“Moreover, what made this pestilence all the more virulent was that it was spread by the slightest contact between the sick and the healthy just as a fire will catch dry or oily materials when they are placed right beside it.”
– Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, ca. 1349–1352
“Don’t punish me with brutality”
– Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On,” 1971
It is difficult. It is difficult to know how to think, rethink, and unthink. What to write, what not to write. Thoughts form and then dissolve. Focus starts and then withers away. Events are happening simultaneously at such a fast pace that it is impossible to keep up, and to process. Social media, of course, is accelerating everything. The mind is present one minute, gone the next. Hyperdistraction. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City in March, I’ve been very hesitant to write anything. Probably because my brain has been scrambled. It’s no doubt a common predicament these days. One thing is for certain, however: I’ve been thinking far more about epidemiology than art over the past few months. Anxiety about the here, the now, and the future is persistent. Days flow into each other, becoming almost interchangeable – Friday feels like Wednesday, Tuesday resembles Sunday. Time is different. Hope and optimism are fugitive. One might say that there is a kind of spiritual exhaustion, along with intellectual fatigue. Even on a mundane level, a dilemma has arisen as to whether to leave the house to shop for food or to exclusively use e-commerce for all consumer transactions. But how can I complain? I’m one of the fortunate people. I have certain privileges, even though here in NYC, privilege and entitlement are always very relative conditions.
According to recent statistics, approximately 400,000 people left New York City from March through May, in an attempt to escape the pandemic. Including a few friends of mine. Some will return, others will not. Certainly, many people are experiencing significantly more harrowing challenges and greater precarity in their lives than me – such as essential workers and frontline health care professionals, who have been laboring throughout the pandemic, risking their lives for us and too often paying the ultimate price with their lives. And, so, I am endeavoring to put my troubles into perspective and to amplify my empathy. Less of me, more of we. In the midst of writing about our strange new global coronavirus reality, protests erupted here in the United States in reaction to the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The May 25 incident was caught on video and went viral on social media. The footage shows the police officer (Derek Chauvin) kneeling on top of a handcuffed Floyd on the street, pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, appearing to asphyxiate him. At one point, Floyd is heard saying, “Please, I can’t breathe”—eerily reminiscent of Eric Garner’s last words, another Black man who was choked to death on a New York City street by another white police officer, in 2014, which was also captured on video and also led to nationwide demonstrations.
In the Minneapolis incident, three other police were present, but did not intervene to help Floyd. It’s a painful video, almost unwatchable. But millions have watched it. The world has seen George Floyd. Chauvin was initially charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, and the three other policemen at the scene were not charged. The protests intensified, led by the Black Lives Matter movement, in response to what was correctly perceived as another example of the criminal justice system’s structural racism – a response that recognizes the long-standing injustices of a system that often engages in discriminatory policing and has led to outsize incarceration of Black people. As the protests multiplied throughout the US, the attorney general of Minnesota launched a new investigation into the incident, leading to the raising of the charges against Chauvin to second-degree murder. Charges were also filed against the other three police officers. It has become abundantly clear that people are protesting not only for justice in Floyd’s particular case, but also to draw attention to institutionalized police violence against Black people, which is one of the most disturbing manifestations of ongoing structural racism in the US, and elsewhere in the world. The protests have now gone globally viral, even as the world is still contending with the coronavirus. And this is all within the context of Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, during which he has stoked racial divisions and tensions, provoking increasing social unrest with his inflammatory rhetoric.
The coronavirus pandemic has, like elsewhere, led to mass unemployment in the US. People have been quarantined and locked down in their homes because of the virus for months; they are anxious about their futures, have become restless about their present circumstances, and find themselves with more time on their hands. These disconcerting realities have dovetailed with – and no doubt fed into – the dynamism of the protests, and the apparent increase in social activism is a positive development amid all the gloom. Indeed, New York has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, and it is now also one of the epicenters of the protests. This intersection, or simultaneity, is tragic: the pandemic has already disproportionately impacted economically and politically marginalized Black and Latinx communities, which are the same communities that regularly experience the structural racism of the criminal justice system. The social, economic, racial, and political inequities of this city are haunting us, in real time, and the protesting is an attempt to exorcise New York’s historical and contemporary demons and, specifically, to create pressure for significant reform of the police. If the police can police communities, then communities have the right to police the police.
At the same time, another dilemma has emerged: whether to protest outdoors in the midst of a pandemic, in a severely hit city that has been locked down in order to curb the spread of the virus. It is a complicated issue involving morality, health, economics, politics, and personal behavior. There are no easy answers. We do not yet have clear epidemiological data as to whether there could be an upsurge in COVID-19 cases over the next weeks, or as to what might be the cause of it – the reopening of economies, mass events like protests, people not social distancing and not wearing masks, or some combination of these factors. If there is a significant spike in virus infections here in New York City, this would impact the very people who can least afford to be impacted, such as frontline healthcare workers and economically marginalized communities. I fear a kind of vicious circle, and hope to be proven wrong. If one is reluctant, like me, to go out into the streets and protest because of health concerns, there are various other ways to show solidarity with the racial justice movement, through forms of what might be described as “meta-protest” and “meta-activism,” acts of writing such as this among them.
