I’ve been thinking a lot about David Wojnarowicz’s jacket, worn to a 1988 protest a year after the artist’s HIV diagnosis. Emblazoned on the back over the subverted pink triangle that came to be a symbol of the gay community’s fight for liberation were the words: “IF I DIE OF AIDS – FORGET BURIAL – JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE FDA.”
These words have echoed through the decades, transmitted and mutating, cultural commentators have noted, like a virus: “IF I DIE IN POLICE CUSTODY …”; “IF I DIE IN A SCHOOL SHOOTING …” A year ago, the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power, Act Up, the grassroots group dedicated to ending the Aids pandemic through political and artistic activism, and who put on a “political funeral” for Wojnarowicz when he died of Aids at the age of 37 in 1992, posted a new manifestation online: “IF I DIE OF COVID-19 – FORGET BURIAL DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF MAR-A-LAGO.”
We are a year in, but in terms of Covid’s artistic impact, it’s obviously early days. On the one hand, the potential for great art is huge: the grief and the fury is ripe for channelling. “No, #COVID19 isn’t AIDS but the parallels are clear as day,” Act Up NY tweeted in March last year. “Vulnerable communities are taking the brunt of this pandemic due to overwhelming neglect. All the barriers in place (healthcare, pharma greed, housing, stigma, etc) that have kept HIV alive will keep this virus alive.”
Yet there is also fatigue and an unwillingness to engage with any form of cultural response to the pandemic. Online, it has become fashionable to express dread about the slew of Covid novels, art, TV shows or films that will emerge. “I completely understand why the Spanish Flu was rarely if ever mentioned in 1920s literature and art. I do not want to watch any TV shows/movies or read a single novel about this fucking time,” tweeted the writer Rebecca Fishbein this week (340,000+ likes). She then added: “I can assure all of you that even if every single movie/film/book were exclusively about Covid going forward, humanity would still learn no lessons. See: Holocaust.”
Perhaps it is unfair for me to single out the sentiments of a lone writer, but her words are symptomatic of a view that I have now seen and heard expressed countless times, both online and off, and they raise some interesting questions. Is the purpose of art to teach us lessons? Did not the Holocaust provoke a major 20th-century artistic shift? In asking the question, “how do we make art after Auschwitz?” ways of moving forward were found. The rise of abstraction resulted. And what about Primo Levi, Charlotte Salomon or Gerhard Richter, among others? The art and literature of the second world war, and the Great War before it, were a necessary processing of the trauma of mass death and destruction.
It is true that, as Fishbein notes, Spanish flu was called “the forgotten pandemic”. The reason usually cited for this artistic void is that it was overshadowed by the first world war. Certain works, of course, do come to mind: Edvard Munch’s two self-portraits, one of him with the Spanish flu, the other after he had recovered; Egon Schiele’s drawings: one of Gustav Klimt on his deathbed before he succumbed to the flu following a stroke, another, in 1918, of his dying pregnant wife Edith – Schiele himself would die several days after Edith and their unborn child, leaving behind his haunting unfinished painting The Family. There was literature, too, most notably in the 1930s, which saw The Doctor’s Son, a short story by John O’Hara, They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter, which was inspired by Porter’s own experience of almost dying from influenza.
However, the way the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic synthesised in cultural works was far more subtle than simple depiction. From the clean, hygienic lines of the Bauhaus and 1920s architecture – Charles Jencks said that “the deep metaphor of modernism was that of the operating theatre, the hospital, of a place where the difficulties of everyday life could be fumigated out” – to the morbid absurdism of dadaism, it cast a shadow. In literature, the pandemic can be “contact traced” again through modernism: Mrs Dalloway, The Waste Land, The Second Coming – it’s a spectre in all of them.
This is the thesis of Elizabeth Outka’s Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature. Outka speculates that the Spanish flu manifests spectrally because trauma itself is spectral – people remember it “diffusely”. And diseases, of course, are invisible. Furthermore, as Virginia Woolf notes in her essay On Being Ill, illnesses are essentially “plotless”: “the public,” she writes, “would say that a novel devoted to influenza lacked plot.”
So where does this all leave us, in terms of making and consuming cultural products? Friends who work in television and publishing tell me that editors and commissioners are approaching works that deal with Covid with caution, suspecting that the public desperately want cheering up and a return to normality. One contact tells me that TV commissioners keep saying they “want works that feel like sinking into a warm bath”.
Is this repression, or could it be that we are still in the midst of the trauma? Perhaps, like the art of the Spanish flu pandemic, Covid will make itself known artistically as a sort of shadow spectre, or perhaps, as with much of the art of the Aids pandemic, it will operate powerfully at the intersection of art and activism. The political rage is there, and if not the same degree of stigma and marginalisation faced by queer artists, the suffering of vulnerable people has been great indeed. There has been enormous grief, too. Forgive me for sounding like an armchair psychologist for a moment, but it has to come out somehow.