In An Emergency, Art!

May 8, 2020

“Brick Wall,” Elisabeth Condon. PHOTO: Jason Mandella

Recent events—namely the global pandemic and state-mandated closure of businesses deemed “non-essential”—beg some questions: Is Yaddo essential? Is art necessary? What happens to artists in a time of global crisis, and how can we help? 

In her brilliant essay collection, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (forthcoming in May), Olivia Laing profiles several writers and artists (many of them her fellow Yaddo alums), diving into how they handled trying times. She published the introductory essay in The Guardian, positing that creative work offers clarity, nourishment, solace, hope and “a restoration of faith,” she wrote. “It’s easy to give into despair. There’s so much that’s frightening, so much wrong. But if this virus shows us anything, it’s that we’re interconnected… We keep each other afloat, even when we can’t touch. Art is a place where that can happen, where ideas and people are made welcome. It’s a zone of enchantment as well as resistance, and it’s open even now.” 

In a word, yes. Yaddo is the zone! We are your community. Further, Yaddo is you, the artists who have long been at the forefront of creating work with global impact. And that’s especially true at this moment, with so many of you on the front line. 

Luba Drozd, an installation artist who came to Yaddo in February, has been in the news lately for using her 3D printer to make protective face shields for healthcare workers. She switched from engineering complex sound components to making life-saving medical gear in her Brooklyn apartment. In many arenas, large and small, our illustrious artists take on leadership roles that far exceed their creative callings. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and President of PEN America Jennifer Egan announced recently that PEN won the first round in their lawsuit against President Trump for retaliating against journalists (media is considered an “essential business”). A federal court denied a motion
to dismiss the case. “[We are] profoundly grateful for the court’s timely decision,” Egan said in a press statement. “The Trump administration’s punitive stance toward the press has continued unabated, with corrosive results for truth, fact, our democracy, and—most recently—public health.”

Mentioned earlier, Olivia Laing came to her hard-won conclusions on art in emergencies by revisiting the AIDS epidemic, among other atrocities, with some of her Yaddo pals such as writer and activist Sarah Schulman. Laing
also looked into the historical context of works like the Klan paintings of Philip Guston, who found respite
at Yaddo in 1969 amid his shift from abstract expressionism to exploring the tumult of his era. Laing writes: “Guston wasn’t looking from afar. This time, he was inside the frame. Someone, some bozo, was underneath the hood, peering out at the world through the slits in cloth. You have to bear witness, Guston kept saying, but he meant more than merely watching events unfold.” 

As galvanizing as the work of other artists can be, most of us are not out saving the world, rather we’re relishing solitude, sleep, books, maybe hoarding ice cream and watching Netflix. Oddly enough, in a time when so many are deemed “non-essential” workers, artists have become the go-to source for coping with quarantine. Books are oxygen. Films are queued. Poetry is blooming, and the digital space is filled with impromptu interviews with artists. It’s enough to create art for its own sake, even when doing so seems impossible.

“In times when people are suffering, a constant everywhere on the globe, I question the importance of art,” painter Josh Dorman told Koplin Del Rio. “But it’s also in these moments when I’m reminded of the simple healing power of making things with one’s hands, and the capability of imagination to create an escape—an alternate world.” 

Alternate worlds figure into Laing’s eloquent argument that emergencies require art. “That’s the thing about utopias, they keep you going,” she wrote. “Hope has a bad press in our cynical age, but it doesn’t necessarily mean being disengaged, a Pollyanna blind to the state things are in or uninterested in how they got that way. Hope is the precursor to change. Without it, no better world is possible.” 

Deep down, we suspect, most artists believe that, as Terry Adkins said, “Art can be a force for change.” In the meantime, lots of shelter dogs are finding homes, small farms in upstate New York are more successful and the air is cleaner. 

Plus, we still have what matters most: “People. Staying connected and staying open. Supporting when and where it’s possible,” Elisabeth Condon told Art Spiel. “When I remember to stay open it combats nihilism. It also firms my resolve to paint…with a free and open perspective, to create a space in which others can open as well.” 

While the physical location of Yaddo is closed, our hearts are open. Let Yaddo be your bridge to a better world—we’ll see you on the other side.

—From Yaddo News Spring 2020. View the full newsletter here.