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Why We Need Arts in Times of Crisis

Ryan Katz created Everything Will Be Okay in partnership with The Lytle House Art Initiative and Jason Kofke. Designed by: Jason Kofke | Muralist: Ryan Tova Katz. Image permission, Ryan Katz

Art allows us to examine what it means to be human, to voice and express, and to bring people and ideas together.

As we rise to the challenge of our new normal of life in a global pandemic, we are seeing more clearly what needs to change in our pre-COVID-19 society.

We are still experiencing a global pandemic. We are engaging with racial injustice made more visible and undenyable with George Floyd's death and the recent protests across the globe. In times of crisis, we need humanity, expression, and community that the arts create.

In the United States and around the world, COVID-19 has shed light on our economic, social, and political systems. We are seeing how systemic racial inequality is putting people of color at a higher risk during the pandemic. We are realizing the economic implications of relying on minimum wage “essential” jobs. We are seeing disease become politicized. And, we are seeing a growing mental health crisis as a response to COVID-19. ​

What we put our energy and efforts into now will affect what our future looks like. In campaigning for arts support, the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts stated, “The values we support today will determine what we have when this is over.”

This is a time to value the arts. Whether big or small, sidewalk chalk art or community murals, art makes a difference in how we live our lives. In a tumultuous world, art matters.

The arts create wellness in our day-to-day lives and helps us process our lives individually and come together collectively. Art allow us to communicate from afar, generating positivtiy during COVID-19 and appreciation for front line workers. In times of social injustice and unrest, art amplifies important voices and messages.Ryan Katz created Everything Will Be Okay in partnership with The Lytle House Art Initiative and Jason Kofke. Designed by: Jason Kofke | Muralist: Ryan Tova Katz. Image permission, Ryan Katz

Art is an expression of what it means to be human

Art-making and viewing art allows us to process our experiences. Art helps us to express and to understand the world around us.

We are unique in our human drive to create and engage with the arts. Historically, humans have been visually expressive beings. The cave of the hands, Cueva de las Manos, in Argentina is an example of early visual expression. The artwork in the cave carbon-dates to an estimated 7300 BC. These cave walls host a hybrid of hunting scenes and relief handprints, probably made by blowing paint materials through hollowed-out bones, or reeds. This sea of overlapping hands and illustration provides a lens into past life and builds a present-day connection with our stone-age ancestors.

Ancient humans not only recorded their lives through art, but they also used art to express themselves. We do this today, too—the arts create community by depicting shared events and to express our individual perspectives.

We define our human experience by the cultures we create and participate in. Culture, made up of customs, social interactions, and activities, is fueled by the arts. Be it music, food, visual arts, or the many other layers of arts that create our lives, the culture that makes us human and the arts are inseparable.

We are seeing an increased turn to the arts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Globally, we have turned to art engagement as a source of comfort and strength. Participating in and viewing art makes us connect to a more universal human experience. Be it art-making at home, public murals, watching and listening to plays and music, or new-found interests in culinary arts, art is an expression of what it means to be human.

Art fosters understanding between communities

As we globally grapple with inequalities that have always existed but are more visible and striking in the past weeks, we are seeing art being used as a tool to create stronger communities. Art is an expression of what it means to be human and allows us to express and explore our humanity as a whole.

Art can allow us to not just understand ourselves, but to understand each other on a deeper level.

We can engage with online arts in a way to connect more deeply with current issues and events. There are a multitude of ways to experience the arts virtually during COVID-19. Museums are moving exhibits online. Virtual galleries are hosting online show openings and artist talks.

It's important to realize that systems of inequality and racism exist in all structures of our world, including the art-world. Historically, museums have reinforced inequality in their structure and tradition of exclusivity, in objectifying other cultures, and with unjustly collected artworks. Early public museums embraced damaging ethos of superiority and missions to patriarchally teach an “uninformed and uncultured” public. Museums today work to be more community informed, but they are working within their heavy frameworks of their past.

Not all institutions have unethical collections or misguided interpretations of non-white cultures. Many institutions are working to repatriate, create self-aware programming, and to re-interpret and re-contextualize their collections.

