Art Opinion

The artistic void of the Spanish flu will not be repeated

Illustration by Rosa Bonnin

It is without doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the arts and in particular, cultural institutions. From museums to cinemas, galleries to theatres, the way in which we, as a society, conventionally consume art has been largely absent from our lives during the last 12 months. Nevertheless, the creation of art has by no means been hampered by this pandemic. In fact, for example, it has further allowed the use of visual images to become embedded in our political culture. In the UK, if you were to ask someone in the street to draw links between art and the pandemic, a common, yet reluctant answer may be “hands, face space”, referring to the numerous government graphics and phrases used to spread messages about the pandemic. Around 100 years ago, at the time of the Spanish flu pandemic however, this was not the case. This period is often described as an artistic void by historians, and Spanish flu is largely absent from mainstream culture. Some may argue that with a current grief stricken population and an eagerness to return to some sort of normality, the appetite for the consumption of ‘pandemic art’ will be, similarly, very low. To unscramble this thinking, it must be noted that there are key differences between the Covid-19 pandemic and Spanish flu, not least to mention their very dissimilar historical contexts. Furthermore, in the age of an increasing presence of art in all forms of media, like it or not, pandemic art and culture is here to stay.

The tendency to hastily look over the period of Spanish flu in history has often been explained by its overshadowing by the spectre of WWI. Every year we commemorate those who died during the war, but we do not give any sort of historical weight to those who died during the influenza pandemic (estimates range from 20-100 million). In fact, the only reason it is called ‘Spanish’ flu is because reports from Spain about deaths from the pandemic were not censored because Spain was a neutral power in the war.

However, much like Covid-19, the influenza pandemic significantly hampered day to day life and communities were ravaged. Art was used to depict these scenes and perhaps also help process the trauma that accompanied the pandemic. A distinct few examples spring to mind. Egon Schiele’s “Gustav Klimt on his deathbed” portrayed three haunting drawings of a deceased Kilmt’s head. Gustav Klimt, it is widely believed, died of Spanish flu. Similarly, Schiele died of Spanish flu in the same year. Furthermore, beyond simple representations in an artistic sense, the Bauhaus movement in Germany serves as an artistic and practical example of how the influenza pandemic impacted culture. Led by Walter Gropius, the aim was to combine art and industry. Marcel Breuer’s minimalist furnishings facilitated easy cleaning. Moreover, to combat the problem of overstuffed furniture, which was found to hold bacteria, new minimalist styles aimed to use less fabric.

Despite this evident link between the influenza pandemic and art, there are many reasons why the Spanish flu still remains outside of the mainstream artistic and cultural field. Many artists, such as Käthe Kollwitz and Otto Dix, were preoccupied with the war. In addition, the Spanish flu was, more or less, seen as an extension of the war’s struggles. Governments were more focused on returning to a social and economic normality after the war, rather than introducing pandemic measures. Covid-19, on the other hand, has significantly changed the way we live. The increased psychological impact of Covid-19 will thus mean that it has different, and longer lasting effects on our visual culture.

Even the literary culture surrounding the influenza pandemic is scarce and seems to only appear popular in light of contemporary pandemics. For example, Alfred Crosby’s book Epidemic and Peace (1976), was reissued during the AIDS pandemic with a new title- ‘America’s forgotten Pandemic’. It was then reissued again in 2003 by Cambridge University Press including a preface discussing the recent outbreaks of diseases such as the SARS epidemic and Asian flu. Furthermore, by even writing an article discussing Covid-19’s relation to the Spanish flu, I too may be pedalling the view that pandemic history is only popular in light of current experience. Nevertheless, it is clear that artistically the Spanish flu had largely been relegated to the sidelines. 

Pandemic art, currently, will be different. The Covid-19 pandemic may have taught many people, to put it crudely, life lessons. It has not only reaffirmed our ephemeral condition, forcing us to live in the present more, but it has also shed a positive light on the arts to help us with processing trauma and grief and to channel our emotive experiences. This is true not only for artists themselves, but also for us, as the audience. The realization that our feelings and perceptions of the world can change so drastically, will not be something so easily forgotten. However, with only being a year into this pandemic, its artistic impact is still in its early days. 

The consumption of art, post pandemic, will be a very revealing phenomenon: will it be to teach us lessons? Or will it fill the void of processing trauma for a grief stricken population? During the pandemic, in July 2020, the Washington Post asked readers to send in their best pandemic art and they received over 650 submissions. From a quick glance at the Washington Post’s favourite works, it is evident that the artists’ backstories reveal a similar set of emotions. Feelings of “isolation” and “loneliness” but also an abstract focus on life, rather than death, come to the forefront. From this small study alone, it is evident that these pieces of art will be able to trigger emotions synonymous with a real life experience for many of us. Thus, pandemic art will likely remain fashionable for years to come.

The Spanish flu was not felt by contemporaries psychologically, or even historically, as Covid-19 will be. Moreover, the psychological impact that Covid-19 has had will likely be much more widespread than Spanish flu because of the truly global nature of this current pandemic. The arts, in connection with Covid-19 will thus be disseminated more easily throughout the world as this pandemic has crossed language, territorial and cultural boundaries.

From an audience’s perspective on viewing visual images, art is becoming increasingly intertwined in our political culture. Though art and political statements have long been a feature of modern politics, the pandemic has emphasised and highlighted its uses. During the Downing Street press conferences, Boris Johnson stands in front of a large blue screen with two flags visible either side of him. The striking national symbolism here reminds its audience to feel patriotic or even proud, when the government details, for example, the success( so far) of its vaccination program. Meanwhile, aside from national politics, art has become a key driver of spreading the message of organisations such as BLM. Covid-19 undoubtedly exposed flaws in the socio-economic system in America and grass roots activists, at a time when not everyone felt safe protesting, were able to use art to bring communities together and allow people to engage with the movement on a considerable scale. Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, painted during the George Ffloyd protests, is a bold example of activists engaging with art to spread their message. The political effects that this pandemic has had will reverberate for many years. The grief and anger that has also surrounded this means that art will be a necessary tool to channel this shock, confusion and trauma.

Finally, the way in which we consume art and culture in a post pandemic world could be largely dictated by government funding. The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, recently announced the details for the second tranche of grants of the governments £1.57bn fund for the arts and heritage sector. Glastonbury will receive a hefty sum of £900,000 whilst Nimax Theatres, which owns six West End venues including the Palace and the Apollo, will receive £898,784. However, many smaller venues will indeed struggle. This could lead to an increase in digital works- many artists performed online during the pandemic and many musicals found an online platform too. Moreover, when the public masses are allowed back into museums, the allure of escapism from covid is likely to be short lived. During the pandemic there has been a large focus on collecting. There was a race to get the first vial which held the first ever Pfizer vaccine to be delivered to a patient – the cultural record of the pandemic is already being preserved.

The post-pandemic art scene will be very telling of whether Covid-19 will remain in our mainstream culture. Both the artists and the audience have a role to play in creating this picture. Will the public want cheering up- a sense of returning to normality? Perhaps. But it is more likely that the experience, trauma and political rage that this pandemic has unleashed will be the main focus of art, and thus audience consumption. The communities that lived during the Spanish flu pandemic likely experienced many of the same feelings as us- social distancing was somewhat introduced, as well as quarantines and the first ever Anti-Mask League was founded in California. It is, however, culturally repressed. The arts were prominent during both these pandemics. But this time, they are here to stay.