The New Abnormal: Artists were built for this
Posted April 9th, 2020 by Russ White
How tripping on a dogwalk helped me understand this shitstorm a little better
I realized not too long ago that walking is a delusion. It feels calm, controlled, coordinated — utterly normal. But then, out walking my dogs one day, my toe caught on an uneven bit of sidewalk. I tripped, and for just an instant time slowed down: inertia carried me forward, but my foot was not there to catch me. My body lurched in a state of panicked instinct, my foot shot out, and I caught myself at the last moment. My shoulders flushed with acid adrenaline, and the dogs looked up at me like "You okay, dude?" Then it occurred to me: walking is an act of constant free-fall.
Our current crisis has reminded me a lot of that moment. This pandemic has caught our collective toe on the sidewalk and revealed the degree to which we’ve been one step away from free-fall the whole time. The casual brutalities that are baked into our systems have been laid bare, pitting the health of the public against the health of the economy: who gets treatment, who gets protective equipment, who gets assistance, and who still needs to do our dirty work. One hope from all this is that we finally realize the word “menial” is synonymous with “essential” (and should be paid accordingly).
Now a few weeks into our isolation, many of us are back to putting one foot in front of the other, looking to regain some normalcy, some balance, and hopefully some income. We are working, baking, exercising, wrangling children. Bingeing Netflix, maybe. Some of these footfalls are routine but others are pivots, responding to the circumstances with new technology and new initiatives, like SooVAC’s MN Art Mart and Springboard’s Emergency Relief Fund. Just last week, MRAC forewent the final round of Next Step Fund jurying and simply gave the award to all 72 finalists, putting unrestricted money directly into their hands. And despite having to cancel this year's Art-A-Whirl, NEMAA is currently working to recreate the experience online.
On a broader scale, artist talks and studio visits have moved online, providing a real-time crash course in communication across multiple platforms. Some artists are exploring new opportunities for sales and service as well, cranking out homemade masks and hand sanitizers to meet the needs of the moment. Here at MPLSART, we’re pivoting as well, working to rethink how an art events calendar can best serve a world without actual art events. (Towards that end, please keep us up to date on all your virtual events at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
There’s no telling what new habits, methods, and innovations will stick with us beyond this crisis. Videoconferencing, remote working, homeschooling, hyper-hygiene — who knows if these will become our new normal? It’s fascinating to wonder what of it will stay and what will fade into memory, years from now, as we recall those strange few months of doom & Zoom.
In the meantime, here and now, we are looking for answers day by day. And in their absence, we’re looking for comfort. No surprise, we are finding it in the arts. From the music of Bill Withers and John Prine to the gaudy insanity of Tiger King, art is here to help us get through this grief and this fear.
As the crisis continues, though, stretching out now over months instead of weeks, a lot of folks are realizing that this is a marathon, not a sprint. That the breathless output of quarantine content is unsustainable. For those of you still running ahead, I say good for you, keep going. The rest of us will catch up at our own pace. Some walking, some jogging, some stopped altogether, simply sitting with our existential dread. Some days are harder than others, especially when you take a moment to read the news. It’s astounding, really, the vicious ineptitude coming from our country’s highest echelons, and it can hurt your heart to see. Some of these assholes would charge admission to a life raft.
But there is still much hope to be found on a local level, from competent governors to tireless health care workers to the hand-drawn rainbows stuck in my neighbors’ windows. The hashtag AloneTogether still makes me chuckle, but if there’s one thing that artists in the Twin Cities have taught me, it’s the importance of community. Ours is tight-knit and fiercely supportive, even from a safe distance.
Still, the odds are stacked against artists financially. We’re already the lowest rung on the ladder even in our own industry. Events have been cancelled, galleries shuttered, and sales opportunities postponed, but the bills keep coming. And, to add insult to injury, most of us have garbage health insurance. Artists, like many Americans, have always been running full-tilt, one stumble away from that free-fall face-plant.
At the same time, I can’t help but think that artists are built for moments like this. We’re scrappy: we’re used to working against bad odds with limited resources. This social isolation that’s so jarring to everyone else is a way of life for us, sequestered away in our studios. And, at the end of the day, we were going to make this stuff anyway, whether or not it was going to sell.
Perhaps most vital to this moment: artists imagine new futures. We’ve had to adjust to a lot of “new normals” over the past three years, but the truth is that a lot of them were same-old same-old, just with the volume turned up. The COVID-19 crisis is certainly new and most definitely abnormal, but it has shined a spotlight on the cracks in our society that have always been there. It has revealed what a luxury it is to simply have good health to protect and a home in which to shelter. It has highlighted race and class disparities; even my metaphor of walking underscores the privilege of ability. No surprise again, the way we’ve organized the world, that marginalized groups are bearing the brunt of this crisis.
It seems to me the greatest tragedy of all would be to learn nothing from this moment, to run full sprint back to that old normal. It’s time to move forward carefully, thoughtfully, to build new structures on more solid ground. That’s what we’re doing here, looking for sure footing with each step forward. It may be a long summer, now that the beaches are closed, but we’ll get through it. Together, apart, however you like to think about it. In the meantime, stay safe, make art, buy art, and send memes. We could all use a good laugh. ◼︎
Banner image: Russ White, Fits & Starts (one in a series), mixed media on paper, 10 x 8". For more, visit the artist's website.