With the internet at our fingertips, gaining access to art made by historically unrepresented voices and thoughtful museums is easier and more important than ever.

Here are just a few places to get started:

The Smithsonian created a National Museum of African American History and culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Visitors to the NMAAHC travel through time to understand the Black American. The NMAAHC has a digital resource guide and access to online exhibits and video archives.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is an interpretive museum and research center in Birmingham, Alabama exploring the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The institute is actively exploring the effects of COVID-19 on Black communities. The BCRI has an online oral history archive.

The Whitney Plantation is the only plantation museum in Louisiana that exclusively focuses on the lives of enslaved people. While visitors learn through guided tours, online viewers can connect through a virtual book club and by reading about and viewing photos and videos on the site.

The Equal Justice Initiative created The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama. Web visitors are able to learn about slavery in America through videos, photos, and online resources.

The Studio Museum in Harlem has been around since 1968, the museum focuses on exhibiting works by both emerging and established artists of African descent and has a residency program that continues to have artists establish themselves in high powered careers. Thelma Golden, art-world celebrity, is the current director. She is an outspoken art-world leader and is changing the way curators think about art and presentation with her commitment to opening minds and highlighting new voices.

Art is good for our health

While you are enjoying art viewing and engaging with different perspectives from home, revel in the knowledge that you are being healthy!

Art is a proven tool for stress reduction and well being. There are countless studies into the physical and mental benefits of making art, and the benefits of even looking at an artwork. Making and looking at art has long-term effects like boosting our brain function and our immune systems as well as contributing positively to our mental and emotional health. Art helps us process trauma, express difficult feelings, and work through experiences.

Art has promoted health within our homes during COVID-19 as families have been getting creative at home. As we are spending more time with ourselves and during this pandemic, art and craft-making have rocketed.

Public art allows us to see ourselves and our identities within a larger society and to feel confortable in our surroundings. It's no surprise that statues of oppressive historical figures are being removed as a part of the current social justice movement. When our envrionements represent and reflect our experience and communities, we are healthier and happier.

PSA by Joe Hollier part of the Times Square Art's Messages for a City Project. Courtesy of Poster House and Times Square Arts

Art can be a public health tool during COVID-19

Art helps to quickly communicate ideas through memorable visuals.

Public art can be used as a directive tool in a crisis to benefit our general wellbeing. When artists create public art featuring masks to reflect our current experiences, they send a powerful message to the public.

Art guides and signals how people should interact and behave within a space. Visual cues help us understand how we fit into space and make statements about what a community values.

People are taking artistic interventions into their own hands and placing masks on statues all over the world to spread messages of public safety and social distancing. Masked statues are a friendly reminder to wear masks and forge an environment of solidarity.

Now that we are wearing masks to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 globally, masks are getting more innovative. A range of creative masks are allowing us to continue to express ourselves and encourage us to wear masks in the first place. Mask designs, whether fun or functional, may increase usage and promote public health.

Not only does art help us to stay healthy through our viewership and participation, but some arts organizations are also actively fundraising to provide healthcare support during COVID-19. NOAH, the National Organization for Arts in Health, started an Arts for Resilience in Clinicians campaign. This campaign is raising money to help health care workers avoid burnout and to address anxiety through the COVID-19 pandemic.

A winged health care worker and construction worker don boxing gloves and masks in Austin Zucchini-Fowler’s Front Line Fighter and Construction Hero in Denver, Colorado. Image Credit, Austin Zucchini-Fowler.

Art helps us express gratitude during difficult times

While we are not able to congregate with friends and families as we usually would as we live through this pandemic, art allows us to create a message of gratitude from a distance.

In the past few weeks, artists of all types and from all over the world have been creating artworks that thank essential workers and healthcare workers.

For example, New York City is releasing digital artistically rendered public service announcements and messages of hope and solidarity through a city-wide art campaign. Artists are creating works to replace advertisements across the city.

In Denver, artist Austin Zucchini-Fowler started a series of murals that depict healthcare professionals as angels— masked, with wings, and donning boxing gloves. Zucchini-Fowler has expanded the series to include other professionals— a teacher with wings appeared during Teacher Appreciation Week in early May and a winged chef recently emerged on a downtown wall.

