Periods of turbulence in history occur every few decades, and bring with them great changes that ravage the world and change the course of civilization. Some of them are epidemics, some are wars, but the common denominator among them is the way they stop the hitherto usual way of life. In wars, generally poor people are known to face the worst of it, as wealth provides some insulation from the hard bitten realities of starvation, homelessness and disease. Epidemics, in particular, bring about marked changes in the lifestyle of people, regardless of class and wealth.
Art can be described as an outpouring of emotion, which elicits a similar reaction in the audience. There are different types of expression of emotion; this includes paintings, music, and the written word. In times of crisis, artists depict the turbulence around them into different media, and this has a profound impact on the art and culture of that period. There have been many such instances, scattered throughout history, where the art gives the sign of the times. History is written by the winners, but the true art comes from the ones who suffer. Thus, we get a better understanding of the perspectives of the different groups of people, who the times affect in diverse ways.
In particular, during times of turmoil, there is a general suddenness in death, that is not apparent during the ordinary course of life. This leaves a great impression on the psyche of the people of that period, but the artists create unusual and poignant impressions of the sentiments evoked in them. Even in this, due to the press and other forms of media, there are many different perspectives, which are apparent in the works of that time. During the time of the Bubonic plague, or the ‘Black Death’, which was brought to Europe in the year 1347 by a Genoese ship that alighted on the shores of Sicily; the artwork of Europe reached a crescendo. This was around the beginning of the Renaissance movement, which made many major leaps in the realm of culture and technology. It takes unrest to spur creation on, leading to advancement of the human race as a whole. The black death held most of Europe in its thrall for the next few centuries, leading to a great deal of life lost, and churning out art and advancement in its wake, be it in the field of medicine, technology, or culture. The lives of all the ‘Old Masters’ were in the shadow of the plague and pestilence that gripped their world. Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Titian, they all faced the peril of contagion, yet their work is a celebration of life. One of the last, most potent of these plagues, hit England in the mid 1600s, and is described in spine chilling detail in the book, ‘ A Journal of the Plague Year’, by Daniel Defoe. The plague died down by the end of the 17th century, and coincidentally (and this author thinks not), that was about the end of the renaissance movement.
In the mid 1800s, many people suddenly fell sick and died. Their symptoms included nausea, diarrhea and racking thirst. It was quick to spread, and quick to kill; and it spread to over a hundred people in 72 hours. Eminent physicians of the time traced the symptoms to the dreaded cholera, which had broken out sporadically in the past few decades. The outbreak was so bad that bodies were wheeled to morgues by the cartload. This was the time of the Romantic Movement in art, changing over from the Neoclassical Period. The art of those times had an emphasis on emotion, as opposed to the simplicity and starkness of the previous period. The Romantic Period was based on the erstwhile Roman art and architecture, and neoclassicism on Greek culture. Chopin and Beethoven were among the notable composers of the day, and their lives were filled with the disease and strife of the period. In England, the main reason for the outbreak of cholera was, as written in ‘The Ghost Map’ by Steven Johnson, the fact that the crowded urban conditions caused people to drink each other’s sewage.
The avian borne Spanish Flu was first observed in Europe, North America and parts of Asia before swiftly spreading over to infect the rest of the world during World War 1, in 1918. It was called the Spanish Flu because, due to diplomatic reasons, the countries involved in the world wars did not publicize the outbreak, but Spain being neutral, published reports of the epidemic in the spring of 1819. The Spanish flu, combined with the World Wars, managed to effectively shut down the course that art had taken up till then, and forever changed the face of art. The paintings of this time are poignant representations of the horror and death of war, and pestilence. Some of the artists, like Childe Hassam, wanted America to the allied side, and they painted harbingers of victory against an American background. Others, like John Sloan, painted starkly socialist images that depicted how the rich and powerful were using the lives of the poor men as cannon fodder to further their own interests. The styles of painting were many, but most had an antipathy towards the war, with confusing feelings of patriotism and worry for their loved ones mixed in.
The 60’s were a period of singular enhancement in the field of the arts. The influence of the Korean War and the Vietnam War, along with the anti war protests and rallies can be seen in the music and cinema of this decade. New forms of art like pop art drew public attention to the artistic expression. Photography came into its own as a medium of art, and cinema and theater underwent major changes. The increase of funding for artistic attempts, the creation of new forms and settings for their art works by visual artists, the inclusion of ethnic and sexual minorities into all of the arts, and such other influences helped open the art world to a much broader audience than ever before. This legacy of the 1960s continued throughout the century and into the 2000s.
The present day crisis of the corona virus has put our cities into lockdown, and the government has implored the citizens to self impose quarantine. This has not yet inspired much original artwork in the populace. There is no doubt that young artists will emerge out of the ashes of the old, and they will find expression in new media. When faced with our mortality, we tend to value life more for the precious gift it is, rather than our humdrum, uninspired existence. In our present crisis ridden times, our generation has taken to drawing carrots and oranges as a nod to the art of the times.