Postcards from the Apocalypse by Rachel O’Donnell, Artist
Whelp, this certainly wasn’t covered in art school.
Right now, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and being confronted by some pretty uncomfortable realities. I’m constantly vacillating between two contrasting reactions which I’m sure has become the norm for all of us. But where does this leave the art world when the real world is falling to pieces?
One of the most popular reactions I’ve seen being disseminated through social media and various think-pieces is that this is the time for artists to create their best work yet.
“Why, Shakespeare wrote King Lear during his time in quarantine from the plague!” Although I feel the intent of this is meant to be positive and encouraging, it leaves a lot of creatives feeling guilty about their output levels during self-quarantine. Most artists are barely able to squeak by financially in the best of times and a crisis like this can feel all-consuming and debilitating.
The second most common response is the fairly lugubrious but not unfounded, “Art doesn’t even matter…especially at a time like this”. It’s true, art is not a ventilator. It will never be more important than air, water and food. Even the loftiest artist must concede this. And maybe, that’s why so many artists feel uncertain right now about their practice. We are being forced to look at our practice in a more critical way and analyze what we do and why we do it.
This is not the first time I’ve waded through these waters.
Three years ago, I was selling my blood plasma to afford food after leaving my 9-5 to focus on being a full time artist. And while we weren’t in a pandemic then, I spiraled into questioning myself about making this choice to live a life with art at such a high personal price and I came to the following conclusions.
Art is catharsis, even if its masked in fantasy. It does not offer solutions nor does it answer questions. It creates a conversation and it lets you feel through these things and increase in empathy and understanding. Like most cosmic and celestial things, it is mysterious and guiding. Art, in all its forms, serves a purpose to show the viewer that you are not alone. We are connected at our core. This is what makes art important. During this quarantine, we have all turned to art (TV shows, books, movies, etc.) to remember our human-ness; to escape and feel connected through our separation. Art is deeply powerful and necessary even during challenging times.
I have continued my practice at the same rate as before without putting pressure on myself to increase output.
I see signs from the outbreak seeping into my work; collages with pieces shaped like an N95 mask; distressing images using unconventional methods as result of my boredom. I continue to make the work, even while learning to live through this period of flux because the day I stop making art is the day I abandon myself. Some of my biggest breakthroughs were in moment of desperation. I couldn’t afford canvas at one point but felt the desperate urge to create. So, I started cutting up old magazines I had laying around the house and it’s been an important aspect of my work ever since.
My advice to fellow creatives is to put blinders on.
Ignore what you see on social media and figure out what’s right for you. Easier said than done, I agree. My needs change day to day. Some days, I’m too overwhelmed to pick up a paint brush. My part-time job that I relied on is basically gone and I’m having trouble getting paid for previous gigs as everyone is experiencing financial hardships. I am also trying to allow myself to feel without judgement during this time. I am not the worst case scenario in this quarantine but that does not mean I can’t feel consumed by this pandemic.
Will smaller galleries exist after being shuttered for so long? I don’t know. I hope so.
They are essential in shaping the art world, more so than even the blue chip galleries as they foster the careers of tomorrow’s big art stars and innovators. Art fairs are also all holding their breath during this disaster as they require large gatherings. I’m not an expert on the inner workings of art institutions but I can promise you that art will continue after pandemic.
If you’re an art lover and can’t afford to buy work from your favorite artists during this time, send them a message. Let them know you support their work. Share it with friends and on social media. All of those things are free.