Each December, as we review the events of the previous 11 months, it is intriguing to see art being swept along on, or trying to ride, the waves of geopolitics. But this year I wondered: how could art respond to the scale of the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests? I’ve commented earlier in this column that artists have no duty to respond to global events; that it is enough to survive, to keep making work.
But it still niggled that art’s importance might dwindle amid so much loss and uncertainty in people’s lives. In conversations with fellow critics and curators, I found some reluctance to quickly return to galleries. And the public were similarly hesitant: when museums reopened after the first lockdown, bookable slots were widely available, even with drastically reduced capacity. Equally, many of us struggled to tear our eyes away from the news to confront the deluge of digital and virtual art. And yet art found a way.
Throughout the year, I was amazed to see the creative response from artists—including amateurs—to the major shifts in their lives. And then, at the year’s close, a rare piece of good news was delivered directly through art. On 7 November, immediately as the networks declared Joe Biden and Kamala Harris the winners of the US election, they posted a video in which diverse Americans, in various activities and environments, hold up a golden frame, capturing themselves or the landscape around them. Tremendously moving, it was inspired by—and created with the blessing of—Lorraine O’Grady, whose 1983 performance Art Is… literally framed the community of Harlem on an African American Day parade.
It had been created by O’Grady in direct response to a racist comment about the inability of people of colour to produce avant-garde art. The Biden-Harris video, too, implicitly defied President Donald Trump’s racism. As Amanda Hunt, a curator at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, told our podcast The Week in Art, their platform had “been about unity, not division; let’s remember our humanity”.
In framing their values at the moment of victory in the most important Western election in at least a generation, Biden-Harris had turned to art. What more evidence do we need of its enduring resistance and power?