So a few weeks ago one of my mentors/thesis readers/person whomst I learn from Zach Lieberman brought the question of “What is art in these times?”
I remember the first time this was brought up was on a Zoom call with myself and a few other students and I just kind of did a nod and fake smile. I was screaming inside. Partially because of my condition making it such that I could barely eat food that week, partially because it took almost all of my energy to do anything these days and a lot of times art felt very low on the list.
Throughout the last weeks, physical pain and this question kept returning. My academic/research advisor Ekene asked a similar question in another Zoom call I was in. Another mentor of mine also asked, then a lecturer in my class, all the creators I support on Patreon — this is my life now, I guess.
I cannot escape from my chronically ill body or from people asking what art is and should be right now. Greeeeat.
I gave a few half hearted answers through a lot of meetings and classes.
“People are turning towards art during quarantine!”
“Is TikTok ART? Or do we just hate it because teenagers like it?”
“Well, I think that art is an important to chronicle human history — someday scholars will use art to understand the people who lived through this.”
But hey — I’m a person in academia stuck in my house so I’m just gonna write a long Medium article about this question that no one asked for and you will kinda scroll through it because you vaguely know me from Twitter and because you’re bored or actually curious and wondering yourself.
I guess what has bothered me is us asking this question in our ivory Zoom towers of universities and liberal art/tech education spaces. After all, I have become more critical and cynical in the last year. And now the pandemic has made me even more so. Especially in academic spaces.
I used to think that art was a method of telling stories. I have always branded myself a storyteller thinking it would fulfill me and separate me from the next millennial wanting to “combine art and technology”.
And I do think stories have a lot of value, still. And maybe that is a good answer — in times like these art should be stories. The stories of people that we are losing, people who are doing everything to keep us safe, people who are struggling and people who are making it through. But something still feels lacking to me in this answer.
But I don’t exactly know where to put my criticism.
And even if I could articulate an answer to “What is art in these times?” — why would my answer matter?
I’m not even an artist, not really. I just kind of exist in this wildly privileged art/tech space at the MIT Media Lab and spaces like it.
My advisors in graduate school are artists and art critics of some form. I credit Caroline Jones with teaching a very lost and emotional computer scientist (aka me) how to think and read and write somewhat critically. And Zach and Ekene are both great artists and I value what they add to my education and to my grad program. But I obviously am leagues of experience below them all.
Zach, the person who first posed this question to me, is a real professional artist person. He’s an amazingly talented new media artist and educator. He has tons of exhibitions and amazing work out in the world. He even has a wikipedia page. He’s also just a super compassionate human.
Meanwhile…I am a 23 year old grad student who has barely gotten out of this school year in one piece. I am the hot mess friend whom you love but honestly…should she go get some help? (yes) As TikTok would say “Am I a LAADDDDYYYY or am I a RAAATTTTT?” (spoiler: I am a rat)
So honestly, I have less dogs in this fight and less perspectives. But I figured I would take a stab at this question since it’s not leaving soon.
And I think a lot of grad students in the arts/tech/HCI/creative sphere are thinking about What is art right now? What is technology right now? Whyyyyy?
One of my friends talked about how they felt bad doing HCI research in this time. I assured them that they shouldn’t, and people have turned to online spaces and media in trying times when they can’t understand things. Really I was just trying to ensure both of us that we are important and not selfish.
And this is true and I do believe this.
But it is reasonable to find a lot meaningless and small right now. Like…why does a lot of academia…exist? Why should we care about some very small niche theory of art or technology or philosophy? I can hear my middle class upbringing coming to the surface — condemning starving artists and bleeding heart snowflakes.
Unfortunately, I have grown up to be a hemorrhaging snowstorm. But I cannot deny the idea that, yes, things that feel real and tangible and urgent have a certain attraction in times of crisis and instability.
So on the days when I think art is worthless, I twist this desire for stability and remember that it’s still our job. Especially when it comes to young academics or young creatives who are just trying to make it.
