Great Art, Lousy Times

by Susan Abbott

When I am feeling anxious and depressed about politics and the state of the world, I remind myself about all the great art that's been created during lousy times.

You are maybe thinking that art is always at its best during happy times.

The Bedroom, Peter de Hooch

The Bedroom, Peter de Hooch

But really, how many sustained periods of peace and prosperity have we had recently--or for that matter, ever? The truth is that artists keep working through good times and bad times, and produce some of their most beautiful, hopeful work in the very worst times.

Primavera, Botticelli

Primavera, Botticelli

In the 1400's, Western art was reborn in Florence in the midst of foreign invasions, violent political machinations, and the ravages of the plague.

Botticelli, Leonardo, Fra Angelico and Michelangelo created masterpieces in cities ruled by an autocratic church and a few stupendously wealthy families. During tumultuous times, these painters invented an art that was transcendentally orderly and serene.

Queen of Sheba, Piero della Francesca

Queen of Sheba, Piero della Francesca

You would never know by looking at French art what an unsettled history France has endured. Centuries of invasions, occupations, civil wars, revolutions and dictatorships--and yet when we think of French painting, we image light, color and loveliness.

The Embarkation for Cythera, Jean-Antoine Watteau

The Embarkation for Cythera, Jean-Antoine Watteau

Who would guess that the Impressionists painted their luminous landscapes during years when the rich got very rich and the poor got poorer, when there was fighting in the streets of Paris, a war with Prussia, a siege that starved the city for months, a second revolution, and an autocratic crackdown?

Meanwhile, Monet was on the road in search of a good motif, and Sisley was standing on the bank of the Seine looking at the play of light on water.

Boats on the Seine, Alfred Sisley

Boats on the Seine, Alfred Sisley

Matisse lived through two world wars, and in the midst of his despair and anxiety, never stopped creating joyous work.

La Danse, Henri Matisse

La Danse, Henri Matisse

Then there are artists who react to terrible times with anger and protest. Kathe Kollwitz lost a son in the First World War and a grandson in the Second. Her prints and drawings distill her grief and indignation.

"Mother with Her Dead Child", Kathe Kollwitz

"Mother with Her Dead Child", Kathe Kollwitz

I can't imagine a more powerful expression of the horror of war than "Guernica", Picasso's reaction to the fascist's destruction of a village during the Spanish Civil War.

Guernica, Pablo Picasso

Guernica, Pablo Picasso

In the postwar United States, the Abstract Expressionists and Beats invented vital new forms of painting and writing during a period of political repression and paranoia--plus they did it on no money.

Study, Willem de Kooning

Study, Willem de Kooning

My point here is not that art thrives during periods of penury and misery. It doesn't, and even if it did, I would happily choose peace and prosperity for the many, over great art for the few.

What I'm trying to say (to my anxious self) is, "Stop worrying a minute, and zoom out to take a look at the big picture."

Here's what I'll see:

What's going on right now, all the anger, troubles, grief and loss, is not that different from what's going on most of the time in this world of ours. More often than not, things aren't fair and bad stuff happens. Every so often we will experience events that are out of our control, and they remind us that life, in a nutshell, is hard.

But, here's the thing:

The painter keeps painting, the writer keeps writing, the teacher keeps teaching, the singer keeps singing. Mothers and fathers keep loving their kids.

Yellow, Red, Blue, Wassily Kandinsky

Yellow, Red, Blue, Wassily Kandinsky

We plant a garden. We pick up the broom and sweep.

"Garden at Valhermeil", Camille Pissarro

"Garden at Valhermeil", Camille Pissarro

We turn to music to fill our spirits. We go to nature and God to fill our souls.

Untitled, Joan Mitchell

Untitled, Joan Mitchell

With small persistent steps, we get somewhere better. And if we keep going long enough, we finally arrive at the future we make for ourselves, a picture of our own creation. I'm ready to start walking....

Camino, Near Ebro, Susan Abbott

Camino, Near Ebro, Susan Abbott

Your comments are welcome below!