My biggest and most shocking realization this year was that I have more social anxiety than I previously cared to admit. I’m normally a social person, even though I’ve long prized my personal time, protecting it on weekends when I can barricade myself at home to relax, read, write, clean, or draw. But during this past year, as I spent more time alone, it became very apparent that my anxiety was worse than I ever realized.

For the first few months of the pandemic, I imagined the gnawing anxiety I felt as I receded into my apartment was due to the economic meltdown that severely impacted ad-supported indie publications like Hyperallergic. I braced myself thinking this feeling of dread would lift as things financially improved. I waited, worked with staff to launch a membership program to keep the lights on, and tried to help plan a future when everything still seemed uncertain.

Using precautions, I even traveled around the city, committed to telling the stories that would emerge from this time of crisis, interviewing artists in Jackson Heights, and other locales for the podcast, not wanting to admit how I wasn’t able to function at my pre-pandemic levels.

Veken and I going out for interviews in April of this year (Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Then came June, when we reached our first membership goal and I took a breath. As the weather warmed and the infections in New York plummeted, I started to go out for walks. Soon after,the protests following the murder of George Floyd galvanized the city, and it was then that I realized I had something else that I couldn’t shake: social anxiety.

It’s a new feeling for me, not the anxiety, which I’ve had ever since a series of childhood incidents that continue to affect me, but being cognizant of how much it impacts me daily. I knew I often felt the pressure to socialize at work events, not interested in small talk or preferring quick goodbyes to lingering ones. But here I was feeling the dread of socializing in general. When I gave in and allowed myself to avoid social contact I felt a cloud lift. I ate better during the lockdown, cooking at home and saving thousands of dollars over the course of the year, cleaned out the nooks and crannies of our apartment with an intensity I could barely muster before, but here was a reality staring me in the face. I even lost 15 pounds, while being a largely inactive couch potato. It was all confusing.

During the string of shutdowns and quarantines that have come to define this year, I found myself glued to screens more than ever. Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and other streaming services now took up the time I normally spent with people. My cultural consumption had shifted, but I also spent time reflecting on photos from previous years, when I traveled extensively and never seemed to have time to process what I was seeing. 

It was fun to flip through images of the various Sharjah Biennials I attended during that last decade, lingering on Meschac Gaba’s exquisite helmet project on display last year. It rendered some of the architecture of the Emirate as artificial hair. Another work from the same biennial I thought about quite a bit was “Nomads of the Sea” (2019) by Lisa Reihana, which was a beautiful 3D presentation that looked at the South Pacific through a decolonial lens. 

Reflecting on that year’s Sharjah Biennial, which was curated by Zoe Butt, Omar Kholeif, and Claire Tancons, it reminded me how sprawling art biennials have become nowadays, and how ill-suited they are to conventional reviews, inoculated from so much criticism through their overabundant programming — often in varied geographical locales — that no one can realistically experience in total.

Even when the locale isn’t as remote, like the 2019 Whitney Biennial, the result is somewhat similar. I thought about last year’s Biennial quite a bit during the string of shutdowns. Most of all I thought about the disregard for Palestinian lives many of the artists in the biennial demonstrated, choosing to remain publicly silent about the terror Safariland was profiting from.

I thought about the Rachel Harrison exhibition that followed the biennial, and that the Kanders — the couple at the center of that tear gas and bullets controversy — were prominent collectors of Harrison.

During this wretched year, I also thought a lot about the 2017 European art house film The Square, which lampoons the luxury part of the art world. The first time I saw it, I hated it. It didn’t reflect the art community I interacted with or felt a part of. It offered a skewed version of a world through  the lens of institutional gatekeeping and wealthy donors, not a perspective we need more of in the world. 

But in the last few years, I now see how accurately The Square reflects an aspect of our community, the members of it who fly many times a month to farflung cities — business class, of course — dine at the fanciest venues, hobnob with some of the most despicable people eager to artwash their crimes or guilt, and with those whose moral compass won’t differentiate between dictators, war criminals, or venture capitalists. As long as the check clears, right?

The film mirrors a cadre of curators, dealers, critics, artists, and collectors who need contemporary art to mediate their feelings about the world around them. Art becomes a window for them into worlds they wouldn’t have access to any other way. Some contemporary art, I’m sad to say, is starting to resemble the colonialist-era art we’ve come to call Orientalist. 

