As COVID-19 evolves and we find ourselves facing an unprecedented moment in time, we all have to learn to look within.
As a painter, tattooer, adjunct professor, and art journalist, the pandemic has me thinking about the significance of art and creativity amidst all my fears. Tattoo shops are closed for business in my area. The university I teach at has resorted to remote teaching until the fall semester of 2020. Things changed so quickly, but one thing never does: I am an artist.
After I calmed myself and stopped obsessing over every new bit of news, I started contemplating my art book selection. Reading about what art, beauty, sublimity, and tragedy mean for the greatest thinkers of our known history is incredibly strengthening.
As part of my studies, I have to read the writings of a German philosopher named Arthur Schopenhauer. My understanding is that Schopenhauer has a pessimistic view of existence and that our desire to self-preserve produces our sufferings. However, art, he claims, becomes a way for us to think about the eternal. It provides solace from the suffering caused by our desires. He thinks art is one of the only things that can give us momentary relief from our pain.
In history, painted altarpieces often served as comforting images for people suffering from illness. The Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald is an exceptionally beautiful example of a devotional work of art that served this purpose. It was the central object on display for a hospital created by the Brothers of St. Anthony. St. Anthony was the patron saint of those suffering from skin diseases. Those sufferers in the hospital could see the suffering of St. Anthony on the altarpiece and know that they were not alone in their pain.
Other examples made for the purpose of spiritual contemplation through images are the incredible altarpiece by Peter Paul Rubens’s “Christ Appointing Saint Roch as Patron Saint of Plague Victims,” and Anthony Van Dyck’s “Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo.” The patron saint depicted in an image was believed to act on behalf of his or her believers. This is an instance in which a work of art served as a catalyst for one’s spiritual beliefs in a time of hardship.
Looking at beautiful art images always calms me down and gives me peace, even if they’re not necessarily devotional. Though the coronavirus limits my access to view art in person, I can still view art in books or on electronic devices like my laptop or phone. I personally love artists like William Bouguereau and Jean Leon Gerome for their compositions and their ability to depict the human spirit in expression and painting techniques. The subtle purples and yellows in Bouguereau’s flesh tones always excite the artist in me, and the crisp forms and sparkling color of Gerome inspire me.
Traditional art, done with exceptional mastery works in an uplifting way as we admire the greatness and beauty. The Daily Mail reported on a study that recorded longer looking times for traditional art as opposed to contemporary art in museums.
I will be using some of my free time over the next several weeks to take my time and really look closely at traditional art that I enjoy, to zoom in and ask, “how did the artist accomplish this form or these colors?” To zoom out and ask, “why did the artist compose the elements this way?”
Doing more than looking at art and getting into the creative process yourself is the best you can do during times of solitude. According to an article entitled “The Healing Power of Art,” published by Harvard Medical School, “Studies have shown that expressing themselves through art can help people with depression, anxiety, or cancer. And doing so has been linked to improved memory, reasoning, and resilience in healthy older people. Recent research suggests that to stave off cognitive decline, doing creative activities may be more effective than merely appreciating creative works.”
Looking at art is only part of the process for me. I love making art. Something in me stirs when I put pencil to paper or brush to canvas. So during this period of potential isolation, I ask myself what creative activities can I do?
The sketchbook is an essential item for any artist. 20th-century illustrator, Howard Pyle, for instance, would do fifty sketches for a single illustration and stated, “If the first sketch looks like the one I want to do, to make sure—I always make the other forty-nine anyway.” Sketching is essential for exploring and developing ideas. New Masters Academy has several courses on sketchbooks and sketching, including “Watercolor/Gouache Sketchbooks” with Steve Huston and “ Sketching on Location” with Glenn Vilppu.
There is also the power of writing in a notebook, diary, or journal. Leonardo Da Vinci kept notebooks and wrote an average of three pages a day from the age of 26 to the age of 67. He pursued mastery and fame with the ideas in his notebooks and stated: “I intend to leave a memory of myself in the mind of others.”
Another of Leonardo’s quotes sits heavy with me. On his deathbed, Leonardo said, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.” This is a solemn reminder to use my time wisely and work with sincerity and authenticity toward the realization of my artistic pursuits. The art I create is not only about me or for me but is also for the people around me. In all honesty, why else make art if not to share it?
Eugene Delacroix also held a journal in which he discussed aspects of his daily life along with artistic musings. On beauty, he states, “Of which beauty will you speak? There are many: there are a thousand: there is one for every look, for every spirit, adapted to each taste, to each particular constitution.” This is a perfect opportunity to explore what I understand beauty to be in my own personal journal. Maybe, if I’m honest and open enough with myself, I’ll find that my understanding of beauty isn’t as absolute as I may have once thought.
This crisis makes us feel more isolated from one another, but we are in this together. Though I can’t determine how this pandemic will affect me physically, I can choose how I will react to it spiritually and emotionally. I will continue to read, study, make and share art with a positive attitude.
I will read the philosophical inquiries into the nature of beauty and its effects on subjectivity; I will consider the power of viewing art from both technical and spiritual standpoints; I will draw out ideas for later work in a sketchbook, and write ideas and poetry in a notebook or journal. Schopenhauer is on to something when he suggests that art provides a way for us to transcend our sufferings.