Flashback to 1992, when I visited Los Angeles shortly after the demonstrations that resulted from the acquittal of the police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King. A video of that infamous act of police brutality provided clear evidence of the officers’ misconduct and, yet, they escaped punishment. It was a miscarriage of justice – and incontrovertible evidence of structural racism in the criminal justice system – that outraged many people. That year in response, I wrote an essay for an exhibition catalogue entitled “The Fractious Hybrid State (of Things),” wherein I endeavored to think about those events in LA. Here is a small excerpt:
It is immediately clear what is happening: the predominantly black residents of that community have begun to protest against an acquittal which seems to reconfirm their worst fears that the country’s judicial system is inherently unjust to African-Americans, that it systematically favors whites. I am angered by a verdict delivered by a mostly white jury in a police brutality trial held in Simi Valley – a Los Angeles suburb with a mere 2% black population. The judicial system has failed in this instance. […] Following the verdict in the Rodney King trial, [the black] community let loose from years of pent-up frustration regarding the cycle of economic and social decay, disempowerment, and social marginalization. The class and race conflicts that always seem to simmer beneath the surface of this society reached a boiling point.
Also in 1992, the American investigative journalist James Ridgeway commented about the unrest in Los Angeles in the Village Voice newspaper: “The Los Angeles riots were bound to happen. The country is always at war over race and class.”
In 2020, we can confirm that the United States is, indeed, continuously at war over race and class.
Over the past week, an unprecedented citywide curfew was imposed here in New York City (as well as in some other US cities). It was an attempt to reduce tensions between protestors and the police, but primarily to discourage people from engaging in vandalism, which had taken place in Manhattan and other boroughs. Significant debate about the efficacy of the curfew has been sparked, with many wondering if it hurt more than it helped, perhaps in fact exacerbating tensions between the largely peaceful protestors and the police. On the other hand, the vandalism did seem to cease. This was the first curfew of my lifetime spent here in New York, although the months-long pandemic quarantine lockdown has felt like its own type of curfew. The last time New York had a curfew imposed was in 1943, in response to a so-called race riot in Harlem, indicative of significant tensions between the Black community and the predominantly white police force during that period. These frictions have persisted for many decades and are some of the deep historical precedents for the contemporary situation. When communities are victimized by, rather than protected by, law enforcement, when they are discriminated against by the police, when they are politically disempowered, those communities have legitimate grievances.
This period in the United States reminds us that some people must be willing to live with less so that others may live with more. An equitable, redistributive form of capitalism is desirable, and attainable. We can develop a fair economy wherein a large, racially inclusive middle class is built and class divides are significantly reduced. The US used to have a substantial middle class, and it can again. It just requires human imagination and political will. At this time of intersecting crises, I believe that the federal government should provide a guaranteed basic income to people who need it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be forever, depending upon how effective it is, but, for now, as the real economy is unstable and mass unemployment prevails, it would substantially help millions of people and reduce social unrest. A guaranteed basic income would require, needless to say, a significant change in governmental leadership and thinking and in how governance is structured.
Events have moved so fast, that, as of today, June 7, the curfew has been ended. And, tomorrow, New York begins phase one of its reopening – an attempt to restart the economy amid the pandemic. In my posh, hypergentrified Tribeca neighborhood, quite a few stores and schools boarded up their windows over the past week, nervous about the social unrest and potential theft. The overall atmosphere these days feels mildly dystopian. In just a few short months, New York has become a different city, with an unclear future.
The pandemic has penetrated our subconscious minds. Recently, I had a dream in which I forgot to social distance from a friend I encountered on the street. Within the convoluted, nonlinear space-time of the dream, I hugged this person; subsequently, I felt my dream-self experience a sense of remorse that I had not social distanced. This made me think of the 1963 Roy Orbison hit “In Dreams,” and how an updated version of it may, in this time of pandemic, go something like: “In dreams I walk with a mask on, and social distance from you / In dreams I talk to you, while wearing a mask …”
Are we hallucinating the new pandemic reality, or was the pre-pandemic reality the hallucination? When you don’t know if you might die from a new disease, anxiety tends to interfere with normative rituals, even as one seeks the comfort of those rituals. For example, I rewatched one of my favorite films while in self-isolation for a few weeks with the virus: Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962). I still haven’t decided whether it was an appropriate or inappropriate choice, given the circumstances. And I still haven’t figured out how to cut myself loose from the quarantine, to make a prison break from the pandemic lockdown. But we must demonstrate self-control and quell our desire to be “free,” so as to not infect our fellow human beings and to endeavor to contain the pandemic. The usual dialectic of freedom/unfreedom, or … ?