Complex and weighty issues are being reduced to objects or types, most notably around the topic of refugees, such as in Ai Weiwei’s refugee life jacket displays, Marc Quinn’s proposal to exhibit the blood of refugees, or Christoph Buchel, the king of the bad trolls, exhibiting a capsized refugee boat that Venice Biennale visitors could take selfies with. (It turns out he couldn’t even be bothered to return the boat on which hundreds of people died after he was done.) It’s quite intolerable. And this year, having time to reflect, these types of art stunts seem more puerile than ever.

I’ve been watching and rewatching more online content than ever before, coming across strange serials and films that were both jarring and illuminating now seen through the prism of today. The second season of Revolution (2012–14), which aired on NBC, has a storyline about a post-apocalyptic US government forcefully infecting its citizens and withholding a vaccine. Seeing that I was less surprised at the weird backlash to COVID-19 in the US as conspiracy theorists screamed that they smelled a government plot. The US media and culture industries have long played a role in driving the wild (sometimes unmoored) imagination of the public. Back in 1915, Hollywood film Birth of a Nation (1915) popularized the KKK and invented racist cross burning (later adapted by the KKK), and since then it has been crystal clear how culture — even when it isn’t official propaganda or government sanctioned (though President Woodrow Wilson did host a screening of the film at the White House, the first film to receive such an honor) can promote hate and intolerance, even inadvertently.

Amidst all this, I kept thinking, what culture should we be putting out into the world? What works of art do we need right now?

A detail of the Raoul Hague sculpture (Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Hyperallergic Weekend has been running a fantastic series since May that asks artists to reflect on the art they have at home. The responses have been fun to read, but have also made me more conscious of the art I choose to live with. One piece in particular has given me the most strength this year. A 1930s stone sculpture by Raoul Hague, which I bought for what felt like a bargain basement price from a small auction house I’d never heard of soon after my father died as a way to remember him. Hague, who was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, seemed a fitting tribute to my father, while the androgynous limestone figure appears in the midst of repose or mourning, a mood that seemed to shift depending on the day and lighting. Unlike his later abstract forms in wood this looks more to ancient artistic precedents, the sculpture acts as a touchstone for me, allowing me to see beyond the present moment to feel a sense of continuity between the past and future. 

I also found myself accumulating things that reminded me of people I love. I finally hung a small painting my mother-in-law painted in her youth; I tracked down two drawings by a dear artist friend for the living room, and I finally decided to frame images by photographers I respect. 

I suppose the natural tendency is to nest during these periods of isolation, so my sprucing up my apartment isn’t out of the ordinary. The first three months of the pandemic I was proudly sedentary at home, watching the world from my digital and real world windows, and hearing people cheer from their balconies and windows at 7pm everyday for health care workers.

By June, with the outburst of support for Black Lives Matter, things seemed hopeful, even if the pandemic was still raging. It was then my body started to break down, and it would take a few months to identify another issue as a side effect of medication I was on to treat high blood pressure. 

On Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Confronted with the limitations of my body, I found refuge in non-art writing and engaging with others in deeper ways. I wrote a piece with two colleagues for the LA Review of Books on Armenian Americans and race, wrote a very personal essay for an anthology that will come out next year, wrote a great deal in my journal, drew the world around me to process the shift, and wrestled with being present at a time when we were all siloed from one another. I’m not sure why I ran away from writing about art at the time, even though I continued to podcast. I felt somewhat similar after 9/11, when words felt insufficient for a while, even if they returned in a deluge months later.

During this same period, my husband and I lost several older relatives. As I felt my body failing me, it was clear those more elderly and vulnerable were feeling it more. In June, Veken lost his eldest uncle, then in August my aunt died of COVID-19 in Aleppo, and it was crushing.

The next month another of my aunts and one of Veken’s died of other illnesses. Within a few months we had lost four family members, and the world felt a little more bleak. By late August Veken and I were eager to return to the outside world and we arranged park visits with friends and even a few museum trips, while I dressed up in new clothes in an effort to feel better. 

The day we ventured to the Metropolitan Museum felt charmed. I rushed in to see some of my favorite corners and enjoyed the new spacious world I found myself in. A trip to the Museum of Modern Art followed a week later, but I found its renovated spaces cold by comparison. A mostly empty MoMA felt like an airport more than ever. When I turned some corners, I was confronted with an emptiness that felt like a stage set or even an abandoned mall. I couldn’t wait to leave.

