Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / The current of disgust, loathing, and anger in the liberal white consciousness has been pretty steady since Donald Trump was elected president, extinguishing a delicate consensus that the country was moving in more or less in the right direction. Of course, for people like me – white, male, late boomer/early Gen-X – day-to-day life had not been directly affected; in that sense, our despair over the country’s loss of heart and direction is merely vicarious. Unlike George Floyd, the black man who died as a result of a Minneapolis policeman’s excessive force, I have had all the relative advantages and favorable presumptions, will continue to enjoy most of them even in Trump’s scabrous America. Middle-class imperviousness to turmoil and despair is nothing new, and in the past has actually been a source of national optimism. In the sixties, upheaval was normal if disconcerting. I delivered the Evening Star in Washington, DC, from 1967–69, and remember appreciating in 1968 just how troubled our times must have been when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated a mere two months after Martin Luther King Jr. and less than five years after John F. Kennedy. All of that chaos, though, came with an overlay of fierce idealism and hope, and many of us believed that those qualities survived the decade, if only barely.
The Watergate-punctuated seventies were an enervating comedown, the eighties obdurately hedonistic, but the halcyon nineties appeared to restore some political balance to the national identity. While 9/11 traumatized the country and George W. Bush set it back with reactive jingoism and illiberalism, Barack Obama, our first African-American president, seemed to redeem the liberal achievements and principles of the 1960s by virtue of his electoral victory per se and then his distinctive brand of compassionate cool. But the dialectic swung terribly out of whack as Obama’s benevolent humanism yielded drastically to Trump’s malign narcissism. Whatever was latently wrong with this country was far more toxic and profound than many people had understood. Contemporary politics have imposed an existential burden on most Americans, obliterating any sense of the United States as a warts-and-all emblem of social or political progress and able leadership, and the national pride that derived from that status. Confirming this condition is Trump’s lack of sympathy for Mr. Floyd and similar victims; symptomatic of it are the impassioned demonstrations, some of them met with violence, prompted by his tragic death.
Against this bleak backdrop, Covid-19, having hit the United States inordinately hard, can feel like a palpable reckoning for a fallen polity. Certainly the pandemic has presented America’s brutish Republican leaders with a challenge they cannot lie or bully into submission, and fully revealed their malice, fraudulence, and incompetence. This exposure would hasten a big, salutary political shift if American institutions were ultimately to work. But they are under attack, have faltered for three years and counting, and may continue to do so, delaying – or foreclosing – America’s comeback. Artists, most of whom gnaw at the margins of social comfort anyhow, are deeply affected at this pivotal juncture. If it were only a matter of supply-side economics, the Covid-19 crisis might just ruthlessly cull their ranks by eliminating their day jobs and forcing them to rethink their careers. Yet wholesale crisis of this magnitude tends to create an overriding demand for extraordinary art – art that faithfully and penetratingly records a singular tragic moment, catches its nuances, and tries to make sense of it.
It’s a virtual truism that epic disaster elicits great works that plumb its significance. You need look no farther than Picasso’s Guernica or Alberto Burri’s burned and mended oeuvre. Disease in particular has inspired (and occasionally claimed the lives of) some of the finest artists of their eras, from Brueghel the Elder, Titian, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio to Klimt and Munch and Schiele to Robert Gober, Keith Haring, and David Wojnarowicz. Raising perhaps the most natural and immediate expectations now are polemical visual essayists in the vein of Hans Haacke and William Powhida, audacious social commentators like Kerry James Marshall, grand narrative ones à la Nicole Eisenman, incisive decoders of psychological dynamics such as David Humphrey, and sardonic snipers like Raymond Pettibon and Peter Saul. Intense and provocative abstract painters – Torkwase Dyson and Tomashi Jackson come to mind – should also have a great deal to say. But there will also be younger artists, yet unknown or at least uncelebrated, who are willing to struggle against amplified hardships and emerge from the present miasma as clarion voices of this generation. Covid-19 is a human catastrophe that has reflected and exacerbated political iniquity. It’s also a cultural draft notice to those who would help rescue their world.