The Value of Culture and the Arts in Times of Crisis

Over the last few weeks we at the CRAG have watched how many artists and institutions have responded to the onset of these uncertain days of pandemic. The provision of activities and access to online galleries and artistic endeavours has provided a platform for artists to speak from and virtual places for people isolating at home to engage and connect. Similar to such initiatives at other galleries, the CRAG team will also galvanize to create an online presence to support our communities as they cope with changes to daily life and seek outlets for creativity and self-expression. We believe deeply in the healing and social functions of art. We will be here to serve you, by posting a weekly blog, art and reflective activities to do at home, and links to stimulating articles, podcasts, and virtual exhibitions in hopes of keeping you inspired. This week’s overarching theme examines the value of art and culture in times of crisis. 

Throughout the week I have been searching for examples and definitions; ways of understanding and conceiving of an answer to such a large question. The value of arts and culture in times of crisis can be demonstrated by its ubiquitous presence throughout human history and the many ways it has been used to influence, control, and inspire people across the globe. I will offer a few examples not as an answer, but as the start of what I hope will be a rich conversation. 

The human need to create has spanned nearly the entire course of our existence, and has manifested itself in myriad forms and styles. It can be instructive, therapeutic, and communicative of social, political, religious, and emotional concepts. The Venus of Willendorf is often cited as one of the oldest and most significant pieces of human cultural heritage. Thought to be a figure of fertility, she is a small, votive object with features that accentuate female reproductive attributes. Her face is masked by rope or hair. This lifelike, voluptuous object is likely associated with ritual, and its small size suggests it was carried with the belongings of its nomadic paleolithic owner. 

Venus of Willendorf, Oolitic limestone tinted with red ochre pigment. c. 28,000–25,000 BCE., 11.1 cm, high. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Venus-of-Willendorf

The petroglyphs found in multiple locations around Vancouver Island, as well as throughout Canada, have also been related to dream quests, shamanism, and the search for helpful spirits. Perhaps they are also instructive in nature? They are mostly found in tidal zones and provide a visual representation of sea animals – real and imagined. The petroglyphs pictured below are found in Nanaimo. They are a maximum of 3,000 years old. The human urge to create exists throughout our early history, and encompasses the representation of dream and emotional states, beliefs and rituals.  

Rock Carving at Petroglyph Provincial Park, Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Estimates of the probable age of existing BC rock art range up to 3,000 years.

Art can also transcend divisions and act as a great uniting force. According to el Seed, contemporary artist, “Just a piece of art can change the mind of somebody…You bring people [together] that come from different parts of the world: different social class, different religious or political beliefs. And you put them in the same place and you blur all the differences and what comes out is humanity.” 

In every work that he creates, eL Seed writes messages with Arabic calligraphy using quotes or poetry. For the Jara Mosque minaret (above), the message, from the Quran, says: “Oh humankind, we have created you from a male and a female, and made you people and tribe, so you may know each other.” el Seed, Jara Mosque project, Gabes, Tunisia, 2012.   https://elseed-art.com/projects/madinati-tunisia/

Art has been used in the service of empire and as a machine for propaganda, to bring light to the experiences of underrepresented and disenfranchised communities, as well as atrocities enacted upon the innocent. One of the most historically effective and recognizable propaganda campaigns occurred in Communist Russia during the revolutionary and Stalinist periods. Artists were widely employed to produce artwork for the regime that celebrated empire and the role of the worker, promoted sport, called people to war, and warned against laziness and capitalist values. Combined with a violent system of oppression, the near total control of information and political parties, and forced labour camps, this system of propaganda helped Russia emerge in the post-war period as a formidable, industrialized nation. 

“The Motherland Is Calling,” World War II Soviet military recruitment poster by Irakly Toidze featuring Mother Russia holding out the Red Army Oath of Allegiance in 1941. Photo by Laski Diffusion/Getty Images. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/these-soviet-propaganda-posters-meant-to-evoke-heroism-pride

Art can also express great compassion and bring awareness to atrocities enacted upon the innocent. Francisco Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid is a poignant example of this power. The central figure takes on a Christ-like aura as he raíses his hands, seeking mercy from his executioners. He is bathed in the light of the innocent, and his anguish and that of the others surrounding him is palpable, as they look upon the already dead that lay before them. This image conveys a universal desperation and fear that is emblematic of the focus on psychological states that becomes a great marker of modernity in art.  

Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid, 1808, 1814-15, oil on canvas, 268 x 347 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). The French invasion of Spain in 1807 resulted in a rebellion in 1808. The gruesome atrocities that occurred were captured by Goya in two large-scale paintings. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/becoming-modern/romanticism/romanticism-in-spain/a/goya-third-of-may-1808

People have striven to protect culture and heritage in the midst of conflict, while others have engaged in iconoclastic practices that destroy cultural heritage in the ultimate acts of political and religious domination. The destruction of sacred objects completely alters their aura and symbolic status. The violence of that destruction is one of the most poignant arguments for the value of culture and artistic production. Namely, that it is used repeatedly throughout history as an extremely effective strategy in the erasure and elimination of cultural identity. However, it has also galvanized people and changed the way that culture is preserved for the sake of understanding human history. According to Fabio Rambelli and Eric Reinders: “Destruction is not the end of culture but one of the conditions of its possibility.” Destructive acts have given rise to enduring conversations around the value of cultural heritage and the necessity of its preservation. 

The Buddhas of Bamiyan were once the largest-standing statues of Buddha in the world. The first was built in 507 CE, with the second being built in 554 CE, standing both at 35 metres tall and 53 metres tall respectively. The Buddhas were carved into the cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley, an isolated region in central Afghanistan about 150 miles northwest of Kabul. The Buddhas stood for over one thousand years on the historic Silk Road, until they were destroyed in March, 2001 under the orders of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. https://thecensorshipfiles.wordpress.com/volume-1/issue-1/buddhas-of-bamiyan/

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas incited a worldwide reaction to the events, and further elevated the status of the destroyed objects. In many ways, they have come to symbolize the absolute necessity to protect culture in the face of intolerance and absolutism, the finality of such destruction, and the great loss to human history that these acts represent. 

The Buddhas of Bamiyan, two monumental 6th-century statues that were destroyed in 2001, were brought back to life via light projections in June 2015.

The conditions for possibility arise through joint international efforts to rebuild the monumental sculptures, and the contemporary response to their absence. To commemorate the sculptures, life-size projections were created to illuminate the niches until the monoliths could once again occupy their positions in reality. The beauty of the sculptures reborn and the use of technology in service of that resurrection parallels the way people today are adapting to the current climate by continuing to make and share art through social isolation and the closure of our cultural institutions.  

Culture is one of the fundamental roots of human identity, and one of the most effective ways of tracing our emotional and intellectual histories. We look to art to understand ourselves and the complexities of a planet, a universe, an existence that evades our complete understanding. There are a multitude of beautiful examples of people and communities galvanizing to protect their cultural heritage, and how situations like that can inflame the world. Whether in times of crisis or bliss, or somewhere in between, art and culture have come to colour the walls of our passage through life. 

I have provided a few examples, and begun a conversation that I hope you will continue. Please honour us by posting examples and situations you feel help our community better understand the value of art and culture in society, as we collectively navigate our way through the adversity of a pandemic .  We welcome your contributions on our Facebook page and on Instagram using the hashtag #CRAGcultureintimesofcrisis. 

Jenelle Pasiechnik
Curator of Contemporary Art