Viral Revolution: re-thinking art in the age of the coronavirus
“Any map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.” Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891).
The artist Matthew Burrows came up with an idea called the Artist Support Pledge. Its proposition is beautiful in its simplicity, as an emergency response to the COVID-19 lockdown. Artists post images of their work on Instagram which they are willing to sell for no more than £200 (excluding shipping). Each time an artist reaches £1,000 of sales, they pledge to spend £200 on buying another artist’s work. There is no agent, no gallerist, dealer or middleperson. The buyer can be anyone, who transacts directly with the artist through direct messaging. The model has been a lifeline for artists facing hardship. To date, Artist Support Pledge has over 350,000 posts on Instagram and has generated over £20 million for artists across the world, but the relationship is more than just buying art, these are very human acts of community solidarity, care, love, pleasure and kindness.
We have seen similar artistic acts of love through street and graffiti art praising the NHS and key workers, shop-workers, delivery drivers, carers, people who are essential to keeping society running and keeping us alive. In our isolation, we have felt a greater need to connect, to re-focus on the local and a sense of nationhood. Brexit was a dirty word in the arts, but unconsciously it has seeped into our imagination – buy local, value your community, care for the people around you, demand more political accountability, question the supply chain of production, interrogate the globalist notion that the free movement of labour is synonymous with the free movement of capital.
Under lockdown, we saw a surge of the creative amateur or non-professional artist, people slowed down, spending time in their gardens, a hyper-awareness of nature, the local wildlife, the crows in the park, the melodies of the birds singing in our garden, the emptiness of roads and absence of airplanes re-attuned us to appreciate our surroundings. Gardening, painting, drawing, sloganeering, instrumental music playing became welcomed distractions from the existential fear. There has been a spirit of artists helping out, making scrubs for health and care workers, and colourfully designed face-masks for the public. We have also become more conscious of over-production and over-consumption, a greater concern for welfare and working conditions, valuing quality over quantity.
Yet there is an existential despair of looking out into the world through the mediated screens of our laptops and smartphones, creating an algorithm of fear, anxiety and private digital relationships; a paranoid reading of diseased people who would rather live in the real world of illicit raves, secret clandestine rendezvous and live encounters in intimate spaces to see and talk about art with real people. We crave for the visceral where life isn’t a safe space, it’s a risk. As the museum and galleries re-open maximum footfall may no longer be a criteria for success: imagine booking an appointment to view the Mark Rothko paintings in the compact room 10 in the studio space of Tate Modern, uncrowded…the meditative, sublime, melancholic experience heightened without the bustle?
During lockdown I revisited Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay 'In Praise of Idleness' where he argues for the virtues of laziness and leisure, proposing a radically shorter working week. I reflected further, on Joseph Beuys’ 1971 Organisation for Direct Democracy Through Collective Referundum in light of the 23 June 2016 and the notion of the nation as constitutional agent. I was drawn in by the ideas of an obscure 1920s economist called C.H. Douglas who proposed the idea of Social Credit and a National Dividend where the consumer determines production, and administration, bureaucracy and “middlemen” wither away. The pandemic has given us time to imagine new possibilities, the potential for a more distributive culture at national, regional and community level, more time to ponder freely, to experiment and a renewed hunger for greater intimacy as a culture of fear further encroaches further into public space and our private lives.
“Artist Support Pledge's strength is its simplicity and I think the most striking thing has been the spirit in which it's been taken. There is a wonderful honesty and optimism to the initiative. The period over lockdown ended up being hugely busy for me as a result of demand garnered through ASP, leading to the forging of lasting new relationships with collectors and fellow artists.”
Narbi Price. www.narbiprice.co.uk
The Artist Support Pledge provided a structure for Sebastian to create small, playful works, directly related to her larger pieces, with an intention to sell. It has increased the accessibility of art to those who may have been previously intimidated by it and it has generated an income for the artist.