Thousands of people around the world are dying. Hospitals are being stretched thin; economies are drowning. And yet, there remains a human necessity for connection and expression. And in this time of crisis and isolation, art has become an answer to that need.
“One may argue that art actually is an essential service right now,” said Adil Dhalla, an artist and community organizer, in a webinar for the Myseum of Toronto. “Art is playing such a critical role right now for all of us as a tool for connection, as a tool for healing, as a tool for something to do, and it has been really inspiring.”
But how do we connect from six feet apart? How do we share art from the confines of our homes as galleries and performances halls are closed, as concerts are canceled? Enter: the internet.
From online galleries to virtual concerts, artists around the world are finding new ways to bring light and connection back in the face of overwhelming darkness. And as artists and art institutions learn to adapt to the immense sharing capabilities of digital platforms like Instagram, a new wave of art is emerging—one an audience can experience without even having to leave their homes.
“The situation we find ourselves in now, as a society, arguably makes us more reliant on technology than ever before, and what we hope to do is find ways to harness technology so that people can continue to access the arts, even if they cannot experience them in person,” said Nicholas Kenyon, managing director at the Barbican, in an interview with the New Statesman.
Today, you can visit the Louvre or the Guggenheim from your couch or admire the effervescent notes of world-renowned orchestras from your kitchen table. And while it may seem like the social aspect of art has been reduced, it’s actually quite the opposite. Think about it—you can be watching a live-stream of your favorite band from California while chatting in the comments with someone from Australia. Virtual art is opening up a whole new world right at people’s fingertips, meaning geographical and financial isolation are no longer putting limitations on viewership.
The success of such virtual art sites, social media pages, and streams, is also acting as a driving force for change in the art community for both artists and consumers alike. It’s unknown how long social distancing will remain in effect, or how long people will feel uncomfortable or unsafe in public places like galleries and concert venues. What we do know, however, is that art will, and should be, forever transformed by this pandemic.
No, the internet may never replace the social connectivity of experiencing art in a physical space, but it will transform our very definition of art and who can be an artist. The internet has long been seen as a tool for marketing art and at a time of widespread closures, artists will certainly need to market themselves digitally to scrape by financially. We’re also learning that the internet itself is a powerful medium for art, one that transverses global and social lines.
A 2019 study by the Public Library of Science reported that 85% of artists in U.S. museum collections are white, and 87% are male. The emergence of virtual art in the coronavirus era is uprooting what is classically rewarded in the fine arts world. With just a WiFi connection and a computer, anybody can post anything online, regardless of gender, age, skill, or race. In this way, the internet is acting as an equalizer in the art community right now. Going virtual is allowing artists to reach audiences they may never have been able to in person and is making way for global collaboration despite physical isolation. The effects of this kind of collaboration will be long-lasting in the art community, driving home an important message: think globally, act locally.
Nick Green, an award-winning playwright from Toronto, created The Social Distancing Festival, a site that showcases and celebrates art from all over the world. In Green’s words, this site is for “coming together as a community at a time when we need it more than ever.” The artists on the site are at all different stages of their careers and come from all different walks of life. Scrolling through the site, you can lose yourself in the undulating stanzas of award-winning writer and spoken word poet Luci:d’s “Clap” or in the poignant and eye-catching visual art of Yabsira Desalegne, a student from Ethiopia. Sites like Green’s that have emerged during this pandemic are a testament to the attainability of a new normal, if we only allow ourselves to smudge the line between traditional and virtual art.
So then the question becomes, what do we want the art world to look like post-coronavirus? Should museums go back to being exclusive clubs of white artists? Should we go back to exploring art in isolation?
No. No longer should we solely define art by stuffy traditions and four walls. It should exist in the vastness of cyberspace, ensuring that we emerge from these times more connected than ever, more appreciative of innovation, and above all else, hungry for something greater than normalcy. By adopting virtual approaches to art not only in this time of quarantine, but also moving forward, we can undermine the binary distinctions between the physical and digital fine arts world to benefit both artists and consumers.
By Savannah Martincic