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Visual Arts Thrived In A Tumultuous 2020


Many people in the arts worried, and still do, how arts groups, enterprises and artists will survive this year of the pandemic with so many venues closed. But Ben Luke, the review editor and podcast host of The Art Newspaper website, says that he's been heartened to see visual arts endure and, in some respects, even thrive. We reached him in Nailsworth, England. Mr. Luke, thanks for being with us.

BEN LUKE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Museums and galleries, as a rule, have been closed. How have visual arts survived?

LUKE: They're struggling. I think that's, you know, the most important thing to say about what's happened during the pandemic, is it's revealed how very precarious the arts are. And that network, that ecosystem of the art world is extremely fragile, and it needs certain mechanisms to be in place, certain social activities to be in place and certain connections between people. And it must be said that it has struggled. It's - you know, it is pretty desperate, it must be said. Yeah, yeah.

SIMON: But you believe, at the same time, some individual artists have shown how art thrives?

LUKE: Yes. I think so. And I think, globally, there was - you know, if you take these two monumental events in 2020, the coronavirus and the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests - how does art respond to those life-changing, seismic events? And I wondered if art would dwindle, you know, if artists would struggle to speak to this moment. But what I found is that actually they have responded. And also just the very fact that when the very day that Biden-Harris found out - could finally announce that they'd won this election, whatever Mr. Trump says, they used art to convey what they wanted to tell the American people. They said to them - they took - they made this video based on a 1983 artwork by Lorraine O'Grady called "Art Is," in which she framed people in Harlem on the African American Day Parade. They converted those photographs for 2020 into a vision for America's future.

SIMON: Yeah. You've - you believe a great many artists have kind of stepped up one way or another.

LUKE: Definitely, yeah. I mean, an artist based in LA called Christina Quarles - I interviewed her recently. And her paintings - they're figurative paintings about the human body, specifically about what it is to occupy a body rather than to look at a body. What is really powerful about the way that she has responded to it is that she's, in a way, incorporated the conditions of - that we're all living in this era of the virus into her work. So this experience of being screened, of being masked and having our interaction with people so curtailed, of being so isolated - she's found ways to incorporate that in her paintings in a really powerful way.

SIMON: Yeah. What should we learn about this? What have we learned and what should we take - keep in our minds and hearts for the future?

LUKE: I think we should respect the fact that the mechanisms, the models for funding the arts, the models for funding our museums, our non-profits are fundamentally flawed, that there is too much reliance on - in America, particularly its private individuals who are the trustees of the museums. And when that is threatened by an event like coronavirus, you really do realize that actually state-funded museums in Europe, for instance, seem to be surviving it better where there is a commitment from the state to the public value of art institutions, of museums to the common good.

SIMON: Mr. Luke, can you can you give us something we can look up right now and be inspired by?

LUKE: OK. Why don't you look up Mark Bradford's Quarantine Paintings? Mark Bradford is an LA-based artist, one of the great American artists of today, I think. And he made - in quarantine, he made an extraordinary body of work, which is called Quarantine Paintings. And he has had to work all by himself for the first time in 10 years. He normally has assistants working with him. So he scaled it down, but he scaled it down to his own body and the span of his arms. And what these paintings to me talk about are a man grappling with his process of art-making today but also the city he lives in and how that city has been utterly changed by this terrible time.

SIMON: I'm familiar with Mark Bradford. I just looked up what you're talking about - incredibly vital.

LUKE: Yeah.

SIMON: They stir you.

LUKE: Indeed. And I think that's what we need, isn't it? And art can be a great companion. You know, when we're all isolated, actually, art has a sustaining power, like poetry and great literature, that really pulls us through moments like this.

SIMON: Ben Luke is review editor and podcast host at The Art Newspaper website. Thanks so much.

LUKE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.