Muse Reporting on the arts and culture

Art in isolation

Art | Could this be the time for a creative renaissance?
by Collin Garbarino
Posted 4/14/20, 06:05 pm

When actress Gwyneth Paltrow last month suggested to her Instagram followers that they use the coronavirus-imposed social isolation to “write a book, learn an instrument or a language or learn to code online, draw or paint,” some responded with eye-rolling. For essential workers, those with sick family members, and parents working from home while homeschooling kids, the idea of having spare time to learn new skills seems like an unachievable luxury.

But Paltrow’s suggestion has historical precedent. Many of Western civilization’s most cherished works of art and literature were created during times of isolation or societal distress.

During the Black Death, when the bubonic plague killed a third of Europe’s population in the mid-14th century, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, a classic of early Italian literature. In the plague-inspired book, 10 friends practice social distancing by fleeing to the countryside from the city. To amuse themselves and to take their minds off the death surrounding them, they tell 10 stories each, most of them romantic or humorous.

Plagues periodically revisited Europe, and during one of those waves in 1606, William Shakespeare probably wrote two of his most famous plays: King Lear and Macbeth.

London’s theaters had closed over fears about spreading the disease, so the usually busy actor-producer–theater owner found himself with plenty of time to write.

In 1624, the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck found himself under quarantine on the island of Sicily because of an outbreak of the plague. He used the time to paint a series of paintings depicting St. Rosalie interceding for those suffering from the disease. His approach came to define Rosalie’s iconography.

Isaac Newton had recently graduated from Cambridge University when it shut down briefly in 1665 because of Europe’s last major plague epidemic. While isolated at home, Newton refined his ideas about gravity and calculus, ideas that would transform science and mathematics in the modern period.

Social isolation and economic uncertainty also have been the setting of some of the world’s most recognizable pieces of art. Van Gogh painted his The Starry Night in 1889, inspired by the view from his asylum window. Dorothea Lange created Migrant Mother in 1936 while capturing scenes of the Great Depression. This image became the face of economic hardship in the 20th century.

While some might feel imprisoned in their homes, the writings of actual prisoners have changed the world. The apostle Paul, the philosopher Boethius, the preacher John Bunyan, the communism critic Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. all wrote some of their most important works while confined by the government.

Associated Press/Quibi Associated Press/Quibi A composite of images from Quibi shows

Let us entertain you—quickly

A new streaming platform, available only on smartphones, tests whether famous actors and slick productions can give YouTube a run for its money in 10 minutes or less. Quibi offers “quick bites” (get it?) of drama, comedy, news, reality TV, and documentaries in short episodes designed with endings to lure viewers back for another bite.

“During the day you have these in-between moments, 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there, where you want to see something great,” business mogul and Quibi co-founder Meg Whitman, the former president and CEO of Hewlett Packard, said. She and co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former DreamWorks Animation CEO, promise 175 new shows this year. The first 25 were released last week.

The pre-release buildup touted appearances by Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lopez, Christoph Waltz, and Sophie Turner. In the drama Most Dangerous Game, based on the short story by Richard Connell, star Liam Hemsworth agrees to be the prey in a bizarre human hunting game. It runs just over 2 hours, broken into 15 episodes, or “movie chapters.”

The docuseries I Promise spotlights at-risk kids who attend a school Lebron James started in Akron, Ohio. It promises to be upbeat and family-friendly, but many other Quibi shows are for mature audiences only.

The app’s release in the middle of a pandemic may be ill-timed. The intended on-the-go audience for this $1.75 billion mobile platform is now mostly homebound, choosing full-length programs from recliners. While sheltering in place, more than 56 percent of U.S. households are watching more programming today than before, spending at least two hours a day in front of the TV, a technology that Quibi doesn’t accommodate.

Cost is a consideration, too. After a free 90-day trial, subscriptions run $4.99 a month with ads or $7.99 without commercials. That’s a big ask considering all the current streaming choices, as well as the quick, free options like Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and a barrage of breaking news updates. Besides, users can hit the pause button themselves 10 minutes into anything. —Sharon Dierberger

Eurasia Investments Eurasia Investments Burt Reynolds in The Cannonball Run (1981)

Fast and furious

As shelter-in-place orders across the United States have cleared the streets of major cities, the open road proved to be too much of a temptation for a group of drivers who recently broke the record for the Cannonball Run.

The race, popularized by the 1981 Burt Reynolds movie of the same name, is an unsanctioned event in which drivers attempt to get from New York City to Los Angeles in as little time as possible. The challenge began in 1971 when a team of drivers took a Ferrari Daytona coast to coast in 35 hours and 54 minutes. By 2019, the record had dropped to 27 hours and 25 minutes, a benchmark many in the shady world of cannonballing assumed would stand for years.

The two main obstacles to a record-breaking run are police and traffic, and in 2020, the coronavirus eliminated one of those two obstacles. Last week, a team of three anonymous drivers in a 2019 Audi fitted with extra fuel tanks set a new record of 26 hours and 38 minutes with an average speed of 106 mph.

Some Cannonballers, however, think the record ought to have an asterisk. Maybe it’s not right to exploit a national crisis for a Cannonball Run. —C.G.

Collin Garbarino
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