Art in the Time of Corona

By Joan Sullivan

Self-isolating at home, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts and radio documentaries. What a wonderful medium! They inspire – no, they deserve â€“ active, contemplative listening. Not the multi-tasking variety of listening during which we also wash the dishes, go for a run, or walk the dog. 

If we are wise, we will recognize that the coronavirus pandemic, like every dark cloud, has a silver lining: an opportunity to slow down, observe, be curious. An opportunity to create space to listen: to ourselves, to the wind rattling the window, to the snow geese returning north to their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra. 

copyright, Joan Sullivan, winter, snow, grief, climate, crisis, Quebec

“We [artists] understand rhythm, flow and negative space,” writes Andrew Simonet, founder and director of Artists U. “Not everything we do right now needs to be doing. Silence is a way of telling. Stillness is movement.” 

And this, from Jerry Saltz, Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for New York Magazine: “Now is the time of the slower-artist and makers, working alone or [in] more intimate conditions. You will reach the further shores.”

I recently re-listened to Sara Fishko’s award-winning WNYC radio documentary Culture Shock 1913. It describes how European artists reacted to and interpreted the chaos at the beginning of the last century leading up to World War I. This “unsettling, shocking era of sweeping change” gave birth to the Modernist movement. The artists – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Picasso, Duchamp, Brancusi, Kandinsky, Mondrian – burst violently onto the scene, challenging all cultural senses and sensitivities of that conservative Ã©poque.

According to the music critic Tim Page, interviewed by Fishko, “I think in a lot of ways, it was just the beginning of a century… of absolute chaos and nightmare, and as so often, the artists heard it and reflected it first.” (Emphasis added.)  Fishko ends her hour-long special by reminding us that, 100 years later, history is repeating itself: “We are about to experience the next great cultural explosion, when artists help us sort it out, with sometimes shocking results.” 

If the first two decades of the 21st century are any indication, all of our anthropocenic ducks are perfectly aligned for Fishko’s prediction to come true. Artists have more than enough “chaos and nightmares” to chose from: climate crisis, coronavirus pandemic, children in cages, sixth mass extinction, and the biblical swarm of locusts currently devastating East Africa and South Asia. Bill McKibben’s 2005 wish for some goddamn climate operas is finally coming true, along with climate theatreclimate music and climate poetry. We have a growing chorus of powerful women’s voices shifting the climate narrative, an impressive list to which I would add Mary Annaïse HeglarRobin Wall Kimmerer, and Emily Johnston. We have Julie’s BicycleOlafur Eliasson and Isaac Cordal. We even have a Climate Museum

But we’re not “there” yet. 

I would argue that we’re not even close to the ground-shifting-beneath-our-feet protest music movement of the 60s and 70s that energized an entire generation to question authority. Perhaps this crowned virus will change the status quo? Possibly. A recent article in Big Think reminds us that “protest music is a natural feature of humanity” – just think back to those medieval court jesters and minstrels, whose poetry and music were cleverly disguised as barbs to force their privileged overlords to look themselves in the mirror. 

So I throw this question out to the universe: Who will write the next The Times They Are A-Changin’? Who will write the next Big Yellow Taxi? NPR compiled a list here, but I still feel that the urgency of the current situation – the overwhelming angst, eco-anxiety, grief, fear – has not yet been embraced by enough artists to change the mood music.

It is worth noting that in the very short time (just three months!) that coronavirus has become a household name, artists’ responses to the pandemic have been immediate, bold, and truly global. If only the same could be said for the climate crisis. Simonet’s important call to arms to artists (see excerpt below) in the context of the corona crisis, could easily have been written for the climate crisis, years ago:

This moment is a health crisis, a brutal one. It is also a crisis of meaning. It is a crisis of connection, of story. It is a crisis of who we are to each other and the agreements that hold us together. And those are things we artists know how to work on. The script for how we will be together in this time has not been written. Artists will have a huge impact on that story.

I am reminded of a similar quote by Amy Brady, Editor-In-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books, in her 2019 paean for climate fiction: “The drama, then, lies in the emotional arcs of the characters as they face their lives with alternating hope and despair, knowing that while the future looks bleak, it has yet to be written.”

This then, is Corona’s gift: a recognition that collectively, with the right combination of political, social and individual commitment, we can flatten the curve, shift the needle, rewrite the script. The future is ours to imagine, to design, to build. According to Simonet, artists are the first responders: “You don’t need to save the world. You need only carry your gifts and skills into this present challenge.”

Lest we forget, laughter in the time of corona is an essential ingredient moving forward. Here is a selection of some my favorite coronavirus memes currently circulating on Twitter. 

And finally, some classical music. Here’s a link to The Philadelphia Orchestra’s free streaming of Beethoven’s 5th and 6th Symphonies, directed by Québec’s beloved Yannick Nézet-Séguin in an empty concert hall last week. Please listen to Nézet-Séguin’s opening remarks from 01:50 to 02:57 for inspiration on how these two symphonies, first premiered in 1808, can “help us, guide us and channel all our emotions, and help us feel that we are together on this beautiful planet Earth.”.

(All photos by Joan Sullivan, from her new body of work, Grief, 2020)


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. She is currently working on a long-term, self-assigned photo project about Canada’s energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. You can find Joan on TwitterVisura and Ello.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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