Art has always played an integral role in social, cultural and political developments. Art production and consumption is an interrelated practice with functions ranging from documentary to therapeutic.
The theory of visual communication and aesthetics developed by Dennis Dake classifies this interaction as an aesthetic ecological system. In this system, an art producer and art consumer become involved in an intimate and reciprocal relationship.
These relationships can thrive during crises when individuals have the heightened needs to anchor their emotions in a supportive place. The artwork becomes therapeutic for many of them. The art producer is oftentimes coming from a similar emotional plane as the consumer.
Art as a healing medium
Many experts believe consuming and producing art during crises is important as it provides emotional solace and positive stimulation. It helps to stay connected in an often isolated state, whether it be physical or mental. A museum expert, Carrie M. Heinonen, views art as a healing medium. And during the times of turmoil, it allows all human emotions to come to the surface and be shared.
“Art allows us to explore what it means to be human. Whether creating or consuming art, we are invited to plumb the depths of our emotions. Crises which threaten our very existence: the pandemic, racial inequality, climate change, create angst and feelings of being alone in the world. Art in its various forms comforts us with the knowledge we are not alone. Artists are able to channel their fear, isolation, hope, sadness into works that touch us on an emotional level. When those emotions arise in us, we recognize we are not alone.”
Art immortalizes the message
Another intrinsic value of art production lies in the graphic reflections of the socio-cultural and political climates. Those are communicated through the artist’s creative lens shaped by personal values and experiences. During crises, both art producers and consumers reflect upon the existing conditions while being presented with an opportunity to chronicle their thoughts and observations. Works of art then become the main media that have documented human feelings and events for immediate consumption and future interactions.
The reciprocal relationship between the artist and the consumer functions without time constraints. It is because the produced work of art immortalizes the message within. The art consumer can interact with the art piece and receive the message at any time. Even after the artist’s passing.
Lastly, producing and consuming art during crises can actually be a source of renewed pleasure and enthusiasm. Marilyn Dunn, an art historian and associate professor emerita at Loyola University Chicago, states that:
“the consumption of art can enlighten the consumer (viewer) to the creative potential of humanity. It is especially valuable in the times of stress, turmoil, dissent, division, and base mean-spiritedness. Interactions with art, whether providing aesthetic delight, new perspectives, or intellectual stimulation, enrich art consumers and connect them to the ideas and experiences communicated by other humans.”
History of art consumption and production during crises
Our history is full of examples how a crisis becomes a source of new creative energy and positive changes. Many artists that faced crises, whether public or personal, were forced to perform under pressure and find new ways to produce and sell their art.
Since illiteracy was quite common throughout history, imagery and other visual communication tools were the primary media used for spreading messages. As the larger percentage of population was becoming wealthier and more educated, especially during and after the Renaissance, the art markets started to flourish. That enabled art consumption for pleasure, decoration or investment rather than just for reflection, which was usually the case in religious artworks.
Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter that reached considerable fame and success during her lifetime, quite unusual for a female artist living in the 17th century Italy. As a young woman, she was raped by a teacher in her father’s studio and a highly publicized trial followed. Some scholars state that this negative incident eventually influenced her artistic career positively by solidifying her determination to succeed. The crisis she withstood may have also influenced her decision to focus on the subject matter of strong and suffering women, as seen in Judith Beheading Holofernes (1613).
During the period of 16th century Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition’s propaganda to limit or rather eliminate any expressions of creative freedom for the sake of religious control considered images to be the main media of influence in the society that was mostly illiterate.
Between 1545 and 1563, the Council of Trent decided to question and persecute any artist that showcased deviation from the religious subject matter. Art was supposed to be in the service of the Church. A famous Venetian artist Paolo Veronese faced Inquisition trial for his rather cosmopolitan and joyful depiction of the Last Supper (1573). In the eyes of his Inquisitors, it distracted the viewer from the seriousness of the spiritual moment. After the trial, Veronese had to change the title to The Feast in the House of Levi (1573) and possibly other elements in the painting. He was forced to tone down his artistic enthusiasm and produce more contemplative pieces.
