This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Wilfred Owen’s planned preface to his Great War Collection.
Significant and traumatic crises in human history are often followed by unique works of art driven by their impact on the psyche of artists. The attitudes and emotions conveyed through artistic expressions of crisis can be an informative guide on the lived experience of individuals in times of great political, societal, and economic pressure. Today, lockdowns, economic collapse, and loss of life felt across the globe have already begun to influence and create a unique body of art.
But before looking at this nascent but significant body of COVID-19 art, it is important to understand the relationship art has with crisis. Crises’ significant effect on all areas of human life has led to its large thematic impact on the art world. Crisis acts as a significant influence on the art of its time.
One of the most famous collections of crisis art is English poet Wilfred Owen’s Great War poetry. Published posthumously after Owen’s death in the final week of the war at Sambre-Oise Canal, France, poems such as 'Dulce et Decorum est' and 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' describe misguided nationalism, the indignity of death in the trenches, and the overwhelming horror of the conflict. They are an insight into a human experience of crisis and the emotions that accompany it.
"Whilst art produced during crisis is often an instant snapshot of the conditions of the time, art produced after has the benefit of hindsight and reflection."
Verlag Karl Nierendorf - Verwundeter' (Herbst 1916, Bapaume) [Wounded soldier - Autumn 1916, Bapaume], plate 6 from Der Krieg [The War] 1924 © Otto Dix/Copyright Agency.
The art of German painter and printmaker Otto Dix addresses similar themes, albeit from the other side of the trenches. In his Der Krieg series of prints, Dix’s 'Verwundeter' depicts a soldier with a mangled body and a contorted face staring out in shock and fear. The print was unveiled in 1924 and conveys the horrific aspects of conflict and the indignity of a soldier’s death.
The works of Owen and Dix are an expression of the specific conditions that they experienced during the Great War as soldiers serving in the trenches but they also go further than this. The themes that the works express are now considered paradigmatic of the Great War and provide valuable insight from the European and American perspectives during and after the war.
It is also worth noting that, although Owen’s poems and Dix’s series are of the Great War, their work came at very different times: Owen’s poetry is contemporary and raw, coming at the very beginning of artistic depictions of the subject of the Great War. Dix’s works are more reflective, produced around 7 years after the war ended. Whilst art produced during crisis is often an instant snapshot of the conditions of the time, art produced after has the benefit of hindsight and reflection.
Comparatively speaking, it looks like art influenced by the Coronavirus crisis is in its Owen, or even its pre-Owen phase. Nearly every state in the world is dealing with immediate medical and economic consequences of the virus. In cities like New York and London, the worst of COVID-19 has only just been constrained to places of medical care, such as hospitals and nursing homes, whilst the worst of the economic impact is yet to be felt. In developing states, on the other hand, daily infection rates are still at all-time highs and the World Bank estimates that millions in developing countries will be tipped into poverty due to the global economic recession.
"...while in developed states, feelings of gratitude towards health workers have taken center stage, in developing states, art has served a vital function that reflects the seriousness of the crisis."
Current themes within artwork influenced by COVID-19 naturally reflect the continuance and immediacy of the pandemic. However, while in developed states, feelings of gratitude towards health workers have taken centre stage, in developing states, art has served a vital function that reflects the seriousness of the crisis.
In the United Kingdom, famous street artist Banksy has produced a tribute to the nurses of the NHS. The image of a young child holding a ‘super’ nurse aloft underlines the seemingly superhuman efforts of the medical workers on the front-line of the pandemic. The piece reflects the ongoing gratitude of the public to the crucial contribution of front-line health workers that have been invaluable in the effort to prevent medical catastrophe.
Artwork by Banksy appeared at Southampton General Hospital, 6th May 2020.
In Australia, the emptiness of inner cities created by a nation-wide lockdown has created perfect conditions for street artists. Street artist LUSHSUX echoes the frustration among Australians regarding the Chinese Government’s role in the crisis through his mural on a Melbourne wall of Xi Jinping saying, “Nothing to see, carry on.” Crisis art often addresses the political undercurrents within societies, and COVID-19 is no different, with many in Australia and the rest of the world demanding that China take some responsibility for its role in exacerbating the pandemic.
@ LUSHSUX - "Nothing to see, carry on".
"...art and policy do often have a close relationship during (and after) crises."
In India, artwork has been crucial in communicating the risks of Coronavirus. In a nation of more than a billion people and poor government communication, artwork has served as an informal mechanism for conveying vital information about the virus to the public.
This graffiti in the middle of the street in Rajasthan is a reminder to citizens to stay at home due to the high risk of infection associated with COVID-19. This phenomenon is not new: art and policy do often have a close relationship during (and after) crises. Post-Great War British art, for example, was primarily driven by the British government’s desire to fund a body of art that would save depictions of the crisis for posterity.
Vishal Bhatnagar/Nurphoto via Getty Images.
These works of art are just the beginning of what will likely amount to a significant period within the art world. As populations continue to struggle with the detrimental impacts of the coronavirus, we are much nearer the time of Owen’s contemporaneous poetry than Dix’s delayed and reflective Der Krieg series. As circumstances relating to the crisis change and hopefully abate, the content and style of Coronavirus-influenced art will undoubtedly change with it. Gratitude towards front-line health workers, calls for accountability, and art doubling as a public service announcement are just glimpses of the movement(s) and motifs within contemporary art that this crisis will come to be known for.