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Shelter-in-Place Chronicles: Artists Speak feat. Enrique Chagoya

Photo by Kara Maria. From Squarecylinder.
Apr 22 2020

This is part of a series in which artists and writers talk about life in the Covid-19 era. The following is written by Professor Enrique Chagoya for Squarecylinder.

Like most people, I don’t recall a time in my life when I felt a global catastrophe was just outside the door, much less with death lingering and waiting for us hidden beneath the clearest skies and purest air we have experienced in decades.
 
But here we are, having a hard time believing it and accepting it. It is a new reality that will be with us for months, if not years. Yet, life outside seems to be really blossoming. Spring is giving us new flowers and green landscapes, birds are singing, hummingbirds and other natural wonders appear to be making an effort to cheer us up amid the human tragedy. The planet is having a break from us, responding with a thankful breath of fresh air. It is ironic to think that such a horrendous threat to our existence could be surrounded by such peaceful beauty.
 
As artists, we may wonder how can we live through this experience that goes so much beyond art? In my work, I address social and political issues, and for the moment, I am like most everybody with an overwhelming amount of shocking experiences and information to process. I currently have an exhibition at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara that is closed, and an upcoming solo exhibition of new works at Anglim Gilbert Gallery in SF scheduled for the spring that got postponed. But none of this really matters now, because I feel that being an artist and having time to even make some art at home is an incredible privilege when the world is having a taste of what an apocalypse may look like. Reality will always be more dramatic than fiction. I feel humbled by the immensity of this pandemonium.
 
This new reality in my mind is a message from Earth to us with love, very tough love. It is showing us how the world could look and change for the better if we have a better interaction with nature and with ourselves.
 
For the time being, this crisis is a magnifying looking glass, making more transparent the inequalities we face as a society. The virus discriminates in multiple directions because society as a whole facilitates that outcome. As we all know, more black and brown people (particularly undocumented immigrants) are dying from this pandemic than other groups due to less access to health care. Asian-Americans now suffer an increasing number of hate crimes. The private health system has never been so terribly inadequate as it is now, with hospitals overwhelmed, and where it not for the heroic work of first responders and care providers, things would be worse. Domestic abuse has also increased exponentially, along with deteriorating mental health and increased substance abuse.
 
The economy (what economist Naomie Klein calls “disaster capitalism”) is no less dystopic and surreal. While unemployment approaches Depression-era levels, Wall Street seems happy with the recent handout of unrestricted money (thanks to the Trump administration getting rid of the conditions set by Congress to use the funds to support employees of corporations). The stock market went up many days in a row while the unemployed had to wait in long lines at the food banks. Small businesses and the unemployed are not getting the promised help as quickly as Wall Street, and this is going to create a long-term economic loss with a new concentration of capital in the hands of the few. This will undoubtedly have a significant impact in the artworld. As with the last crisis, the top markets controlled by mega galleries and the auction houses will be part of investment fund portfolios and will prosper in partnership with Wall Street, while a large number of main-street galleries may go broke.  Fewer small- to mid-size galleries will remain open, emerging artists will suffer, and public money for the arts may disappear for the next few years (unless a newly elected administration creates WPA-type initiatives.) It will be even tougher to operate as an artist without having to do something else to survive.