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A Modern-Day Renaissance: The Pandemic’s Presence in Art

By Sarah Druhan

Photo: Vanity Fair -- Source

It was about two years ago this month that COVID-19 cases began noticeably skyrocketing around the world, building to the official title of a ‘pandemic’. Throughout history, scholars have studied the human works that have come out of periods like this—the bubonic plague birthed many of the works of the Renaissance, and the Spanish Influenza affected the paintings of renowned artists like Edvard Munch and John Singer Sargent. A couple years out from the coronavirus pandemic’s onset can feel like no time at all, but it’s also enough time to look back and effectively analyze the artwork an human stories that have emerged from this period. It’s true that no amount of good art will make up for the massive suffering inflicted by the pandemic. But it’s still a topic will likely define the cultural emotions and experiences of this time for future historians. That being said, let’s take a look at three different but equally noteworthy pieces of art, all deeply infused with similarly pandemic-related traces.

folklore by Taylor Swift

Photo: NME -- Source

As of March 2020, a new album from Taylor Swift (and eventually, two new albums) was not a result many people likely suspected to emerge from the oncoming pandemic. But four months later Swift indeed surprise-dropped her eighth studio album folklore, a project that was announced barely a day before but was universally acclaimed by critics. Swift has never made it a secret that if not for the pandemic, folklore likely wouldn’t exist. COVID-19 was a sudden interruption to the album release cycle that music veteran Swift had previously had down to a T: for the first time in years, like many artists, Swift and her label had no idea what came next. It was an unexpected pause in which one of her most innovative projects yet was able to flourish.

But the pandemic was reflected not just in this album’s existence, but also in its blank tone and content. folklore was written and released the summer of 2020, a time in which the world began to realize there was no foreseeable end to this virus. While resigning themselves to a seemingly never-ending quarantine, many sought refuge in escapism, withdrawing from a news cycle they couldn’t handle anymore. folklore’s status as a quarantine album is clear. Its natural imagery and the lush, dreamy quality of the tales Swift spins—all markedly different from her typical autobiographic approach to songwriting—tell a story of a mind allowed to wander for the first time in years, and of an intense cultural longing to be anywhere else. “In isolation my imagination has run wild,” Swift posted the night of the release, “and this album is the result[.]” folklore reflects art with no restraints, as well as the solace that can be found in absolute and unexpected messes.

Inside by Bo Burnham

Photo: Medium -- Source

Out of all the works to come out of the pandemic, Bo Burnham’s May 2021 comedy special is probably the most prominent. Literally titled Inside, it documents the year of a comedian in quarantine, capturing the ebbs and flows of both Bo Burnham’s world and the world at large.

Inside explores the other side of the quarantine period reflected in folklore. The entire special takes place within one room, trapped within the same four gray walls as opposed to the large expanse of woods and sky seen on folklore’s cover. Swift played up ideas of art run wild, but Burnham looks to convey the frustrating limitations of quarantine both on artistic expression and on our lives. He bounces around frenetically from medium to medium, topic to topic, bringing up white women’s Instagram feeds and climate change in what feels like the same breath. The jarring inconsistency of the special reflects the jarringly inconsistent world it takes place in.

With no distractions but the drab walls around him, Burnham’s mind wanders not into mystical daydreams but instead is forced to face the brutal reality of our world. He repeatedly tries to find the comedy in the current situation, but inevitably defaults to singing about our society’s entrenched racism and classism, hollow commercialism, and his recent struggles with mental health. It’s a pretty brutal work to come out of this time period, but an honest one: exploring how the pandemic’s pause on life as we knew it can bring pain as well as inspiration. (equal amounts of both inspiration and pain)

George Floyd Murals, by Allan Mwangi and Jacquie Comrie

Photo: Quartz -- Source

It was in the summer of 2020 that the visibility of Black Lives Matter protests reach their peak. In the midst of the pandemic, many in the world were forced to confront the embedded racism in our society, a reality Black people had always lived with. The murder of 46-year-old Minneapolis citizen George Floyd ignited protests around the world, in turn becoming the basis for protest art around the world.

Allan Mwangi, an artist located in Nairobi with the alias of ‘Mr. Detail Seven’, was one of many to put up a mural of the late George Floyd in his community. To the left of George Floyd’s face, Mwangi’s mural depicted an image of police officers stepping over a citizen—a symbol denoting the realities of police brutality all around the world—and in between the two images is the word Haku, the Swahili term for ‘justice’. This mural reflects a global reckoning of the inherent anti-Blackness in our world and society, the scope of which many were all too aware of. It came at a time when more people were on the internet than ever, and when videos capturing moments of racism and police brutality were more easily able to spread. Like much other pandemic art, Mwangi’s mural encapsulates how when forced inside, much of society was in many ways forced to look at itself honestly for the first time in years. “There’s a saying Nina Simone wrote,” Mwangi told CBS News in an interview, one year after the death of George Floyd: “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times.”


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