El Greco´s crises
The trial was witnessed by other artists, such as El Greco, who carefully used novel expressive elements to communicate rebellion against the Inquisition doctrine that was based on strict orthodoxy and devotion to the Holy Scriptures. El Greco who produced art in the hub of the Inquisition movement, Spain, applied mannerism, dynamic composition and bold colors to his religious works. It was a way to express his inner tensions about Inquisition’s censorship of creative freedom, his illegitimate son he had with a Jewish girl and possibly even his sexual orientation.
As a result of crises he witnessed, he eventually walked away from the doctrine and painted A View of Toledo (1596 – 1600). It is the first Spanish landscape/cityscape produced during the Inquisition era and a highly forbidden subject matter under the Council of Trent rules.
Breaking free from constraints
The last example is the radical avant-garde movement that originated from the idea of breaking free from constraints brought upon by crises or strict norms in order to give artists freedom to create art that was experimental, innovative and sometimes socially and politically charged. The idea is usually credited to the French thinker Henri de Saint-Simon. In 1825 he proclaimed art to have the unique social power.
“We artists will serve you as an avant-garde, the power of the arts is most immediate: when we want to spread new ideas we inscribe them on marble or canvas. What a magnificent destiny for the arts is that of exercising a positive power over society, a true priestly function and of marching in the van [i.e. vanguard] of all the intellectual faculties!”
Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Raoul Hausmann, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, Marisol Escobar, Dorothy Grebenak, Kazimir Malevich, Andy Warhol, and many others. All of them were practitioners of various avant-garde styles.
The social power of art
A great example of an avant-garde art created in response to the social and political crises during the 1918 Russian Revolution is the “white on white” approach developed by Kazimir Malevich and presented in his work Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918). This concept was revisited in the 1960s by the Minimalist artists, such as Robert Ryman.
It is a case of many, where an art producer becomes also an art consumer. The previously developed art concept is recycled and produced into a new form by a new artist in a different space and time. This phenomenon illustrates another function of the art, recyclability. The original artworks created in the past form a rich repository of ideas for future artists to access during crises.
The traditional and adaptive role of an art museum
Traditionally, a museum is a cultural institution with the main purpose to collect, safeguard and sustain products of various cultural activities. It plays an essential role in supporting art production and consumption. Museums have also assumed an educational function by creating events and programming for wider audiences. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines a museum as:
“a nonprofit making, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of study education and enjoyment, material evidence of humans and their environment.”
Art museums in the 21st century face new challenges. Primarily, it is the competition with other cultural activities and institutions for consumers’ interest and time. As stated in the 2015 The New York Times article by Holland Cotter, the 21st century has been marked by new audiences and tastes, thus the long-established, traditional art museums must find novel ways to stay relevant and even entertaining.
Another challenge for museums is continuous modernization of their business strategies. Since museums play an essential role in the long-term conservation of culture, their ability to adapt (quickly) must become a priority and be embedded in the core of their strategies. In the times of crises, museums should adopt a leading role of a catalyst of art production and consumption implementing strategies that directly affect the ecology of the art system. Museums that are agile and respond to crises in a timely manner will benefit from the long-term stakeholder loyalty.
Art museums in the pandemic crisis
The covid-19 pandemic has disrupted all consumption habits including art consumption. Consuming art in the museum is a part of the engagement strategy museums use to attract new visitors and re-engage the old. As the revenues rely heavily on foot traffic, closing the door can have a dire effect on the museum’s ability to survive. Stoyan V. Sgourev, a professor of art management at ESSEC Business School in Paris comments on the crisis museums are currently facing:
“The crisis is likely to change the perspective on technology, as cultural organizations realize that they are vulnerable to unpredictable disruptions to their physical model… Patterns of cultural consumption and production are evolving. At the rate at which technology is advancing, it is inevitable that digital platforms will become more important in the consumption of all cultural forms. The art market is leading the way, as we are witnessing a lot of new digital initiatives and platforms. Those platforms are trying to subvert the physical restrictions on attendance to galleries and auction spaces.”
Innovative media strategies of art museums
In the last year, many art museums were apt to adopt new media strategies to re-engage their audiences during the pandemic. Cincinnati’s Taft Museum of Art showcased agility and developed several media projects including Fireplaces for Your Home, A Splendid Century online and in-catalog bicentennial celebration exhibition and 360-degree tours of the museum spaces. In addition, Taft focused on the fundraising efforts for the Love This House Campaign and actually raised $6.5 million of the $10.7 million goal.
