UC Berkeley professors discussed crises and compared famous works of art, literature and music to the COVID-19 pandemic at a livestreamed event Wednesday.
The video event was led by Anthony Cascardi, UC Berkeley dean of arts and humanities, and featured English and journalism professor Mark Danner, art history professor Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby and music associate professor Nicholas Mathew, each a scholar and award winner in their field.
Each guest speaker shared their outlook on crises — current and historical — through the lens of their knowledge of the arts.
Crisis situations are often the birthplace of creativity, according to Cascardi. He referenced author Miguel de Cervantes, who came up with the idea for his novel “Don Quixote” while in jail, and painter Francisco Goya, who was inspired by the Napoleonic wars.
“Big intellectuals and big artists might, in some horrible morally questionable inversion, welcome a crisis because it gives them a theme sufficiently grandiose for what you call their genial apprehension,” Mathew said at the event, referencing political theorist Carl Schmitt.
Some works of literature illustrate crisis situations that closely resemble the current situation, Danner said during the event. Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” describes the rich fleeing town to their second homes in the countryside, people rising up and demanding an end to quarantine and individuals selling strange concoctions that supposedly cure the plague on the street.
There are also similarities between scenes depicted in paintings and the coronavirus pandemic, according to Grigsby.
“The ‘(Bonaparte Visiting the) Plague-Stricken in Jaffa’ is about how the leader, who pretends to have moral courage and enacts a falsehood, can be wrong and risks the lives of all of his soldiers,” Grigsby said at the event. “Géricault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’ is about collective suffering and all those who died in their suffering to lift up the most disenfranchised.”
Grigsby explained that the nature of a painting is a form of social distancing. She added that it encourages connection through sight and remoteness because it is to be viewed and not touched.
In music, Ludwig van Beethoven’s masterpieces tend to exemplify the darkest hour of a crisis, Mathew said during the event. The climax of a crisis is often followed by a breakthrough point in the music when normalcy returns. Cascardi, however, said he doubts whether there will be such a point during the current pandemic.
Although sheltering in place can be challenging, it can be an opportunity to learn to live life artistically, according to Danner.
“You can find different ways to live; you can create yourself,” Danner said at the event. “The ability to reshape life will be something that is taken away from this crisis, that we retain after this crisis is over. We will see new ways of relating to one another that won’t be determined by the crisis but will be a result of the creativity that we can see is possible in our ways of living.”