How do we create art in a crisis?

by Alex Moran

When the conflict of World War One loomed in the Spring of 1914, recruitment posters depicting valiant, smiling servicemen drew millions of young men to the frontline. They lurched into a living hell, fuelled by the horrors of mechanised warfare. In the blink of an eye, the world they knew had vanished. But in the midst of death and devastation, art was created. For poet Isaac Rosenberg, bullets became the “swift iron burning bee that “drained the wild honey of their youth”. Wilfred Owen wrote of “cartridges of fine zinc teeth, sharp with the sharpness of grief and death”.

Away from the frontline, there was a need amongst refugee artists for solidarity and understanding; a need to collectively comprehend the chaos. As a neutral territory, Switzerland quickly became a haven for refugee artists and intellectuals from across Europe in which to gather, with James Joyce and Lenin among them. Cafes in Zurich became hubs for artistic collaboration and discourse. German theatre director and writer Hugo Ball likened it to “a birdcage, surrounded by roaring lions”. Invigorated by the flourishing community, Ball opened a nightclub, Cafe Voltaire, where he founded the art movement “Dada”. A deliberately infantile word with many meanings, from “father” in English to “rocking horse” in Romanian, Dada symbolised a collective rebirth. Dadaists rejected established art forms that represented an irrelevant past, so they could grapple with the present. As Dada artist Marcel DuChamp defaced a Mona Lisa print with a moustache, his contemporary Hannah Höch merged man, woman and machine in satirical collages, like Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife.

Although many of these works have endured the test of time, many creative endeavours have floundered due to sudden twists in the world narrative. An incredible example is Hitler and Goebbel’s Titanic movie epic that remains in relative obscurity even now. They poured the contemporary equivalent of 150 million pounds into their propaganda project. In their portrayal of events, a German First Officer struggled to warn an arrogant British crew of an iceberg ahead; a plotline that certainly pushed creative licence considering no German officers were aboard the Titanic. But as the Reich crumbled, Hitler and Goebbels realised that their nearly complete disaster film no longer represented the fall of the British Empire, but the fall of the Reich. They hastily abandoned and suppressed the project.

Other movies of the era managed to survive reality’s twists and turns through frantic revisionism. In Hollywood, spy feature Across the Pacific, written by Richard Macauley and scheduled for release in 1942, told the story of a spy foiling the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. When fiction became history, production ground to a halt so Panama Canal could replace Pearl Harbor in the narrative. There was far less room for introspection or second guessing as the creative industry struggled to capture a world in flux. They tried nevertheless. In that same year, the Board of Motion Pictures issued a government information manual for filmmakers to consult whilst devising their projects. Each filmmaker was asked ‘Will this picture help win the war?’ This question influenced classics like Casablanca, Brief Encounter and The Great Dictator. It also brought us movies that felt more like wartime posters, like Blondie for Victory, a feature about a woman organising the Housewives of America to perform wartime duties, and Der Fuehrer’s Face, an anti-Nazi animation short starring Donald Duck. Victory became the creative priority.

Only in the wake of surrender and the Atomic Bomb was humanity finally given the space and time to recover. To reflect and redefine. Postwar film noir resonated profoundly with the masses who no longer saw the world in Technicolor. Audiences were compelled to follow straight-talking, sardonic private detective Philip Marlowe unravel dark, complex mysteries in The Big Sleep (1946), or join Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant as they infiltrated a Nazi organisation in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). In Orson Welles’ The Third Man (1949), cinematographer Robert Krasker’s employed the Dutch angle, a canted camera angle, to portray postwar Vienna, leaving audiences disoriented, and mesmerised. In Italy, neorealism was born and paved the way for films like Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine that told of poverty and the working class, using real locations and non-professional actors. Director Robert Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1948) used this method to portray Berlin in postwar ruin through the eyes of a twelve-year old boy. It seemed the rawness of reality needed to be confronted intimately so that the world could slowly heal.

Even in war, the power of community and the need to tell stories prevails. In the UK, actors were treading the boards of theatres as bombs dropped around them. In the US, 90 million people packed cinemas every week as the war raged on. There was that sense of community, and solidarity, that a certain level of freedom of movement allowed.

But as we know, when the threat is invisible, and in the air we breathe, communities are unavoidably separated. As The Great War dominated the world stage, the Spanish Flu silently killed millions. Countless stories remain untold, unfinished, leaving a black hole in history. War, forced isolation and limited technology all played their part in making the Spanish Flu the “forgotten pandemic”. But it seems there was a reluctance to confront the pandemic in the artistic community too. Virginia Woolf later reflected on literature’s aversion to illness generally: “it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature … the solitude of the bedroom against the assault of fever or the oncome of melancholia, are neglected.” Illness has no political agenda to attack, no human follies to satirise. It trivialises our ambitions by severing us from them, through isolation, sickness and even death. Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, known for The Kiss, and his protege Egon Schiele were among the artists who succumbed to the flu, leaving unfinished works. But those who survived continued. Edvard Munch painted a self-portrait of himself with the flu, and another when he had recovered. Author Katherine Ann Porter, who came very close to death, drew on her illness to pen her award-winning trilogy Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Art survived the Spanish Flu. Just.

