Opinion piece: The art of Covid-19

Christopher Till Portrait Photo
Christopher Till, Curatorial Director at the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria

It’s beyond any doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic will bring profound change. It already is. This change is felt keenly in the creative economy. The business of art is already in trouble. Galleries, museums and art centres have slammed shut their doors, compelling even the most celebrated and apparently inviolable of institutions to hunker down into survival mode.

News that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (host of the annual Met Ball that’s the very last word in extravagance, conspicuous consumption and the tireless fascination of many with celebrity) is tapping its US$3.6 billion endowment fund to pay salaries, delivered a sobering wake-up call. If a bastion of this stature is feeling the Covid-19 pinch, what is the impact on the rest of us to be?

But the resounding slam of doors does not mean that galleries and museums have turned their collective backs on artists. Initiatives to help artists (and others who make their living from the art trade) have sprung up everywhere.

South Africa’s initiatives include the establishment of a presidential fund to assist artists; online exhibitions and art sales that benefit that fund; and virtual gallery tours. Performing artists live-stream concerts from their living rooms.

The extent to which some of these projects will translate to cash in pocket remains to be seen. But it’s undeniable that artists (and their champions) are putting themselves left, right and centre of global visibility.

It seems that the world has seldom needed creative people as much as it does right now. And it is certain that artists have seldom needed our help as much as they do now.

Austerity sits heavy on South Africa’s artists and art centres. Galleries are feeling it, and if galleries are feeling it, artists are, too.

This is the reality right now for thousands of South African artists. While artists are unable to show and sell their work, the wider creative economy sinks deeper into deficit.

Covid-19 is ushering in a new era for the art world: a time very soon when art (and the business of marketing, investing in, and selling art) will be stripped of the assumption that this is a rarefied realm where only the high-brow and privileged are permitted entry. Covid-19 is levelling the art playing field. And this is as it should be. It’s making many of us think hard (and dig deep) to keep the creative sector of the economy afloat.

Artists are resilient. Art is not going to die. And neither will the passion and desire of artists to reflect, and to create.

For proof of this, look no further than the 101 Collecting Conversations: Signature Works of a Century exhibition at the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria. The exhibition includes powerfully significant works by South African artists. These narrate the last 100 years of our history and show that there are as many different perspectives of reality as there are people who experience that reality.

The works reflect on world wars, the horrors of Apartheid; the triumph of hard-won freedom; the brutality; the sense of humour; the duplicity; the solidarity; the evolution and the revolution of a national culture.

101 Collecting Conversations: Signature Works of a Century helps us understand the layers and layers of complexity that make South Africa what it is today. And now, while Covid-19 takes hold in our consciousness, the exhibition offers a profound insight: South Africans have traversed many difficulties, and have come out battle-worn, but intact. Forced separation has a different origin now. Covid-19 is emerging as a great divider, leveller and unifier. The entire exhibition is presently on show on Javett-UP’s social media platforms.

Artists are the interpreters and narrators of our ever evolving identity. We have to support South Africa’s artists through the tough times now so that we and future generations may benefit from the way artists help us make sense of today, and look to tomorrow.

101 Collecting Conversations: Signature Works of a Century at Javett-UP will open again as soon as lockdown restrictions allow. However, the exhibition must close on June 28, 2020. There will never be another opportunity to see these works exhibited in this way again.