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The Healing Power of Art In Times of Uncertainty

Art is the only way to run…without leaving home.

-Twyla Tharp

In times of uncertainty, human beings look to art. Whether it’s a favorite album, a new television show or a well-loved book, throughout history art has acted as the skeleton key of human interaction, a way for us to reach out to one another. It is how we comfort ourselves and one another, how we escape from the reality of our lives, how we find the strength to carry on. Without art, the human animal would be unrecognizable.

Recognizing this, the art world has found unique ways to step in as governments around the world advise their citizens to shelter in place through the COVID-19 pandemic. The Louvre, the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery, the State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum of Madrid, Spain, are only a handful of the museums around the world which have thrown their virtual doors open for the public to browse from the comfort of their own homes. Elton John, Billie Eilish, Dave Grohl, Mariah Carey, and a host of other musicians recently participated in the iHeart Living Room concert, broadcasted from each of their homes and benefitting two US charities. The 2020 SXSW festival, cancelled in early March over COVID-19 concerns, will be streaming its films free of charge on Amazon for ten days in April.

The art world has stepped up in other ways. As many institutions have shifted their operations to work from home, the most vulnerable of their employees have had to reckon with the possibility of finding themselves unemployed. The Getty Trust and the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation will be giving $15 million in emergency aid to artists and arts organizations. Museums in Los Angeles County are continuing to provide their part-time and full-time workers their full wages even as California shelters in place. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will do likewise until May 2; the Met Board of Trustees is discussing the possibility of dipping into its endowment if the crisis persists beyond that point. Numerous celebrities, among them Lin-Manuel Miranda and Rhianna, have donated to and promoted fundraisers to benefit art workers who have been furloughed or lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. J.K. Rowling recently launched an online Harry Potter hub in order to keep children educated and entertained.

Even in isolation, people have found a way to do new and uplifting things with art. On March 22 four roommates in self-quarantine began recreating classic works of art using only items lying around their apartment. Within three weeks their Instagram account has gained 63,000 followers and hundreds of thousands of likes. HarperCollins Publishing has waived all copyright claims to its works for online readings through the end of May, enabling children and adults the world over to create new content on social media platforms for the enjoyment of anyone with an internet connection.

At last, we can’t forget the potentially great works of art which are yet to be revealed to the world. Jane Austen worked on The Brothers while under quarantine. William Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra while London was in the grips of a bubonic plague outbreak. Edvard Munch, who contracted the flu during the 1918-20 pandemic, documented his physical state in a haunting self-portrait created during the early days of his recovery. Giovanni Boccaccio penned his classic The Decameron while hiding out from a bubonic plague outbreak in 1348. Art created during times of crisis serves as a loving reminder of the human spirit's magnificent ability to endure.

As governments work to manage the spread of COVID-19, artists and those who love art have been working to maintain the emotional health of those abiding by shelter in place orders. In a world that tends to move at a breakneck speed, this sudden slowdown that we are all experiencing can be disorienting. What gives us hope, what keeps us sane now as it always has, is art.

Image: Lion outside of the Art Institute of Chicago, March 17, 2020. Photo by author.

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