Last time I wrote about lockdown, I felt a sense of morbid excitement. As the world was plunged into the kind of chaos that defines a generation, I sat down to research the effects pandemics had had on artists in the past. It had felt necessary to document our place in the history of world-altering illnesses. Maybe I wanted to prepare myself for a reality that had only started dawning in April of 2020.
I write this confined to my flat, again. I feel very differently this time around, and I suspect you do too. The rushing fun of a panic is gone. Instead there is frustration, stubbornness, a feeling of being left behind. Last time around, we told ourselves that this time at home would be the perfect opportunity to create. We would be struck by the divine inspiration of collective trauma. We would write our King Lears.
But this time, I can't think. It's taken me weeks just to write this post.
Whenever I think about what I could be creating out of my feelings right now, all I can hear in my head is one singularly useless phrase. The beauty outside my window, the desperation brought on by one Zoom call, the fleeting anxiety that every 11am press conference gives me- all of it passes, but the same feeling sticks with me. Lockdown is so many things, but all I can think of to say is-
What useless art this makes.
Last lockdown I wrote about theatre and film, but this time I'm turning to visual artists. For a year now, writers have been finding artists who captured their experiences of diseases and loneliness to resonate with. Many have espoused the relevance of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch in particular, pointing to the art he created in the midst of the 1918 flu pandemic for signs of hope. Munch contracted the flu and survived, his self-portraits now being used to commemorate his personal and cultural relationship to the pandemic. Two in particular, Self-Portrait With the Spanish Flu and Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu, are a grim before-and-after study of the effects of the disease on his body, mind, and craft. You don't need to be an expert in art history to note the sallow blankness of his sick face, and the bags under his eyes when he is well again. Shraddha Nair, writing for STIRworld, argues that -
...Munch’s repertoire so keenly fixates on the themes of love, pain, anxiety, jealousy and death. It is the way Munch highlights these themes in his work in a way that's deeply captivating and painfully relatable in a timeless way.
But something feels off about this analysis to me. I find it odd that Munch's most famous work isn't brought into this discussion of relevant pandemic art. The Scream is an iconic blast of colour, a captivating vortex that impresses a kind of anguished but silent sound upon the viewer. His flu self portraits are certainly interesting when we attempt to gather the cultural evidence of a pandemic, but I can't help but feel that that screaming face says more about the state of our world than an old man in a wicker chair. It is revealing that the more accurate rendering of life with the pandemic- alone and inside and sullen- is something I can barely stand to look at. That's my current bias inhibiting me, I suppose.
What useless art this is.
Then there are those artists whose work simply speaks to the feeling of lockdown from a different context. Edward Hopper’s name has been evoked over and over again to capture that solitude of quarantine. Joseph L. Goldstein, in his article for Cell, explores several Hopper paintings including Cape Cod Morning. He argues that the subject’s focus “…is forward and to the outside world, yet she seems imprisoned in her own home, anxiously staring toward an uncertain future and hoping that the lockdown will end soon.” I've always like the smoothness of Hopper's colours- his work is pretty and easy to look at, but it's his social messages that keep you held. I remember loving Nighthawks in high school after a peer pointed out that the diner has no door. The patrons look more like caged animals than people, locked in with no means of escape. It’s absurd- they are alone, yet are surrounded. Hopper’s work is uplifting in that way. He shows us that, although we feel isolated, if we just look beyond ourselves, we may see others who feel our pain.
But again, the modern reconceptualisation of Hopper as a voice for COVID feels wrong. Cape Cod Morning is a self-imposed isolation. That feeling of being cut off from society in Hopper’s work is interesting because it is unnecessary. But I have to be inside. I want desperately to leave, to mingle, to see the people I love, but I can’t. We are not locked in because of cultural anxiety. We are locked in because we might die. Our diner has a door- we are choosing not to walk through it because the world could kill us, and we can't get vaccinated yet.
What useless art this is.
Making anything in lockdown feels like a pointless cry into nothingness. Isolation doesn’t make my experience interesting. It’s 2021- we all know what it feels like to be alone and inside. No one benefits from voyeuristically enjoying my trauma because it is the same pain for everyone. Lockdown art is self-centred, an unrefined and careless bemoaning. I want to watch Bo Burnham: Inside, a new comedy special from a comedian I like a lot. But a friend warned me of it's existentialism, and I just can't go there.
Many artists have produced wonderful creative efforts in the last year, but I don't know how they did it. History is hard to write when you're still living it. Maybe next time we are locked down I'll have the answer. These writer's find hope in the art of dead men is good, and I'm glad that some people are able to feel anything but cynicism. But right now, all I can do drift in this feeling. Maybe this is the time to try the ideas you know will fail.
Lockdown art is useless art. Maybe there is a kind of freedom in that.
Goldstein, JL 2020, "The Spanish 1918 Flu and the COVID-19 disease: the art of remembering and foreshadowing pandemics", Cell, vol. 183, no. 2, pp. 285-289, <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092867420312277#bib13>.
Kambhampaty, AP 2020, "How art movements tried to make sense of the world in the wake of the 1918 Flu Pandemic", TIME, 5 May, <https://time.com/5827561/1918-flu-art/>.
Nair, S 2020, "Exploring artist Edvard Munch’s iconic works developed during the Spanish flu", STIRworld, 17 Jul, <https://www.stirworld.com/see-features-exploring-artist-edvard-munch-s-iconic-works-developed-during-the-spanish-flu2>.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Cape Cod Morning, SAAM, 2021, <https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/cape-cod-morning-10760>.
Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, by Edvard Munch © Nasjonalmuseet
Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu, 1919, by Edvard Munch © Munchmuseet
Cape Cod Morning, 1950, by Edward Hopper © Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nighthawks, 1942, by Edward Hopper © The Art Institute of Chicago