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Before COVID-19, Another Pandemic Upended the Art World: The 1918 Flu

The COVID-19 health crisis is impacting every facet of society, from the economy to social interactions. The art world, too, has been affected: Museums and galleries are closed, and artists, like everyone else, have had to change the way they work.

In a new essay published in Artforum magazine, Professor Michael Lobel (of both Hunter College and The Graduate Center) analyzes a World War 1 painting by John Singer Sargent to draw parallels between the art world in today’s COVID-19 crisis and that during the 1918 flu pandemic.

“You see all these images of 1918 of people wearing masks and it really made me think about how much that resonated with what’s going on now,” Lobel tells SUM. “What we’re going through right now is going to have a massive impact on the art world.”

The 20th century influenza pandemic — commonly called the “Spanish flu” — spread worldwide during 1918 and 1919, killing at least 50 million people worldwide (675,000 in the U.S.), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, museums closed for weeks at a time and some artists even died due to the illness.

He writes: “Tracking the impact of the 1918 virus on the art world of that time has something of the miasmic feel of that disease itself, unseen yet seemingly ever-present: Creeping in from virtually all corners, it makes itself felt piecemeal, here and there, such that to gauge its impact and extent requires one to connect the dots, a task not unlike the painstaking contact tracing by which public health authorities across the globe today are working to chart the path of illness from one person to another.”

COVID-19 has killed more than 76,000 in the U.S. and infected more than 1.2 million here, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

Now, Lobel says, as the nation struggles to get through the public health crisis, there will be a new normal for the art world (and art education) when the pandemic is over.

“A lot of people who either teach studio art or take studio art classes are really struggling to figure out what it means to be an art teacher or art student online. How do you do that? Can you even do that online?” Lobel says. “What we’re going through right now is going to have a massive impact. If and when museums reopen, it’s going to have an impact on how they bring in the public and their audiences.”

With that, Lobel adds, tracking the impact of the 1918 virus on the art world can shed light on the ways COVID-19 will impact the nation in the years to come.

“Undeniably, COVID is going to have an impact on the art world across the board,” Lobel says. “History can help illuminate our current-day experience. And our present-day experience can help shed light on history and the past.”

Beyond SUM

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Michael Lobel on art and the 1918 flu pandemic
Artforum, 2020

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Michael Lobel (Professor, Art History) | Profile 1

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The Graduate Center