The art world in 2020 suffered a severe blow but alongside the losses there were also gains. A summary of a very weird year in the art world
2020 has come to an end and not a day too soon. It has been a year of contrasts, in which we experienced a slowdown but also an acceleration of processes, a year in which art institutions were required to deal with existential problems – both budgetary and strategic – mainly how to remain relevant during closure and keep in touch with their audience. But despite the difficulties, we have witnessed this year that art is like water – it will always find a way.
You could say that relevance is the name of the game in the Corona era. The problem is that the art world is based on events that take place in real life (there is an acronym for that now – IRL). Be it galleries or museums, auctions or art fairs – art is a physical and social experience. Covid-19 posed a dual challenge: how to hold art events online and how to make them engaging to art lovers.
Let’s start by saying that it’s impossible to re-create real-world art events online. But it is interesting to mention some of the creative attempts by art institutes to stay relevant.
The first lockdown introduced an almost frenzy of online ventures. One of the most popular was the Getty Challenge, initiated by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, in which people were invited to re-create famous paintings by using domestic materials. Social media was flooded with creative and comic examples. Another noteworthy venture was the celebration of Van Gogh’s 167th birthday in late March by The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Fans were encouraged to make birthday cakes inspired by Van Gogh’s paintings. The museum received photographs of 500 cakes, some of them extremely creative.
Auction houses also had to be creative during the past year. Not that there haven’t been online auctions before but the high end of art auctions are very important and prestigious real-life events, based on the psychology of competition. Tension in the auction room is cleverly created by the auctioneer to maximise the potential of each sale. The online solutions were clever but strange as there was no audience to compete but instead, representatives of the auction house “competed” with each other, as they spoke to potential buyers on the telephone.
Fairs, on the other hand, are a spacial experience of wandering, that include personal encounters with artists and gallerists. The online solution has brought a new acronym to our lives: O.V.R – online viewing rooms – which are in fact nothing more than presentations on a web page that is open for a limited time – like the fair itself. Here and there we saw more creative solutions, inspired by gaming technology, which made it possible to move through three-dimensional spaces. But speaking of experience – sitting in front of a computer simply cannot provide a meaningful artistic experience.
So it’s probably no surprise that the art world was lagging behind technologically and only a pandemic succeeded to push this field into the digital age in the most accelerated way.
Surprisingly, art became associated with protesting in the past year. The brutal death of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited vast protests that spread from the U.S. to Europe. The Black Lives Matter movement gained international exposure that amplified the demand for equality. As part of the uproar, dozens of statues and monuments of significant figures were torn down, burned or defaced.
A statue of Christopher Columbus was torn down on Minnesota’s Capitol Hill. Apparently, the man who discovered America was not considered a hero by the Native Americans who danced around the toppled statue to the sounds of Indian drumming.
In Bristol, England, a statue of Edward Colston (pictured above), a 17th-century MP and a respected man, who contributed much to society but was also a slave trader from Africa – was thrown into the river. The black protesters leaned on Colston’s neck, just as the policeman did to George Floyd. Why a statue of such a controversial person was still placed in the public space is a question in itself. The statue has meanwhile been taken out of the river and will be placed in a museum in the city. Perhaps this is the solution for other controversial sculptures and the reason is that in my opinion history should not be erased. Culture is built over time – layer on layer and each stage is an important part of history.
Israel has also had its share of demonstrations in 2020, mainly the weekly protests against PM Netanyahu in Balfour st, next to the PM residence in Jerusalem. There has been a lot of creativity in these events, amplified by the fact that the cultural realm has been dead due to the pandemic. A few noteworthy artistic products from Balfour include a series of photographs, staged and taken by Sharon Avraham. These re-create famous works of art related to protest, such as Banksy’s “Flower thrower” and Delacroix’s “Liberty leading the people” (above).
Another photograph taken at the Balfour protest was by Pulitzer prize, AP photographer Oded Balilty. He captured a protestor holding an Israeli flag, crouched down on his knee to avoid the strong current of water aimed at the protestors from a riot dissipation vehicle. You can see the water over his head. This photo won first prize last month in the annual press photo competition, together with another photo that I will get to shortly. The kneeling protestor was the inspiration for a life size bronze statue by Itay Zalait, a sculptor that in the past few years has become synonymous with protest art. The 5 ton sculpture on a high base was placed, without permission, in the square, where the weekly protests take place. Unsurprisingly, the police removed it almost immediately. What was surprising was the public reaction to its removal. A human protest shift took place on the spot where the sculpture had stood. People really identified with it.
The same figure has been designed as a stamp by Lilach Yazdi. Itay Zalait also created small models of his statue that he is selling as part of his campaign to raise money for funding it. So we can see how this figure has evolved into an artistic symbol of the anti-Bibi protest movement.
As I mentioned above, another photo shared first prize in the annual press photo competition. This was an ariel photo, taken by Tomer Appelbaum for Ha’aretz newspaper. This is another rally, in the Rabin square in Tel-Aviv. The perfect frame is so symbolic: a protest event on the one hand, but an exemplary event of order on the other, held in the square, where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and in it – the monument to the Holocaust and the resurrection created by artist Yigal Tumarkin. From above, the monument and its shadow create the shape of the Star of David. Perfection.
This year I covered another major topic – deaccessioning – one of the sadder outcomes of the pandemic, as museums turn to sell items from their collections in order to survive.
Losses and gains
Humanity has lost a great deal in the last year. First, many lives were lost. We also lost the (imagined) sense of security that what has been will continue to be. We lost the ability to make future plans and we sank into uncertainty and into the unknown. Even now, as a vaccine against Corona becomes available, we have no idea if 2021 will be a post-Corona year and what our lives will look like.
But there were also gains – the pandemic forced us to stop and it showed us that we can make do with little and appreciate the simple and the nearby. The art world has had to stop and adapt to the epidemic, especially in accelerating its online presence. At the same time, it seems to me that we have discovered that there is no substitute for art in the real world. No web page can be a substitute for viewing art of any kind (except the type created for the web).
In the meantime we will have to settle for what there is, while preparing for the another lockdown, go back to Zoom and visiting art sites, while looking forward to a time when all this will be just a memory.