If artists are the gatekeepers of culture, it follows that what influences art is what forms our understanding of the world. Epidemics are an example of the kind of historical events that impact artistic development by way of changing content and production. From expressing the tragedy of loss and finding solace in religion to focusing on the strength of the human spirit, artistic responses to epidemics have varied. By analyzing these responses, it becomes possible to understand historical events through an alternative perspective. This paper examines the relationship between epidemics and art and considers how this relationship changes over time. Through exploring the idea that art can alleviate pain, interpreting works that reflect contrasting traits of the human spirit, and recognizing how disease outbreaks have contributed to artistic development, a clear picture of the relationship between epidemics and art appears.
There is no time more pertinent than now to determine the nature of this relationship. The disease linked with the recent coronavirus outbreak, COVID-19, is likely to elicit responses from the art community just as previous epidemics did; in fact, its impact on the contemporary art scene is already discernable. Issues of public health shape our understanding of art by influencing the content produced, and art contributes to our experiences with epidemics by offering a way to relieve pain and stress. Nevertheless, I believe modern cultural phenomena, namely secularization and the rise of the internet, will change the nature of the relationship between epidemics and art by changing what is expressed as well as the way it is disseminated. Secularism will mean less overtly religious content in the art produced during this time, and although the internet may result in shallower or less noteworthy individual works, it will also enable a richer, increasingly participatory network within the art community.
As COVID-19 is completely changing life as we know it, it is crucial to understand the role art can play in relief. Recent studies mark the impact of forms of treatment involving music and visual arts for people suffering from various ailments. Arts are linked with a range of therapeutic outcomes, including “reduced anxiety and depression, improved pain management, effects on vital signs such as blood pressure, reduced need for medication and reduced length of stay in hospital” (Daykin). This study and others point to the fact that art can aid people in the process of recovering from serious issues. I believe this serves as further proof to a point that has been made countless times throughout history but is strikingly powerful nonetheless: art offers a way for us to cope with many serious difficulties that we may face.
One such difficulty was the Plague of Athens in the first century BCE. Epicurean philosopher Lucretius wrote a philosophical poem, De Rerum Natura, or The Nature of Things, which concludes with the first recorded instance of an epidemic (see Figure 1). He wrote that people “would fall drooping, and their bodies would lie thrust together into the recess of a hut, given over to death by poverty and disease. On lifeless children you might often have seen the lifeless bodies of parents, and again, children breathing out their life upon mothers and fathers” (Lucretius 278). The vivid and grisly imagery speaks to the ferocity of the plague and the harshness of having to witness it. By describing the details of the infection, Lucretius’s work “plunges into the tragic mode that the horror of the plague elicited” (Mazzotta). Given that the description of the plague is the thematic conclusion to the poem, academics have ascertained that Lucretius was inspired by the idea of mortality. Epidemics inspire thinkers to reflect upon the state of humanity, resulting in art that may indicate a sense of futility or cynicism.
On the other hand, Giovanni Boccaccio is a celebrated writer expressing an opposing view. His magnum opus, The Decameron, whose introduction consists of a description of the Black Death of 1348-9, is less reflective of pain than De Rerum Natura. Its fundamental theme is the struggle between life and death in the face of the plague, and it serves to illustrate that people can be happy, prosperous, and creative even in the worst of times. Boccaccio, too, describes the gruesomeness of the plague, but he adds that “huge numbers of men and women abandoned their rightful homes, their relatives and their parents and their things, and sought out the countryside […] By doing this, each person believed they could preserve their health” (Boccaccio). Given that The Decameron follows ten people who decided to move to the countryside, the focus is placed on the idea of making the best of things. The opposing ideas of fear created by widespread death and the resilience of the human spirit can be discerned through literature written in response to epidemics.
