the original epicentre of the disease, which initially appeared to be closely associated with gay men, leading to the community suffering widespread bigotry and discrimination as a result. AIDS was even referred to as the “gay plague” for many years.
As well as being a period of intense homophobia, the situation was worsened by the fact Ronald Reagan did nothing to tackle the stigma, fight the epidemic, or even mention the disease by name for the majority of his presidency. All of this meant that fear, grief, sadness and anger were the prevailing emotions of the time, all of which artists channelled into their work.
Perhaps the most famous example is Keith Haring, who used his vibrant street art “to promote safe sex and break down the stigma surrounding conversation about the disease” in works like Safe Sex!, which shows a smiling cartoon penis holding a condom. Haring was diagnosed with AIDS himself in 1988, and died two years later, spending the final period of his life drawing attention to the cause. His most notable pieces include Silence = Death and Ignorance = Fear, inspired by the striking AIDS awareness poster campaigns designed by the ACT UP advocacy group. Both include his signature figures covering their eyes, ears and mouths — “See no evil, Speak no evil, Hear no evil” — to represent people’s willingness to ignore the epidemic.
Meanwhile, Niki de Saint Phalle aimed to educate and overturn misconceptions about AIDS in her colourful, tongue-in-cheek book AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands, which she also illustrated. And artists like Hugh Steers and Frank C. Moore (who both died of AIDS in 1995 and 2002, respectively) highlighted the tragic and lethal nature of the disease. Steers’ Bath Curtain depicts a moving scene of a man taking care of his partner, while Moore’s Arena is an eerie painting showing AIDS patients on hospital beds surrounded by skeletons, among other symbols. Commentary on the painting reveals that the central patient in the piece represents Robert Fulps, Moore’s partner of eight years, who died of AIDS in 1991.
Environmental activism has existed for decades, but climate change only really began to dominate the global agenda in the last few years. Thanks to negotiations like the 2015 Paris Agreement — which aims to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2°C above pre-industrial levels — and high-profile figures like Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough, the world now has a much greater understanding of the severity of the situation. However, even with this increased awareness, National Geographic has reported that scientists “don’t think people realise how little time we have left” to stop the irreversible effects of climate change. This is why many artists have taken it upon themselves to emphasise the urgent threat.
In December 2018, sculptor and installation artist Olafur Eliasson transported 24 icebergs to London from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland. These centuries-old blocks enabled viewers to experience the effects of climate change up close. “It turns out that data alone only promotes a small degree of change. So in order to create the massive behavioural change needed [to tackle climate change] we have to emotionalise that data, make it physically tangible,” he explained. People were able to feel the ice as it melted away, and even smell and ‘taste’ unpolluted air thanks to the bursting air bubbles within the blocks.
Elsewhere, fellow installation artist Mel Chin attempted to show New Yorkers what the city could look like one day if sea levels continue to rise. Unmoored was a virtual reality experience in Times Square that allowed people to imagine they were submerged in water, seeing the undersides of boats when they looked up. Meanwhile, contemporary artist HULA made nature his canvas by painting beautiful portraits on glaciers and icebergs. These murals were especially poignant as they were washed away when the water rose and the ice melted, with the artist “[hoping] they ignite a sense of urgency, as they represent the millions of people in need of our help who are already being affected from the rising sea levels of climate change”.
Perhaps the most recent comparison to the coronavirus is the Spanish flu, which infected roughly a third of the world’s population between February 1918 and April 1920, killing at least 50 million. However, with the world already reeling from World War I, artists were far more interested in depicting the aftermath of the Great War. Yet the Spanish flu did become subject matter for a few artists, particularly those who contracted the illness.
Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu and Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu are perhaps the best-known examples. The Norwegian artist’s work had a preoccupation with death and disease long before the outbreak, as both his mother and sister died from tuberculosis when he was a child. He once wrote: “Illness, insanity, and death…kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.” Yet as Aubrey Know noted for Art in America, “With their queasy colors and undulating lines, their hollowed-out faces and undefined or unfocused eyes, these pictures are arguably more about Munch’s psychology and self-mythologising than the painful experience of the flu itself.”
Perhaps the most tragic works to come out of the crisis were by Egon Schiele. In his unfinished work, The Family, Schiele and his wife Edith are depicted with a baby, though in reality they remained childless. Edith died from the Spanish flu while six months pregnant, and Schiele himself passed away three days later. He also drew his wife on her deathbed, as he was dying himself. Knox believes that this painting displays some of the physical signs of the virus — “Edith’s face is gaunt and drawn, the shading of her cheeks and lips perhaps a sign of cyanosis (blue skin)” — but emphasises that the “soulful eyes” and “chaotic strands of hair” suggests this is still ultimately a psychological portrait. It was clearly difficult for artists to represent the impact of the pandemic, and it remains to be seen whether the same will be true with regard to coronavirus.