While art museums and galleries aren’t considered essential businesses, art is an important part of our lives.
Art helps us connect to our inner selves and understand the world around us, says Jonathan Fineberg, an art historian and critic who serves as director of the creativity Ph.D. at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
In a more obvious way, art promotes creativity and exercises the brain. Creativity is the core of adaptability — our ability to acclimate to the new realities we face, he says.
“We don't know very much about the future but the one thing we definitely know is it's not going to be like things are now,” he says, “and we have to be able to adapt or the human race will not survive.”
Finding inspiration and motivation to create is more difficult during the coronavirus crisis because oftentimes, making art is a social activity, he says.
Fineberg worries about how the pandemic has expedited the trend of moving things online. Museums and galleries have amped up their email outreach since people can’t view art in person right now, he says.
Meanwhile, artists are at home making things with their hands — painting, drawing and cooking. This is important because making the body a part of the artistic experience helps personality develop, he says.
“I think that there is this sense of our whole lives being pushed into a kind of virtual space in which we no longer relate to each other in a personal sense,” he says. “I think we need to sort of bring our bodies into our experience in an important way and the internet is, in a way, pushing us away from that.”
Artists are motivated by a desire to make sense of their own experience and better adapt to it, he says. For example, artist Christo’s work gives people a chance to “readjust who they are in relation to reality,” he says.
Many people travel to see Christo’s large public projects like "L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped," which was postponed due to the coronavirus. Viewers are confronted with an unbelievable scene that “suspends their disbelief about everything in the world,” he says.
Artists create important work during times of crisis, he says. Pablo Picasso painted "Guernica" in response to a bombing in a small town in Northern Spain.
The German Luftwaffe decided to try out weapons in the town and slaughtered everyone, which horrified Picasso. The painting hung in the Spanish Republic pavilion at the World’s Fair.
After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, college graduates started making sense of their experience by painting under more liberated circumstances. Some of the greatest paintings of the last 50 years came out of this group of Chinese artists such as Zhang Xiaogang who emerged from this cultural revolution, he says.
“I think that oftentimes [crisis] pushes people to work even harder trying to make sense of their experience because it's so dissonant and works of art help us with that,” he says.
When viewing art, people need a sense of immediacy and personal connection to something tangible, he says. To experience art from home, he recommends watching movies and TV as well as trying out a new craft like drawing.
“I do think that it's very hard to replace the physical experience of a work of art because that physicality is an important part of the experience,” he says. “It's very hard to really engage with a Rembrandt if you can't see it.”
Museums and galleries are “in a panic” because people can't go in and look at art, he says. Cultural institutions are navigating how to engage people online through educational events and other initiatives.
But Fineberg feels the pandemic will have lasting impacts on these fragile institutions. Without funding or support from the government, some “desperate” museums and galleries will go out of business — and a number of small galleries have already folded, he says.
“Museums and works of art, these kinds of things are one of the few arenas left where individual expression can exist in a kind of public scale,” he says. “And if we lose that, we've lost one of the last vehicles for the individual to express themselves in a big way.”
This segment aired on May 6, 2020.