New ways of using art to manage social or cultural phenomena are often developed in the aftermath of major outbreaks, showing that epidemics give rise to artistic innovation. For example, during the relatively recent HIV/AIDS outbreak in Africa, many people turned to music to help them deal with the crisis. According to ethnomusicologist Judah Cohen, the song “Afrique, Lève-Toi” or “Africa, Rise Up” is a perfect example of the general approach found in many artistic responses to the epidemic. In reference to the song’s lyrics, “while acknowledging the social and physical trauma the epidemic caused, they also encourage listeners to take action to minimize risk and to accept people infected with the disease. These messages are delivered over the song’s danceable groove, creating an overall effect of a feeling of hope and resilience in the face of catastrophe” (Cohen). The appearance of the then-novel approach of using music to spread information supports the point that epidemics give impetus to artistic development. Music can have a reassuring effect on whole communities impacted by epidemics, and the success of these innovations and movements attest to the resilience of artists as well as the power of art to inspire hope.
While on the subject of innovation and change, the visual art world saw a revival unlike no other after the worst years of the Black Death. In fact, historian John Aberth asserts that “Europe’s Renaissance was forged in the crucible of its terrible yet transcendent ordeal with the Black Death” (Aberth). In contemporary accounts of medieval history, the horrifying ordeal that stripped Europe of a third of its population is often overshadowed by the emergence of revolutionary Renaissance artists. A rich profusion of artists are known for their macabre art inspired by the plague, though not limited to the Renaissance period. For instance, Baroque painter Salvator Rosa mourned the loss of his family members who died during the second plague pandemic, including his son, brother, and sister. His pain can be discerned from the 1656 painting L’Umana Fragilita, or Human Frailty (see Figure 2). According to art historians at the University of Cambridge, “the transience of human life was a recurring theme in 17th century painting and thought, but for Rosa, in the year he made this painting, the subject had a tragic immediacy” (Fitzwilliam). Beyond the focal point consisting of a dark, winged skeleton looming over a mother and her child, the painting is teeming with symbols known as memento mori to remind the viewer of the inevitability of death. It also features the words “conception is a sin, birth is pain, life is toil, death a necessity.” Rosa’s anger at the world is clear. The plague outbreak was brutal, but his ability to channel his pain into the creation of a masterpiece paid off: its style became popularized after his death, and he is notorious for being an unorthodox trailblazer.
In order to find out whether the relationship between epidemics and art will remain unchanged, it seems prudent to compare ourselves to generations of the past. While some aspects, such as the utility we can derive from making art during stressful times, have remained consistent through the years, several substantial differences prevent the comparison from being drawn. As societies develop and globalization spreads, humanity becomes stronger and more stable. New technologies have introduced radical changes to our lifestyles, such as the internet and advancements in modern medicine that enable us to create vaccines. Notwithstanding social distancing measures, many (though not all) are able to work, consume, and function relatively normally in spite of a globalpandemic. Evincing this underlying distinction, J. N. Hays points out in his book Epidemics and Pandemics: Their Impacts on Human History that “historians who contrast the Middle Ages with modernity may likely emphasize the catastrophe of the Black Death as an event that forced change” (63). Implicit in his statement is the idea that epidemics no longer force major social changes.
Although epidemics have historically had tremendous impacts on art, recent developments lessen epidemics’ forcefulness. In his article “How 10 Artists Are Staying Creative Through COVID-19,” Scott Indrisek cites Brooklyn-based artist Volker Hüller as saying “the virus seems to bring people together in new ways such as sharing artworks and ideas more through social media platforms” (Indrisek). Taken together with Hays’s point about forced change, this excerpt points to an entirely different artistic response to an epidemic than any seen before. Social media allows artists to continue finding inspiration, creating, collaborating, and exhibiting their art even in the midst of a pandemic. Considering that there has never been an equivalent to the internet in the past, its impact during the current pandemic has been unprecedented. It has created an atmosphere that fosters communication, bonding, and a sense of fellowship in the art world that has never before been seen in the aftermath of an epidemic.