As the pandemic came to an end in 1920, a simian immunodeficiency virus silently emerged in the Democratic Republic of Congo, likely transferring from apes to human hunters. We know it today as HIV. It eventually spread from Africa to the Caribbean in the 1960s, and from there to New York in the 1970s. Towards the end of that decade, aspiring artist Keith Haring moved to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts. His political chalk drawings on the New York subway quickly established him as an accessible, vital voice in the city’s art scene. As a gay man living in 1980s New York, the AIDs epidemic became inextricably linked to his art and activism. HIV claimed the lives of Haring’s friends and contemporaries, but obfuscation and lies pervaded the nation. People believed they could catch it from a kiss or cough. President Ronald Reagan was silent on the matter for years before opting for prejudiced rhetoric: “when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?”  He and religious groups refused to allow HIV education in schools at the risk of advocating, as Reagan stated, “an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I”.

Keith Haring joined Act Up, a gay rights collective that fought for the dispelling of myths and prejudices so the virus could be understood and, if not cured, managed. Their emblem, a pink triangle, can be seen on perhaps Haring’s most famous work, Ignorance = Fear / Silence = Death, a fervent rally cry for action. While Haring protested, two tenacious friends, Leigh Blake and John Carlin, pushed for a communal response to the virus on the music scene. Their unlikely angle was “to create an AIDS charity album with pop stars singing Cole Porter songs”. It worked. Sinead O’Connor, David Byrne and Annie Lennox were among the artists who contributed to the first compilation of Red, Hot + Blue, which sold over one million copies worldwide. Several more compilations followed under Blake and Carlin’s Red Hot Organization. If it were not for the likes of Haring, Act Up, and the Red Hot Organization, ignorance and silence would have continued to prevent progress.

When Haring himself was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, he continued to work, his garish, intricate style now imbued with a painful sense of urgency. He knew he was leaving a fight long before it was over, so in a lasting meta-statement that rose above his sickness and mortality, he left one of his final paintings deliberately incomplete. He died on February 16, 1990.

Artists living through crises, whether it be pandemics, epidemics or war, have something in common: the need to tell the truth. Dadaists debunked the lingering art of the past with the perils of the present. As soldiers smiled on wartime posters, Wilfred Owen wrote of “a hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin”. No matter how horrific or personal the truth is, artists confront it. Munch’s ailing frame became his subject. The sickness in Katherine Ann Porter’s body became the antagonist of her next novel. In response to his mortality, Keith Haring made a canvas his epitaph.

The truth isn’t always easy to grasp or understand. Sometimes it forces us to step back and reimagine, like Richard Macaulay did when bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. Yet if we evade it, it can leave our delusions in a shadow the size of the Titanic. 

Pandemics have left gulfs in art and history that couldn’t be avoided during times when technology was primitive. Luckily, things are much different now. Although we are currently isolated, we have a window to everyone and everywhere else. We can enjoy digital gallery tours, streamed theatre, and rock concerts performed from living rooms. We can play music together from a distance, congregate virtually for debates, or stand up comedy. Whereas artists had to travel to cafes in Zurich to find their forums, we can find ours online without moving from our seats. Our doubts, fears and hopes can be ‘liked’ and retweeted across continents within seconds. The headlines can be stark and sobering, but at least we know about them. We can stay connected, educated, and in doing so nurture our own creative spirit.

Admittedly, technology can only do so much. Some of these shifts to digital platforms will open our eyes to new forms and mediums of artistic expression. But some of these alternatives are simply substitutes. We can only watch theatre online for so long. As convenient as a cinema streaming service can be, it isn’t cinema. As social creatures, we will find a way to gather in the aisles again as the lights go down. But until then, we can be grateful for the modern technology that keeps us connected.

There is the risk that facing our new and shifting reality as artists could be a demoralising endeavour. Even though it can be cathartic to express a truth we see, it can exhaust us too. But our new reality is, in many ways, a positive one. Through being forced into isolation, we are finally seeing our invasion of the natural environment for what it really is. We have been given the opportunity for a collective rebirth, be it new career paths, a change in our personal philosophies, or the chance to restructure society for the better. We don’t know what our new norm will look like, but we will face new truths, and it’s up to us which ones we identify and embrace as artists.

So how do we create art in a crisis? We stay connected and tell the truth.

Alex Moran is a writer and screenplay analyst from Liverpool, England. You can follow him @AlexMoranWriter.