This will pass and if we don’t do the work now we will face repercussions later. Especially when everyone and their second cousin who is a “creative technologist” will emerge from quarantine with a plethora of side projects. Those of us who couldn’t do so will look pretty stupid, right?
But then my empathy yells that not everyone can do all these things. And we have to remind people of this and we shouldn’t feel bad about it. And that we should just create what we can right now and not ask anything more.
This defense feels good to me. It fits into my narrative of caring about inequities in STEAM and academia at large. It makes me feel as though there is an enemy and eliminates the pressure of creation and makes it tiny.
But the answer of: “Art in times like these will exist because a lot of people need to keep making it but it will exist less but it doesn’t matter.” isn’t super satisfying. It’s a non-answer that talks itself out of any opinion.
I make this image in my mind of this skinny dude with a cool hair cut laughing at me in two years when I am getting rejected for the same thing that we both applied for because I was sad and sickly during quarantine.
But the truth is that this isn’t going to happen. The people creating right now are not bad or doing it to spite those of us who cannot for whatever reason.
While I was eating depression cereal, my friend and mentor Dr. Daniel Novy has made amazing Zoom filters to make meetings less…sad. It is whimsical and amazing and really does add to the evidence that Dan might not be real but an elaborate figment of my imagination.
These filters give me joy. They brighten any meeting and they remind us that even if Zoom work is weird, we shouldn’t take ourselves too too seriously.
They also remind me that we all cope and handle a weird situation like lockdown differently.
Some people, like Dan, cope by making things. And yes — even the nameless people who are making lots of cool stuff and posting articles about Newton that are driving a lot of us crazy and making us feel bad about ourselves.
Some people cope by cooking or exercising or spreadsheets. Some people cope by sitting on the couch and staring at the ceiling.
Some people don’t really get any of those options and have to go risk their lives every day by working their jobs not at home. Some people are now full time teachers and care givers overnight and can just do…whatever they can.
And sure, some people doing the most right now might not always remember this. But they are not doing it to spite these folks.
Art is often described as a coping mechanism. And this can be good and healthy. So much beautiful work can come from the space of coping. But I think there is this trade off that we have to acknowledge in these times.
There is a narrative of productivity that we are obsessed with until the opportunity comes and we realize it is not made for all of us and we feel cheated.
There is this allure of the mad artist. There is also this allure of being hyper-productive during hard times. There is this allure of someone cranking out science all day and all night even when they are suffering. We worship Elle Woods not just because she worked hard and slayed, but because she put her nose to the grindstone when she had every right to be sad.
That’s what I have been thinking about a lot. I go in and out of “I should be creating all the things” to “honestly nothing matters and my new creation is me sitting on the couch eating depression cereal at 10pm”.
And people have been pointing out that these differences of coping and circumstances are just widening in a lot of fields.That the gender gaps of journal submissions are increasing. That a lot of great students will fall off the proverbial wagon. That so many people were just about to make it big and this have set them back. So much will go unmade and undone.
And we will never, ever fully quantify or grasp the amount of lost lives and potential during this time.
And, for me at least, this results in just this big uncomfy feeling in talking about things like “What does art mean right now?”. It makes me uncomfy to sit on my couch collecting my graduate stipend as I know that I could be doing more work than I am and I am so spoiled in my current circumstance.
But, I have some days where I make a good thing and say “yes. art. good.” and go right back with new motivation to click clacking out class assignments and research slide decks and Python code on my laptop that MIT bought for me.
So I think in all honesty art is serving three main roles right now:
- Things for people to turn to either to consume or make to cope
- Something for us to look back on later in history
- New techniques and experimentations of this separation and doing art in the digital space
But I think also that art needs to address is the lost potential, this large gap between realities that quarantine has enforced. And I think that it needs to do the first three things in a more equitable and inclusive way.
Art needs to talk about the people who want to create but cannot create right now.
I think it goes without saying that art is something that we value. And while it definitely depends on a variety of definitions, art is something that humans take pause at and turn to. And I think this is true in multiple points.
And whilst people make art to cope or try to cope with the fact that they cannot make their art — art needs to start answering to both of these.