While it is true that the relative novelty of social media means its effect on art in the time of COVID-19 will be unique, it does not necessarily follow that its effect will remain positive. In the age of the digital, art has, for better or for worse, adapted to the presence of social media. This has raised questions about whether such an experience allows for the full appreciation of art. Many have claimed that the risk of operating extensively through social media is that art may become a tool of narcissism. A compilation of various opinions indicates that this is a point of contention in the art world. On the one hand, New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz claims that “over the last decade or so, the art world in peril has seemed to lose the ability to adapt” (Saltz). He claims that social media has essentially made space for laziness by allowing the scene to sustain itself by regurgitating its own paradigms, views, and mechanisms. Saltz’s words suggest that COVID-19, despite being one of the most virulent threats to public health in modern history, might produce artistic responses that are lesser in quality than those prompted by past epidemics.
On the other hand, others seem more optimistic. Frances Morris is the director of Tate Modern, the world’s most popular contemporary art gallery. She points out that “artists have always responded. After the first World War it was dada and surrealism; after the second, existentialism and gestural abstraction. Whatever the work looks like, it’ll be interesting” (Dickson). She emphasizes that disasters, a category that surely extends to include the current pandemic, typically result in the emergence of new movements and trends. Morris implies that there will always continue to be work. I agree that this is a fair assumption, since art is much stronger than just the systems that support it. My own view is that since artists are finding ways to continue making art during this period despite not having any way to exhibit their work at shows, galleries, or museums, the internet’s main role in this context is to provide a platform for the artists to share their work. Some of the work is bound to be less than genius, but any new movements will likely proliferate through social media, rendering social media ultimately helpful.
The rise of the internet is not the only factor that makes this period of time markedly different. Historically, epidemics had “enormous moral impacts on frightened and superstitiously religious populaces” (DesOrmeaux). The abundance of religious imagery in art following outbreaks speaks to how powerful the notion of divinity can be during times of crisis. One eminent art historian, Millard Meiss, argued in the twentieth century that the history of artistic development was emphatically shaped by social components of the Black Death (Knight). Meiss claimed that people’s fear, guilt, and in particular the varieties of their religious response to the Black Death, shaped the next century of art. My discussion of reactions to an ancient plague is in fact addressing the broader matter of religion. Be that as it may, society has undergone a collective decline in religiousness in recent years. According to the Wall Street Journal, “those who don’t identify with any religion now make up more than a quarter of the population, compared with 17% a decade ago” (Lovett). Without as much religious fervor in society, particularly in the contemporary art scene, it follows that the religious motifs and motivations found in much of the art created during and after epidemics, which definitively marked past responses to epidemics, will now be present to a much lesser degree. This seminal shift towards secularism suggests that COVID-19 could generate an artistic response significantly different from those in the past.
By understanding how epidemics have historically impacted art, it becomes evident that tumult in public health evokes certain changes to life that are broadly consistent across history and culture. Supported by evidence that creativity is helpful for both physical and mental well-being, works such as historical texts by Lucretius and Boccaccio about plagues, popular songs addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and Rosa’s macabre masterpiece all suggest that art can be a source of comfort and that, in turn, epidemics provide rich material for artistic growth. For better or for worse, facts of modern life such as the predominance of social media and the rise of secularism spell change. This pandemic is not impairing modern society in the same way historic pandemics did. It represents less of a threat, so artists may not be as inspired to create works that bear testament to the pain they experience. Regardless of the quality of the work, the art scene will keep developing even amidst this pandemic; no outbreak can endanger its undeniably resilient spirit. Art will keep healing and inspiring hope as it has for eons, but the way the coronavirus pandemic manifests in the art produced today will mark the start of a new era in the ever-intertwined histories of epidemics and art.
Aberth, John. The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History withDocuments. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005.
Cohen, Judah M., and Gregory F. Barz. The Culture of AIDS in Africa: Hope and HealingThrough Music and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Daykin, Norma. Arts, Health and Well-Being: A Critical Perspective on Research, Policy and Practice. London: Routledge, 2020.