Artwork Archive user, Osian Gwent painted a 17.5ft x 8ft public mural in the Welsh town of Llanidloes. He's calling the work The Big Thank You Mural. The work features well-known landmarks and various individuals local to the Llanidloes area, paying tribute to essential workers within the community.

Art makes close-to-home spaces more meaningful

As more people are taking walks around their neighborhoods as a way to get out of their homes while still following social distancing guidelines, art helps us tune in to the spaces and people around us.

In neighborhoods across the US, families are creating chalk art murals and messages. “Chalking the walk” allows creators and walkers to experience places in a more personal way.

Similarly, people are decorating their windows and laws with signs and Christmas lights to create visual cheer. Hearts made of Christmas lights are popping up across the United States as a way to spread positivity and create a visual connection with neighbors.

Messages of community and support during the COVID-19.

Artists are rising to the occasion with art projects centered on themes of coronavirus and quarantine. Banksy playfully interpreted his stay at home life with a topsy turvy work-from-home scene in his bathroom. Banksy typically creates large scale public artworks. His work-from-home scene shows rats wreaking havoc in his real-life apartment complete with his mirror askew and rats treadmilling on toilet paper rolls and swinging from hand towel rings.

In her Everything Will Be Okay Mural, Ryan Katz shares a message of comfort with her community in partnership with The Lytle House Art Initiative. Katz is starting a new arts initiative to donate murals around the city to promote positivity and beauty during COVID-19. Her first mural as part of the initiative will be a four-story-high mural to help celebrate the graduating 2020 class of Northwestern University.

Art Allows us to Document & Process Events

World events are often remembered through what comes to be iconic artwork.

My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love is one of the best-known artworks on the Berlin Wall. Dmitri Vrubel’s painted scene in 1990 of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker embracing in a socialist brotherly kiss stands today still as a way people understand the period before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Nearby to Vrubel's painting on the Berlin Wall is a new work that is quickly becoming iconic in representing the early weeks and stressors of COVID-19.

Artist Eme Freethinker's toilet paper hoarding Gollum from Lord of the Rings is now a hallmark in the Mauerpark public park in Berlin. Gollum is depicted with wild eyes and his frog-like body holding a single roll of toilet paper and saying, “Mien Shatz.” My precious.

Gollum and Ice Age’s Scrat covet toilet paper in Eme Freethinker's Gollum and Scrat, Berlin, Germany 2020 image courtesy of EME Street Art.

As protestors walk throughout the United States to demand justice for George Floyd and the countless others, protest art is appearing as well. Eme Freethinker returned to the same wall where he painted Gollum to mural George Floyd. The mural is captioned “I can’t breath” with the hashtags #georgefloyd, #Ican’tbreath, #saymyname.

Greta McLain, Xena Goldman and Cadex Herrera painted a mural at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue South, on the wall of Cup Foods—with the blessing from the store owner, where George Floyd was arrested and killed.

Muralists Thomas “Detour” Evans, Richard Brasil, and Giovannie “JUST” Dixon aka Justin Spire are creating murals in memory of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The three artists are pairing their large-scale portraits of victims of racial violence with the call for memorializing and remembering with the sentiment #spraytheirname.

More and more, art is appearing around the United States and the world to document COVID-19 and experiences of racial injustice. Art helps to make social justice visible and documents movements— it is able to rally support and create a sense of community in times of crisis.

We need the arts in difficult times.

Art gives us immeasurable personal and social benefits. We rely on the arts to help us through difficult times.

Art reminds us that we are not alone and that we share a universal human experience. Through art, we feel deep emotions together and are able to process experiences, find connections, and create impact.

Art helps us to record and process more than just individual experiences. Marking art documents the world around us and allows us to work through how we are a part of it. Art making is half of it—we also need to photograph, share, and record these creations so that they will live on throughout history. Documenting your artwork is easier than ever with online inventorying and management platforms like Artwork Archive. Together, we can expand the art world “archive” with more representative voices and experiences and contribute to our historical narrative through the arts.

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