The US Presidential election by then had become intolerable, and then a war in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), which almost started in July fully flared up in September. A month and a half later, after thousands of deaths, the results were stark. Those who have never heard the name Artsakh before couldn’t relate to or understand the shock to those of us who knew it well. Armenians the world over watched in horror as one of the last indigenous regions of our community was robbed of its sovereignty. While I continued to work full time, I was bombarded by social media posts about Azerbaijani war crimes, beheadings, awful dictator-fueled propaganda, sometimes parroted by the oblivious US media, which felt like a barrage. The New York art world was slowly opening at the time but it was clear that it would be short lived and the vast majority of us New Yorkers saw the exhibitions on our devices more than in person. I found much of the online fare, like lectures and tours, uninteresting, and so I barricaded myself at home with audiobooks, podcasts, and video essays on YouTube.

During the Artsakh war I joined local protests since I knew the cost of apathy. I connected with some other artists and allies at protests, tried to amplify truth to cut through the war fog of lies, and braced myself for an election that felt as chaotic as it was important. The day the Artsakh government surrendered was one of the most traumatic for those in my community since the Armenian Genocide. I had endured years of news about the war in Syria, but this felt more intense.

An image from the October 10 Artsakh protest in Manhattan (Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

The last few months have been a blur. I did see a few excellent shows, like Derek Fordjour’s salve of an exhibition at Petzel Gallery, but most felt empty and unconnected. I kept thinking about how the art community would respond knowing that many patrons for museums and art galleries were among those who fleeced the financial system this year. I still can’t believe Gagosian, Zwirner, and others luxury art galleries received millions of dollars in government money when their audience is the richest among us. Many artists and gallerists have told me privately they are selling work, some even briskly. And why shouldn’t they be considering their patrons, if they aren’t in hospitality or a few other hard-hit industries, are doing great? The wealthy, as we now should know, made out like bandits.

The recent flurry of inane coverage over the monolith worried me because it felt like people were too willing to forget everything to return to silly things. The New York Times had multiple stories on it, even placing three reporters on one of them, as if it was of the utmost importance. While they have yet to run anything about the cultural genocide continuing in Azerbaijan against Armenians.

The business? Well, it’s precarious like all small businesses right now, so a year of changing our business model, finding new ways to support our critical work, and shifting priorities has dominated my life, in addition to everything else I mentioned.

Last week was the first week my blood pressure was in a normal range, which is a relief after many attempts at finding the right medication without side effects. I’m learning to live again without the low-grade uneasiness high blood pressure can cause. Writing helps. My anxiety, it seems, is scared of the light, prefering to fester in the darkness of discomfort. Art always helps, good art anyway, bad art often has the opposite effect, draining you like a sieve. I continue to look, read, listen, feel, reconsider, and learn. As I reenter the world, I’ll have to determine which parts of this pre-2020 reality I can leave behind and which parts I can’t.

I’m less interested than ever in an art community that celebrates million-dollar art works or museum shows that are designed to increase the value of trustee collections, and more committed to art that challenges old forms and evades marketability. I increasingly see value in art that finds and burrows into the crevices of our lives, and in doing so becomes something not easily co-opted, owned, or marginalized. We’re entering a period where we’re all going to have to choose between the old and the new models of creation, display, circulation, and critique and some of these novel models we’ll discover aren’t all that new, but resuscitated or refashioned from the knowledge handed to us by those who came before. This possibility is what excites me.

If I learned anything from this newfound awareness about my anxiety it’s that I don’t have time to waste on things that don’t feed my mind, soul, and body. The disease this year may have been COVID-19, but the silent killer has long been apathy and complacency in this community I love. I started the year largely unaware of what ailed me and I feel much closer to healing than ever before. The journey is just beginning.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

3 replies on “The Unforgettable Anxiety of 2020”

  1. Thank you, Hrag. This was such a thoughtful, slow, read and it really matches the unspoken tone of reflection that this last day of the year has imposed onto me and perhaps many, many, many other people. I really felt a sense of awe and ultimately double-read the paragraph about the art we live with and the Hague sculpture.

Comments are closed.