Today on our morning walk, my daughter and I circled past the playground where, almost seven weeks ago, she dangled from her last monkey bar. An impromptu group of abruptly released elementary school students had chased each other playing “zombie.” They’d shrieked with delight as they passed the un-dead curse to one another-miming the fears of their elders through play. The adults compared levels of astonishment at the latest school notification. “School’s out for six weeks!” We shook our heads and made a plan to visit one another, not knowing that that would never happen.
This morning, in our strange new world, the playground was looped with yellow caution tape. Instead of swings and slides, we played the familiar game of chicken known to pandemic pedestrians everywhere as we encountered other walkers: Who Will Cross the Street First? We marveled at the bounteous Pacific Northwest spring–tulips of every color, drooping wisteria and these funny green buds we just call “Dr. Seuss flowers.” The late cherry trees were dropping their flowery loads to the ground, leaving sidewalks strewn with confetti-like pink and white. It’s a dramatic comparison, but I kept thinking of Prince Andrew gravely injured on a battlefield in War and Peace, awestruck by the vivid blue of the sky. I can’t seem to get over the contrasts.
Since it’s so difficult to make art right now (I feel it myself and I’ve heard it from countless other artists), the best advice I’ve seen so far is just “to observe.” If you’re a visual artist, this might mean breaking out one of those old and sometimes-considered-lesser-than painting forms: landscape. The French Academy famously ranked it fourth in the hierarchy of painting styles, with “history painting” holding the coveted number one status. We’re a few centuries of art history beyond the era when the Academy wrote the rulebook, but these anti-landscape biases are still with us. Serious landscape painting just isn’t that “sexy.”
But right now (and maybe more often than we’d like to admit) landscape tells the story of our historical moment. The empty streets of Times Square, lights ablaze and reflecting quietly off of the unoccupied pavement, speak directly to the massive lifestyle changes New Yorkers and tourists have made. We are all enthralled by the de-smogged skies of large cities from North America to Europe to Asia. The Himalayas are visible again from Jalandhar for the first time in 30 years! The air in Los Angeles is as clean as a Clorox-ed grocery bag! It seems the only necessary component for clean vistas was the simultaneous suffering of the entire human race! Bitterness aside however, even our little roped off Seattle playground has a story to tell.
The truth that the French Academy was missing is this: art about landscape has never been less important than History Painting. It is History Painting. The worlds we replicate with our brushes, pencils or cameras, tell us everything about how we view the space that we are creating, for better or worse. Our built environments tell the stories of economic booms and busts, dreams lost and gained. The empty springtime streets of your town in 2020 are telling a new story, one that needs to be recorded. It’s no small mercy of the human brain that pain after the fact isn’t easy to recall. One day this season of suffering will end. It’s the landscape artists that will help us remember how truly strange it was.