The emails started to change toward the end of March. “I hope this message finds you well, despite it all,” said people who would otherwise never express a modicum of interest in my personal life. “I hope your family is healthy.” I did it too: send these peculiarly empathetic messages to communications departments and “info@” mailboxes managed by strangers. To me, this bizarre conflation of tones in email correspondence is emblematic of the way in which our lives behind closed doors collided with our external personas this year, like seeing someone’s rumpled bedspread peeking out behind them during a Zoom call. As a writer, I can do my work from home, but that means living intimately with my stories, sharing a physical space with them, becoming intertwined in them.
In the early days of the pandemic, our editor-in-chief, Hrag Vartanian, suggested we stop using the word “unprecedented” to describe the crisis. He was right. It is demeaning to all the people who have been suffering for so long — those whose hardships and misfortune the virus only deepened — to imply that this year was uniquely terrible, as though relentless wars, recessions, and yes, pandemics, had not been devastating entire communities since the beginning of time. It has become especially critical for journalists to scrutinize our language for implicit biases. Who are we writing for? What vision of history do we assume to be true? I talked to artist Mira Schor about her incisive annotations of New York Times covers, which reveal the weight of an individual word, the way it can shape or warp reality.
What is undeniable is that this year brought an overdue boiling over of tensions related to class and race disparities. Movements like Black Lives Matter had been fighting for racial justice long before 2020, but a spate of inexplicably cruel murders of Black individuals at the hands of police and vigilantes, combined with the virus’s disproportionate toll on people of color and the absence of a social safety net, lit a fuse that ignited a revolution. In the cultural sector, those who had long accepted low-paying jobs and inadequate leadership decided they had enough, opting to speak up, often risking retaliation, rather than remain silent. Students at top-tier MFA programs demanded reimbursements when they found themselves paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition for an online-only education, with no specialized equipment or studio space. I started to grasp just how miserable some arts workers truly are, like part-time and contracted employees and museum educators, who live in a seemingly perpetual state of uncertainty. Yes, we all knew the art industry was unscrupulous, rife with inequality and nepotism, and now we know something else: It is not sustainable.
In the midst of all this, the proverbial art world led a number of perplexing moral crusades. When an exhibition of Philip Guston’s works that included a series focused on KKK imagery was postponed — not canceled, simply delayed for a few years — the cultural intelligentsia came out in swarms to cry censorship. The Baltimore Museum of Art had to cancel a sale of three works in its collection on the very day of the auction after former board members, artists, and eminent arts journalists practically crucified the museum over the deaccession, which was meant to support long-term salaries and DEIA initiatives. Though some of the dissenting arguments in both of these examples were thoughtfully articulated and well-intentioned, I was disappointed by the way in which these particular battles were prioritized while many stayed mum as wealthy organizations slashed their staff.
Meanwhile, most gallery and museum programming shifted online, with varying degrees of success. David Zwirner and Andrea Rosen collaborated on a digital restaging of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1990 installation “‘Untitled’ (Fortune Cookie Corner)” that read to some as a social media stunt. One of my favorite digital art projects was Lizania Cruz’s Obituaries of the American Dream: 1931-2020, commissioned for El Museo del Barrio’s triennial. Cruz collected people’s personal testimonies describing the moment when the so-called “American dream” — the myth of upward mobility and equal opportunity in the US — officially perished for them.
This year, I sometimes fell into the trap of comparing life in the US to my native Argentina, where nearly half of the population is living in poverty. This is a reflex inherited from the early days of our move, when I heard my parents speaking primarily in terms of allá (over there, back home) and acá (here, in the US). I grew up at least partly believing that everyone had a chance acá. Cruz’s work was an important reminder of those misperceptions and how much work there is to be done, at the most basic level, to improve life in the richest country in the world.
Still, I worry about how little coverage Latin American countries — and nations affected by catastrophic conflict, like Armenia and Ethiopia — seem to get, how much local concerns have overshadowed the devastation of chronically fraught cultural infrastructures abroad. I appreciated my editor’s willingness to cover the crisis of museums in Mexico, where the arts ecosystem appears to be silently crumbling as the world watches on. This summer, thousands of cultural workers signed an open letter urging a rollback of austerity measures rocking the sector as the government approved a $440 million budget to convert Mexico City’s Bosque de Chapultepec park into a cultural center designed by artist Gabriel Orozco. Non-unionized workers of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura (INBAL), which oversees Mexico’s largest arts institutions, denounced month-long delays in wages. Even as the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM) issued an urgent warning about the state of Mexico’s museums, the cultural emergency in Mexico seems to remain on the margins of mainstream US media (unlike, for instance, the disturbing suppression of artistic freedom in Cuba, which thankfully made headlines worldwide).
In part, that may be because as the news continues to avalanche, we have fewer and fewer journalists to report it. According to the Times, an estimated 37,000 workers at news companies across the country have been laid off, furloughed, or had their pay reduced this year. Many smaller, local outlets doing vital work in their communities did not survive.
I know I am fortunate to have a job, particularly one that I am passionate about, at a time when too many, especially writers, artists, and workers in the creative field, do not. But I have struggled to balance my very real feelings of gratitude with the equally visceral emotional and physical toll of reporting the news in a year like this one. These emotions — relief and exhaustion, appreciation and apathy — fought for dominance until they twisted into a daedal knot I could no longer untangle.
Another confession: I have found it challenging to write engagingly. Any sentence that began with “the year 2020…” or “as the virus rages on” would inevitably read like a platitude, but it felt impossible and irresponsible not to reference the pandemic all the time. And how could I keep readers interested amid a barrage of ominous headlines? On the worst days, I questioned my ability to string words together into a sentence, much less craft a well-formed paragraph; letters jumbled together like alphabet soup as the blinking cursor taunted me from the blank page.
To all creators, from writers to painters to pastry chefs and weavers and people designing tiny museums for their gerbils, here is my message to you, to us: creating is hard. Waking up every morning and making something from nothing, a world out of words or beads or brushstrokes, is always difficult, but even more so in a time of tumult. It is my hope that my reporting this year reflected the importance and value of the individual behind each artwork.
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