In a Time of Crisis, Is Art Essential?

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For the last two summers, T has published an online art issue in which we celebrate artistic freedom in the face of overwhelming odds. Traditionally, these odds have revolved around an international supply chain largely fueled by greed: The small but powerful ecosystem that we refer to as “the art world” has always exploited artists to protect its profit margins.

It goes without saying that this year, the stakes are different. This has been a summer of a global pandemic, of rent strikes and protests against state-sanctioned murder and inequality, of autocratic threats of violence from elected officials. All of us have been made to witness and reckon with the failure of our established systems of power.

In the coming months, museums and galleries will try to find ways of safely keeping their doors open to the public, but as this process begins, I can’t help but think of the footage of European soccer teams playing in empty arenas to a backing track of audience applause: It looks familiar, but something is off. The old way of life isn’t so distant, but it no longer suits our current reality. Up until March, when the pandemic shut down much of the world, I had a certain monthly ritual that I valued a great deal but never thought much about because I took for granted that I would always be able to do it: On some weekday afternoon, when I would look across the street from my desk in the Times building to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and feel particularly hopeless about my ability to finish whatever work I had to finish that day, I’d take an hour or so to walk around the galleries in Chelsea, or hop on the E train to the Museum of Modern Art to see how fast I could get through a show amid the throng of tourists. Doing this would reset my mood like a clock. It was so easy to be reminded how lucky I was to live in a place where great art was constantly available to me, and to have a profession in which my job was mainly to look at it. A lot worse has been lost in the past few months than this ritual, but I wasn’t aware how much I missed it until I wrote down its memory. Even having a desk in an office now feels foreign to me.

But as the foundations of our very existence have gone awry, the basic premise of T’s art issue still stands. Which is to say: Artists have kept working, even through the days when it feels like the world might end, or days when it feels as if it already has. I can’t say this is as much a surprise as it is an affirmation of the notion that art is essential, if you’ll allow me the use of a word that has taken on a greater meaning as of late. We’ve called this issue “True Believers,” our initial reasoning being that a number of the pieces we’re publishing this week are about artists who have undertaken nearly impossible tasks and persisted, through sheer willpower — from resurrecting the dead (in the case of the French sculptor Marguerite Humeau) to trying to map out nothing less than space and time themselves (in the way of the land artist Charles Ross, who has spent nearly 50 years constructing a naked-eye observatory in the New Mexico desert).

But in retrospect, “True Believers” feels less to me like a theme than a modus operandi: All art is an act of faith — a faith that life itself, with all its tragedies and flaws, can be improved by creating something new and putting it out into the world. I’m not sure we’ll ever go back to what life was just a few months ago, but I do have faith that artists will remain a crucial part of whatever new one we come up with.



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