At the end of May, I wrote:
Yesterday the U.S. officially marked 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. The clinical detachment of that number masks a staggering loss of individual lives, a cutting short of vibrant stories. It has also encouraged a conversation about communal grieving and acts of memorial, asking how our present moment is like, and unlike, previous collective experiences of loss from war, terrorism, and illness.
I didn’t anticipate that five months later, I would be writing, “Yesterday the U.S. officially marked 250,000 deaths from COVID-19.” And yet, here we are.
Bearing in mind that nearly incomprehensible statistic, a work in MOCRA’s current exhibition Surface to Source has taken on new layers of meaning since it went on display in January.
Robert Farber (1948–1995) worked on his Western Blot Series between 1991 and 1994. These twenty-three painting-constructions emerged from Farber’s experience of living with HIV and AIDS (the title comes from a test used to diagnose HIV.) The works juxtapose the Black Death in the fourteenth century and AIDS in the late twentieth century. Farber noted, “I started reading Barbara Tuchman and found compelling parallels between medieval man’s experience of the Black Death and AIDS today. There were so many equivalents: sociologically, economically spiritually.”
One panel bears a quote from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, written between 1348 and 1351, which includes 100 tales recounted by a group of ten young women and men who are sheltering in a villa outside Florence to escape the bubonic plague ravaging the city. Farber linked the psychological trauma of the Black Death to the experiences of gay men in the early decades of the AIDS crisis.
I uncovered the context of this passage in the Introduction to the First Day of the Decameron. I was struck by Boccaccio’s descriptions of the various ways people responded to the plague.
Some there were who conceived that to live moderately and keep oneself from all excess was the best defence against such a danger; wherefore, making up their company, they lived removed from every other and shut themselves up in those houses where none had been sick and where living was best; and there, using very temperately of the most delicate viands and the finest wines and eschewing all incontinence, they abode with music and such other diversions as they might have, never suffering themselves to speak with any nor choosing to hear any news from without of death or sick folk.
Others, inclining to the contrary opinion, maintained that to carouse and make merry and go about singing and frolicking and satisfy the appetite in everything possible and laugh and scoff at whatsoever befell was a very certain remedy for such an ill. That which they said they put in practice as best they might, going about day and night, now to this tavern, now to that, drinking without stint or measure . . .
COVID-19 has likewise elicited a range of responses, from those who take every precaution to those who live as if in denial of the existence of the coronavirus. The Introduction also illustrates the tensions between individualism and community-centeredness, the despair that lurks behind a studied nihilism, the disorientation of becoming unmoored from social customs, and the ways communities break down when bereft of effective leadership and reliable public services.
The clearly delineated components of Western Blot #11 suggest the compartmentalization happening on so many levels right now. Some are physical: social bubbles, remote education, stay-at-home orders. Others are psychological and emotional, especially for frontline workers under tremendous physical and mental strain. A single open frame juxtaposed with an eye calls to mind the heartbreaking situation of people dying in hospital beds or nursing homes, separated from loved ones who can only communicate with them through windows or smartphone screens.
Sets of hash marks evoke the mounting number of people diagnosed with and dying from COVID-19. The strokes visually express the cumulative tedium of days spent confined at home, hours spent on video conferences, missed sports events and theater performances and concerts and religious services. They speak to the scarcity of hospital beds and berths in homeless shelters, to missed mortgage and rent payments that may result in foreclosure or eviction. And they are an indictment of the inaction (or perhaps intransigence) of government leaders unable or unwilling to make decisions in the interest of the common good.
F. Regina Psaki notes that,
The Decameron provides a metanarrative on compassion . . . [the world of the storytellers] begins in collective pain, incomprehension, chaos, and cruelty and must find its way back to solace, understanding, order, and compassion. . . . Yet they do return. They have recovered the compassion that pushes them to accept the responsibility of consoling and assisting their fellows, a responsibility they had earlier shed under the pragmatic impetus of self-preservation.I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, Volume 22, Number 1, Spring 2019
Robert Farber created the Western Blot works in the midst of an epidemic that devastated gay communities and brought into sharp relief the fear, prejudice, and discrimination aimed at gay men and other marginalized people who were most at risk of contracting AIDS. He brought to his work a vision by turns painful, moving, compassionate, and courageous, causing art historian Michael Camille to write, “Farber’s work has less finality, and more hope in my view, representing not death at all, but the struggle of art to frame life while it can still be lived.”
Back in May, I also wrote,
We at MOCRA don’t pretend to have any great insights, but we do believe in the capacity for art to carry us past the limitations of speech in articulating our grief, fear, confusion, and anger, to remind us of the power of empathy, compassion, and solidarity. This can be especially true of art that emerges from an engagement with the spiritual and religious dimensions: art rooted in the fertile soil of wisdom found in the world’s faith traditions, or shaped by the discipline of ritual, spiritual, or artistic practices; art that taps into a treasury of images and themes that speak across time, geography, and culture.
Today I reaffirm those assertions. We must be clear-eyed about the consequences of the polarization in our civic life: the politicization of our response to the pandemic at both the community and national levels, resulting in unnecessary suffering and additional loss of life; the ongoing turmoil following the November election; and the turbulent reckoning with the systemic racism that poisons almost every aspect of life in our nation.
And yet, works of art, be they literary or musical or kinesthetic or visual, afford us an opportunity to step away from our preoccupations, adopt new perspectives, reflect, and receive inspiration—so that we may return to face life’s challenges with renewed vigor, equanimity, and solidarity.
2 thoughts on “Finding a way back”
The artist, Robert Farber, is my cousin. We are the same age and grew up across the street from each other. This is a powerful and moving exhibit of his work. Thank you.
Susan, thank you for taking the time to comment. Robert’s retrospective show at MOCRA in 2000 was an important exhibition, and we are pleased to have his work in our collection to continue sharing with audiences.