A lot of this has made me think about Florence Owens Thompson. She was the subject of one of the most famous photos of the American Great Depression. Most people don’t know that the photographer Dorothea Lange was traveling and working for a government grant. This made her photos open source in a lot of ways, meaning that Florence would never see royalities from this photo. Lange however became forever cemented in art history, much thanks to this photograph and ones like it.
Although this photo, as art often does, raised extreme awareness and actually resulted in food being sent to those where the photo was taken, Florence and her family never received any.
And yet — we praise this photo as humanizing struggle. But is it really humanizing?
Or did Florence and her suffering just become a commodity of the art world?
It makes me wonder — what will we do when artists next gallery season come in with their works about the pandemic and lockdown? Will a nurse who passed away from a disease be the next Florence? Or will it be a single mom who can’t miss hours from her essential employment at a grocery store? Will it be the person who was killed by their abusive partner in lockdown? The person who is chronically ill and cannot go to the doctors because hospitals are overwhelmed? Or the man who was gunned down because of race based violence?
I don’t know how I feel about a lot of these questions. If we believe that art is a reflection of our world than we surely cannot ignore the coronavirus. Or any of the suffering I mentioned above. But we also cannot ignore the massive inequities with whom it affects and how.
This goes without saying that I like a lot of what is happening now in art. Yes, I — negative Nina, like things somethings.
I like that artists are still creating and giving my simple mind something to stare at whilst the world feels scary. I am enchanted by people like Dan who are adding art to video conferencing. I am so excited for lots of cool virtual conferences like SIGGRAPH and music events and other virtual happenings. I love seeing streamed concerts and Zoom music videos.
I am excited to look back at this time and see all the new techniques we have gathered and made. I hope this makes events more accessible and multidimensional in the future for folks who cannot always attend in person and in the same way.
Art allows for this experimentation to take place and flourish. I do really believe that art and artists will generate new methods and technologies to change how humans interact in digital space.
But still…I think that art makes us stop time. It holds us in a moment that suspends us from reality. And art needs to do this for itself right now.
Otherwise, we are going to keep doing the same thing we have always done — make beauty out of human suffering for consumption sake.
We are just going to have another “Imagine” fiasco from celebrities if we don’t pause. We are going to lose so much potential from young creatives who can’t leverage this moment. And we are going to make art that when we look back on it — it won’t make us feel anything.
“What is art in these times?”
Art in this time is a coping tool. It is a tool for connection and reflection and revelation. But like every tool — it can’t bite off your thumb if you are careless with it. And in this time, we need to be careful — and caring.
So if we are caring, I think that art will be something that we can turn to and make and consume. But also something that we can set aside and in context of the greater world and tell someone that it will still be here when they get back on their feet.
The truth is. Art will continue. People will create beautiful things right now. But also it is ok if art needs to wait for some.
But the real reason that I cannot answer What is art in these times? is also that art doesn’t have time. And that art is going to be different after these times too.
I also hope art becomes more broad. I know I mentioned TikTok as a joke throughout this article, but honestly — isn’t it art? Do we just hate it because teens are doing it — especially girls? Do we hate a lot of the musical numbers in Italian apartment buildings because we do not understand them? Do I hate a lot of the connected drawing/music tech stuff because I cannot fortify myself to push something that solid out right now? Maybe yes to all of them.
Will being stuck at home make art less gate keeping? Will we broaden our definitions? I kind of hope so, if only because I think it will be interesting.
What is art in these times?
Why do you care? What answer do you want? Is art your coping mechanism or is art the thing you are coping away from? Are you consuming or making? Why are you asking now and why aren’t you just waiting to find out?
I have told you what I think it is. And why I struggle to think about what it is. And also what I hope it will be.
I hope art will be caring.
To those who consume it and need something beautiful. To those that make it and are trying to make it. To those that cannot make it now but hope to someday.
So if you ask the question I just want to ask you: What are you making that is caring? And is your art caring?
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Nina Lutz is a human dumpster fire quarantined in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab and thinks about identity as aesthetic labor, especially around the human face and body. She definitely is being held together by TV, her roommate, and cereal.