From Ovid to COVID
Ovid’s Metamorphoses, penned at the beginning of the first century AD, is a Roman poet’s epic account of the loves of the gods from the creation of the world to the reign of Julius Caesar. This ‘best seller’ from Roman antiquity is one of the most influential works in Western culture with a profound impact on literature and the visual arts.
One recurring theme in Ovid is divine vengeance where aggrieved gods will turn on their adversaries to smite them with an arsenal of horrors, including plagues. At one stage the Roman poet exclaims:
“All remedies we try, all medicines use,
Which Nature could supply, or art produce;
The unconquered foe derides the vain design,
And art, and Nature foiled, declare the cause divine.”
Ovid’s famous account of a plague on Aegina (Met. 7.523-613) is a tale of Juno, enraged that the island was named after her rival, sending a plague to wipe out the population – that commenced as a “young disease with milder force” that grew “to a larger size” and “Infected all the air, and poisoned as it flew”.
Throughout the ages people have seen pestilence as an act of divine wrath. Recently I came across an interesting Galaktotrophousa icon – literally a milk-giving icon. It has an inscription: “Star of Heaven, please save us from the epidemic. Please answer our prayers, because your Son hears you and he will not hold back anything from us. Our Lord Jesus, set us free from death, because your pure Virgin Mother hears our prayers, and for the sake of your Mother help us. For our sake, you pure Virgin, the hand of Jesus, you are the saint and the Mother of God”.
Outside a few pockets of fundamentalists (of various persuasions) plus the flat earth advocates and climate change deniers, few see in COVID-19 divine retribution. This may be an unnecessarily hasty conclusion to draw and this coronavirus may well be explained as a direct global response to climate change. The planet is striking back, at least according to Dr. Aaron Bernstein, the interim director of Harvard University's Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment. He observed, “We've had a few shots over the bow here – SARS, MERS, COVID, Ebola. We need to hear what nature is trying to tell us, which is clear: let's be smarter about how we do business with the biosphere and stop disrupting the climate we depend on.”
The devastation caused by this virus with the tragic loss of life has caused a significant pause in global warming, a radical reduction in greenhouse emissions and the regeneration of habitats. Dolphins may not be swimming in the Venice canals (they are actually in Cagliari’s port, in Sardinia), but the water in the canals has become clearer and you can see fish and there are ducks in the fountains in Rome.
It goes without saying that when the economy sneezes, the arts get a cold. Now the economy is gravely ill and the arts have hit a brick wall. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art faces a US$100 million loss from the Covid-19 pandemic, despite its pre-coronavirus endowment of US$3.6 billion. In the US it is estimated that 30% of the country’s museums will fail without considerable assistance.
The recently released nearly 400-page The Art Market 2020 paints a gloomy picture of the global art market. The global art market sales in 2019 were about US$64.1 billion, down about 5% on 2018. The challenges of Brexit, the turmoil in Hong Kong and the economic uncertainties in Europe and America all took their toll.
In 2020 the international art market is collapsing. Most of the international art fairs (that constitute almost 40% of the global art sales) have either been postponed, scaled back or cancelled. The Melbourne Art Fair has been rescheduled from June this year to February 2021. Most of the commercial art galleries, nationally and internationally, have closed their doors to walk-in traffic and have had their openings banned (during which most of the sales occur) in this period of social distancing. They have continued to open by appointment only or as an online presence. Art auctions continue to limp along, but much of the public spectacle has gone with the heavy reliance on on-line bidding. Also the general economic downturn and the mood of apocalyptic uncertainty have taken the wind out of their sales.
The German Culture Minister, Monika Grütters, has promised government financial help to cultural institutions and artists affected by the coronavirus. Other countries in Europe and certain state governments in America have followed in their footsteps. We all know that more Australians annually visit cultural institutions than sporting fixtures, but at a government level we seem to be more fixated with the latter. There has been little or no relief for individual artists in Australia as few qualify as small businesses employing staff or can claim to have been made redundant by their loss-making studio.
Go online and go digital is hardly a saviour. Most who can and should have done this years ago, but for many this is not feasible. Many, if not the majority, of visual artists in Australia live below the poverty line. Many survive on casual jobs, a bit of waitressing in a café down the road, occasional shifts in a bar or at a public art space and sales from exhibitions in public and commercial art galleries. What happens if all of these sources suddenly dry up – all at the same time? The situation becomes dire, with basic necessities of life still needing to be met – rent, food, utilities and frequently studio hire.
As a matter of urgency, we need immediate rent relief for all artists, a mortgage moratorium and a subsidy for loss of income. Cultural institutions and artists, as a priority, need immediate government assistance. Libraries, museums, performing arts and music sectors, according to satellite national accounts data from the federal Department of Communications, are worth collectively around A$8.1 billion in economic output in 2020. If you add the commercial visual arts sector, the number will be considerably higher. Without federal government financial support, many in the arts sector will fail permanently at a great loss to Australian cultural life and to the economy.
Some artists, such as the unique Chips Mackinolty have made some brilliant COVID art; globally many have simply applied facemasks to some of the most famous artworks, from the Venus de Milo, to the Mona Lisa and Lucian Freud nudes.
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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