By David Egan
Amid the tragedy of COVID-19, the artists on Instagram’s @CovidArtMuseum (891 posts, 171k followers) have been cranking out content. They take pictures of people kissing with masks on, slide a nose swab up the nostril of Botticelli’s Venus, and arrange one man’s chest hair to read “stay home.” The art is not good. But neither are the broader trends of contemporary design and photography it reflects, a style that assumes mediocre form and superficial content can be redeemed by social consciousness and a benevolent cause. The Covid Art Museum makes me uneasy, not because the artists are having fun during the pandemic, but because their fun is the pandemic, which has killed 4.9 million people worldwide.
The artists, like all of us, are faced with the threat of COVID. But they don’t choose fight or flight. They don’t confront the social, political or economic realities of the pandemic head-on, nor do they fully ignore it, turning a blind eye. The artists choose a third option, because why fight or flee when you can reconstrue the threat? Conceptualize, trivialize, simply. With no apparent philanthropic goals, the Covid Art Museum is a labor of apotropaic magic, warding off fear by way of symbols. The page is an accidentally poignant reflection of our response to COVID, rife with symbolic action in its own way. The museum is not a problem in itself, but reflects a risk we constantly run: by trivializing our biggest problems we might make it more difficult to solve them.
Painting precautionary measures like masks and distancing as visual motifs of the COVID age rather than health imperatives, the account trivializes the same measures they promote. This reflects the problem with addressing socio-political issues on Instagram: too much unearned moral righteousness, not enough genuine research and argumentation. If one’s goal is to encourage people who aren’t social distancing to social distance, writing “stay the fuck away from people” in Crayon (as one Covid Art Museum post does) is a dubious method.
The pandemic seen through the Covid Art Museum is neither manageable nor hopeless, just so overwhelming and out of control that it becomes appropriate subject matter for tongue-in-cheek IG posts. Common themes appear: mask wearing (people kissing with them on, as if the masks would do anything at that point), syringes, viruses, content about staying home and the occasional entreaty to do so. The posts are visually sterile and seem mass-produced, as if made by some computer algorithm. It’s hard not to wonder if the artists made these posts to include on their CV. It’s hard not to wonder why the account hasn’t raised any money for donation(s), an initiative which would use their 171,000 followers for good. With a big platform comes big responsibility.
The Covid Art Museum is uncanny, not only because of its off hand treatment of mass-infection, but also because it makes conscious the hazy symbolic gestures that have defined the pandemic. I see the symbolism of COVID in the choices by politicians to wear or not wear a mask, as well as in places such as outdoor restaurants, where people wear the mask to their table but take it off while eating, or on planes, where everyone removes it at once to eat and drink. Like Ancient Greek offerings to avert the gods, our COVID efforts seem to be less medical necessities than they are apotropaion, warding off harmful influences. What is six feet but the distance between which unseen evils lurk? “Three feet will suffice,” Fauci updated in March 2020, exemplifying our speculative and inevitably arbitrary efforts to fight nature’s wrath. Rules for thee but not for me: one cannot forget maskless Nancy Pelosi at a hair appointment in September 2020 or Gavin Newsom at a dinner party the following month. The Covid Art Museum reinforces the symbolic nature of certain pandemic protocols. In photos of people kissing with masks on, the masks suggest we can get close, but not close enough. The self-imposed inconvenience becomes a tragically romantic motif. But they’re face to face nonetheless, still breathing on each other through the fabric. It remains a symbol.
Emptying the shelves of toilet paper, washing off groceries: the Covid Art Museum cannot have absurd art because the true absurd art is the culture’s response itself to COVID. The best artwork in the Covid Art Museum is the Covid Art Museum as a phenomenon: a sardonic performance of content-churning in a bloodbath. In the museum, the reality of COVID is abstracted out of sight. Viewers can’t see those who are financially impacted, or who died, or whose loved ones died. Aside from the insight one can glean from it, the Covid Art Museum has neither the emotional resonance of good art nor the solution-oriented persuasiveness of good politics.
The problem is if the Covid Art Museum becomes the primary way in which people conceptualize the pandemic. COVID is not all masks and quarantine. It’s been a disaster caused by the forces of nature, compounded by bankruptcies and business closures, unfit healthcare systems, protests and riots following George Floyd’s murder, and leadership that refuses to address these problems in a way that is reasonable, honest and comprehensive. Whether cartoons of Trump as a cheeto or the Covid Art Museum, art that trivializes our biggest problems may be counterproductive to our aims. We can reach greater individual fulfillment and societal improvement through art that is more personal, and politics that is less so.