Sarah Ditlinger, the museum’s senior manager of marketing and strategic engagement, has stayed focused on creating positive experiences for the museum audiences:
“We incorporated our digital mini-series, closer look labels, high-resolution artworks, and more for a digitally-immersive experience. During this year of self-reflection, we have been striving to ensure that the future of museums reflect their community and create spaces online and onsite that are diverse, equitable, accessible, and inclusive.”
The crisis is yet again acting as a stimulant in producing opportunities for birth of new creative ideas and projects. Many museums launched innovative online campaigns to keep their audiences engaged and entertained.
New art ideas and projects
On the onset of the quarantine, The Getty Museum ran an interactive campaign, modeled on a previous initiative of the Rijksmuseum, called Getty Museum Challenge, in which people were asked to recreate artworks from home. The hashtag #GettyMuseumChallenge generated close to 56,000 posts to date and a coverage by major media including PBS, Time Magazine and Washington Post.
In May last year, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, located in Kansas City, Missouri, collaborated with the Kansas City Zoo on an unusual project by bringing three Humboldt penguins to stroll through the halls of the museum and view the Impressionist and Baroque artworks. The penguins were supposed to enlighten the sober quarantine mood and allow for an amusing experience while consuming art virtually.
Public art campaigns have always gained momenta during periods of unrest and struggle. Artworks become the effective media to communicate relevant and timely messages. Works of public art increase the visibility for the artists as well as the accessibility for consumers. One campaign in particular caught the attention of the public, press and the art community—the Resist COVID Take 6! Campaign by Carrie Mae Weems.
Many museum across the U.S. featured the campaign including Portland Art Museum, SCAD Museum of Art, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Brooklyn Museum, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Williams College of Museum of Art, and Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Carrie Heinonen commented on the success of the Resist COVID Take 6! Campaign:
“Hands down the most innovative media strategy I’ve seen this year, is a work of public art! [The campaign] is gorgeous and hopeful and calls for caution and change and social justice. The campaign includes video, billboard, poetry, door danglers, buttons, bags and murals. It also generated significant PR and was seen nationally and internationally.”
Outlook for the future
As our society braces for the second year in a crisis, the experts in both academic and professional settings are hopeful. Hopeful for the future of art consumption and production as well as the future of art museums. In the U.S., the American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden on March 11, 2021, will play an important role in the economic recovery of the arts sector. The Plan allocated $135 million to the Arts Endowment fund. It will be distributed nationally to revitalize the operations of art organizations and stimulate creative activities in the communities across the U.S.
“Museums become increasingly aware of the necessity to address more diverse audiences and to recognize their role as educators and agents for social change and justice. And media strategies such as online programming can help expand their audience. While a digital experience is not an equivalent substitute for an in-person experience with works of art, it can play an important role. I hope museums will continue to develop effective ways to reach a broader public through a variety of strategies. I think many people will be eager to get out to museums to see art collections and exhibitions in person once again in the post-pandemic world.”
“We are all eager to process the many intense emotions we’ve experienced this year. And even as we proceed cautiously, not knowing exactly what the future holds, it is easy for us to experience fine art at a distance from one another… and easy for museums to limit the number of individuals in a gallery. There will be so much new work coming out of the pandemic. And the public will want to engage with it in a public space.”
“For me, doing my part to ensure that the future of museums reflect their community and create spaces online and onsite that are diverse, equitable, accessible, and inclusive. If we’ve learned anything this year from COVID-19, our racial reckoning, and (hopefully) a year of self-reflection. I hope we can desire to work towards that as a field and on an individual level.”
Thanks to innovative media and communication tactics developed during the pandemic crisis, museums have gained a new arsenal of strategic tools to reach broader audiences. Also, they can support continuous art consumption and production that are so important during challenging times. Art, once again, is proving to be a core human activity that in crises becomes the driving force of positive personal and public changes.
The article is in part based on interviews provided by the following experts:
Marilyn Dunn, Ph.D., Art Historian and Associate Professor Emerita, Loyola University Chicago.
Carrie M. Heinonen, Museum Expert, former President and Director of Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix, Arizona. Former Vice President for Marketing and Public Affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Sarah Ditlinger, Senior Manager of Marketing and Strategic Engagement at Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio.