The Esthetics of the Coronavirus Pandemic

I recently completed a long piece looking at the coronavirus pandemic from a philosophical perspective, starting with metaphysics and going through epistemology, ethics, and politics. That leaves us with one more major branch of philosophy: esthetics. So what are the esthetics of the coronavirus pandemic?

First, we have to define what that question means. Are we asking for an artistic critique of the appearance of the virus itself?

What I mean by it is this. Esthetics is the branch of philosophy that studies man’s spiritual needs and how they are fulfilled by art. So what are our spiritual needs during the current crisis, and how can they be served by art?

That seems a particularly appropriate question to ask now because this crisis has many of us stuck at home but still connected to the world through television and the Internet. It has generally given us more time to consume art and fewer other things to do.

In times of crisis or difficulty, we need art to provide a reassurance that human success and achievement is possible, which it does both by portraying human greatness and by providing an example of it.

Think of it this way. When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in the ICU with coronavirus, and it was touch-and-go there for a little while, at least we knew what was going through his mind: By his own account, he was reciting the Iliad.

One of the great things about the Internet era is that a lot of the world’s culture is available at your fingertips, and never have we had reason to appreciate it more. Google has an Arts & Culture page with an enormous number of images from the best museums in the world. It tends not to offer much guidance in terms of artistic analysis or historical context, but it’s good for browsing.

Some of the collections here are better and more informative. I particularly liked the section for the National Portrait Gallery’s American Origins collection. Look particularly for “Men of Progress,” a painting celebrating a group of 19th Century American inventors and industrialists. (This Google version does not include a list of the men in the portrait and their accomplishments, but you can find that here.) I have a few other favorites in that collection, but Sherri intends to write about some of them and doesn’t want me to steal her thunder.

I find that virtual tours of museums are still a little kludgy and hard to navigate, at least on my computer. (I tried to go to the National Museum of Natural History to look at skulls in the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, but it doesn’t really compare to being there in person.) Alternatively, you can check out a somewhat mesmerizing five-hour walkthrough of The Hermitage produced by Apple as a demonstration of the capabilities of the iPhone 11—but again, it comes with no explanation of the works you are seeing.

The Vatican Museums have a good Sistine Chapel site and also one for the School of Athens, the Catholic Church’s great attempt to respond to Renaissance Humanism by staking its own claim (however dubious) to the philosophical heritage of Ancient Greece. Wikipedia has a good guide to the Greek philosophers portrayed by Rafael and the Renaissance artists on whom their portraits were based.

The British Museum’s website does not have a great online resource for the Parthenon statues, but I did find a very good video in which two scholars describe the historical context and the style and meaning of the sculptures.

One interesting consequences of the great national quarantine has been an increase in streaming of classical music. Musicians have been hard hit by this lockdown, which has canceled all of their gigs. (Here in Virginia, they just “postponed” the Staunton Music Festival to next year, which means that none of the musicians get paid this year.)

This, by the way, is why I urge you—if you are in a position to do so—to look at how you can support your local cultural institutions: musical ensembles, theater groups, museums, and the like (and hey, maybe even your favorite online newsletter). If there’s anything you value, and you want to make sure it’s still around when this is all over, provide what help you can—or give them your business for whatever it is that they are still able to do.

Some of these institutions are trying to survive by meeting our spiritual needs during the lockdown. See a list of orchestras offering streaming of classical music performance. This article notes that “research conducted by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has revealed that households are using this time to learn more about the music they love, and 85 percent of the 2,135 people surveyed said they planned to discover new music during the period of coronavirus isolation, with nearly a third of these (30 percent) planning to learn more about orchestral music, opera, and chamber music.”

That sounds like an excellent idea, and I’ll be doing my part over the next few weeks to point you to some music worth discovering or understanding better.

In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying the Metropolitan Opera’s free nightly streaming of recordings of its previously broadcast operas. Tosca and The Merry Widow are coming up, though I can’t especially recommend this production of La Traviata. (The performances are very good, but the minimalist set sucks all of the glamour out of the story, making the lavish parties look more like our protagonists are having a bender in a bus terminal.) You can join Sherri and me (virtually, of course) this Saturday for the Met’s “At-Home Gala.” We’ll be dressing up for it, for our own sake if for no one else’s.

I’m recommending these outlets—and will be making more specific recommendations over the coming weeks—as sources of inspiration in and of themselves. But they also sound a lot like a program for self-improvement. And that leads me to my recommendation for a perfect movie to stream during the lockdown: Groundhog Day. We all know the premise: our protagonist is mysteriously stuck reliving the same day over and over again in the same small town. As he puts it in the film, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and everything that you did was the same, and nothing mattered?”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? What our protagonist does, after exhausting all other alternatives, is to engage in a long-term course of self-improvement. If he can’t change his external circumstances, he can look inside and improve himself. It’s a pretty profound lesson (which I expanded upon a few years ago) and good guidance for what to do with your extra time during lockdown.

Some people have been better at this than others. Check out a British family’s hilarious rendition of “One Day More,” the Act One finale from the musical version of Les Misérables, with lyrics rewritten for the era of coronavirus.

That reminds me to recommend Les Mis, both the 2012 film, which I reviewed at the time, and the original musical, which I reviewed 27 years after its debut. Check out a Tenth Anniversary concert that is the closest you will get to seeing a performance by the original theatrical cast.

I’m recommending Les Mis because it is a model for how to face adversity, and I think we need a little more help with that. I’ve been going onto social media and seeing livid complaints about things like this: having to wait in line for the grocery store because they aren’t letting more than 100 people in at a time so it won’t get too crowded. Your problems might be (and probably are) greater than this. But unless you are actually infected with coronavirus, I guarantee you are not having as bad a time as any given character in Les Misérables. On the whole, they toughed it out with a lot more fire and determination than most of us are showing, and perhaps we need an infusion of that spirit.

But the film of the pandemic has got to be The Martian. Our chief spiritual need right now is a sense of confidence that this problem can be solved. Who better to provide that than the all-time social distancing champion, Mark Watney? For those who don’t recall, The Martian is basically Robinson Crusoe in space, with Matt Damon playing an astronaut accidentally marooned on Mars. The only solution, he concludes, is to “science the heck out of it.” (He doesn’t say “heck,” but this is a family-friendly newsletter. For the most part.) Sciencing the heck out of it is what we’re going to have to do to get out of this crisis.

I have recommended both the original book and the movie, and it’s my review of the movie that summarizes the central issue by quoting the hero.

“[A]t some point, everything’s going to go South on you. You’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now, you can either accept that, or you can get to work.” You have to solve one problem, Watney explains, and then solve the next problem, and then solve the next problem, and “if you solve enough problems, you get to go home.”…

Watney’s description of his struggle for survival—you solve one problem, then you solve another problem, and if you solve enough of them, you get to live—is a description of life itself. It’s a description of how we got out of the caves and learned how to make fire and plant crops and build cities and cure diseases and build steam engines and factories and learn to fly—and eventually learned to build rockets to explore other planets. It’s a description of what every individual has to do in his own life to make his way in the world—to acquire skills, to choose a career, to set and achieve your personal goals.

The irony, in the current context, is that Watney is trying to get home, and we’re trying to leave it. But the issue is the same, and it’s what we need right now.

This is just an outline or overview, describing in general terms what our esthetic needs are right now and what to look for. Sherri and I will be providing further specific recommendations, particularly over the next few weeks until—if all goes well—the threat from the virus recedes and social distancing rules can be relaxed somewhat. Stay tuned.

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