Blog: The Pandemic and Creativity

Christine Alfery

Posted on May 09 2020

Blog: The Pandemic and Creativity

The pandemic has so many things shut down – including the art culture and livelihood of many artists. A recent survey of 10,000 American artists conducted by the non-profit arts organization United States Artists found that 62% of American artists are now fully unemployed. 95% have experienced income loss from COVID-19. The average decline in estimated total annual income is $27,103. 66% can’t access supplies/resources/spaces/people necessary for their creative work. 80% do not yet have a plan to recover from the crisis.

So how do we sustain the creative forces of the arts – the arts that make our culture so vibrant?

One suggestion is to access public funding, foundations, and corporations. However, if these entities have already been supporting the arts in our culture, how will this be different in a recovered art market? Will the hierarchical structure of the current art culture return with a vengeance when the economy picks up? Will those with money and power further govern art through their influence?

Remember the Federal Art Project during the Great Depression? There were many artists put to work creating murals for public places. Artists were instructed to paint the American scene. There are several of these murals on the University of Wisconsin Madison’s campus where I used to teach. The project’s funds supported artists like Rothko and Pollock for a time, as well as artists who are not known today.   

Federal funding may have paid those artists, but did those funds support the creativity employed by an artist? Did it support the energy that those artists create while being an artist? It is hard to be an artist – it is hard to muster up that creative force that drives an individual to become an artist. If my theory is correct, many artists would rather remain independent and do something else to put food on the table rather than allow themselves to be caught in the quagmire of being supported by the government. Many would say that type of support limits what they can and can’t do. How do you govern creativity? I know when I receive a commission to create a painting the creative energy put into that work is not the same as the creative energy when I approach a blank sheet of paper and think about what I want to say. Completely different.

"How do you govern creativity?"

Sure my supplies might run low, sure my income will change, but through struggle I may gain new inspiration and the drive to move forward without public funds. I do this to maintain my independence, individualism and uniqueness.  History shows us great artists who put up with hardship but continued to create no matter how. Miro used to paint on brown paper – wrinkled brown paper – that is all he could afford. And his palette was limited because supplies were limited and finances were limited. Manet too struggled and begged for money from his friends until a dealer discovered him and his life changed. Picasso struggled. Van Gogh struggled. Rembrandt struggled. 

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The work of these artists set new directions for the art arena. Their impact could not have occurred if they felt obligated like the court painters the preceded them.  Art has gone through many changes. Artists have always struggled. But for many of the greats who changed art history, they never sacrificed their independence and creativity. 

The answer to the crisis the pandemic has caused in the art world is not to repeat what wasn’t working anyway – funding governing creativity. The answer is for artists to continue to create – and to cherish their independence in what they are able to create. Even if it means struggle, even if it means being employed by other means. 

It is my hope that the struggles of today’s artists who continue to create for themselves will result in a shift so major that they will become this generation's art history greats.  

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