This new coronavirus has us figured out, but we haven’t figured it out yet. It exploits our human weaknesses and stupidities. But I don’t blame the virus, per se. How could I? Viruses don’t have volition. The virus is not even entirely alive; it needs us in order to activate. Make friends, so to speak, with the virus that infects you, or it might just end you. I do, however, blame human volition. It’s people that we need to be worried about. The sort of people who don’t believe in science, and who have denied the dangerousness of this virus, leading to unnecessary illnesses and deaths.
Where is time now? The seeming foreverness and potential endlessness of the pandemic (whether one thinks in terms of waves, tides, peaks, and/or valleys), combined with a sense of uncertainty about nearly everything, has produced what might be described as “pandemic anxiety syndrome,” which is no doubt already a term in vogue with some psychotherapists. Combine this with the Trump anxiety syndrome that many of us have been experiencing since 2016, and it’s clear that we’re not only in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic but also an emergent mental health crisis. Indeed, for the first time in my life, I’ve had virtual psychotherapy sessions via a proprietary web-based platform, on my iPad. Let’s call it iTherapy.
While I was at home in self-isolation for part of March and April as I navigated the virus, and while experiencing a seemingly endless fever, I became obsessed with reading every possible research paper produced by any epidemiologist, virologist, medical doctor, scientist, or other health expert I could find. I sought to understand the illness I had and what might happen to me, in the best-case and worst-case scenarios. Art, as I mentioned earlier, was very far from my mind; it still is, to be honest. I just don’t know what to do with art now. I am uncomfortable with the notion, for instance, that curators should start organizing thematic exhibitions about the pandemic. This seems a bit too easy – trite, even. Let’s endeavor, perhaps, to not produce coronavirus kitsch. I also have no desire to develop a theory about the relation between art and the pandemic. It just seems uncouth. Some things are better left unthought, unspoken, and unwritten, at least for now. I do not want to fetishize COVID-19, even though it fetishized me. Or, to be more accurate, it occupied me, my body. And perhaps it still does occupy my body in a dormant, zombielike state, waiting to reactivate at some point down the line.
This is an unprecedented time for all of us; we are stumbling around in the dark, trying to navigate that which we still do not completely understand.
Here are some of the things that have happened for the first time in my life, thanks to the pandemic:
• Self-isolated in a single room for one month, with the virus.
• Was reluctant to fall asleep for fear of never waking up.
• Did not go outdoors for over a month.
• Organized my last will and testament and related legal documents, in the event of my death.
• Had a virtual appointment with my medical doctor using an iPad, while sick in bed.
• Social distanced from my dog for a month, so as to avoid contaminating his hair with the virus and prevent him from becoming a possible vector of transmission to my family.
• Purchased a fifty-pound bag of flour from a bakery supply company so that my family could bake at home during the quarantine.
• Got an excellent haircut from my twenty-year-old kid.
• Have not entered a store, a business, or even another building since March (it is now early June).
There’s another song I’ve revised for the pandemic: the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” from 1983, retitling it “This Charming Pandemic”: “I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got anywhere to go …”
Like many others, I have developed a bit of anxiety about going outdoors. When I do venture outside to get sun on my face, or to walk the dog, I am a devout practitioner of social distancing and mask wearing. As an atheist, I have no religion, but if I do at some point choose to adopt one, it will be based on new rituals of mask wearing and social distancing. I simply do not want to be around irresponsible, selfish, nihilistic, masochistic, or sadistic people who are not wearing masks or other types of face coverings and who don’t social distance; I consider them to be a threat to society, to human life. The urban environment seems considerably more threatening now than just a few months ago. I am traumatized, no doubt. My psychogeographic relationship with the city has been significantly altered. Indeed, I have not strayed beyond my immediate neighborhood in three months. In The Fall of Public Man, from 1977, the sociologist Richard Sennett muses:
[In] the frame of public life, I would define civility as follows: it is the activity which protects people from each other and yet allows them to enjoy each other’s company. Wearing a mask is the essence of civility. Masks permit pure sociability, detached from the circumstances of power, malaise, and private feeling of those who wear them. Civility has as its aim the shielding of others from being burdened with oneself.
Sennett’s thoughts regarding the literal and the socially symbolic function of masks could not be more prescient for our times. The future new society may turn out to be a society that is perpetually socially distanced from itself, where not only our identities but also our actual faces may be masked from others, and perhaps even from ourselves, and where COVID-19 may be our constant companion.
Joshua Decter is a New York-based writer, curator, and art historian. Decter’s 2014 book Art Is a Problem: Selected Criticism, Essays, Interviews and Curatorial Projects, published by JRP|Ringier, examines contemporary art in relation to its various ideological, public, discursive, and social contexts. Decter is coauthor of the 2014 book Exhibition as Social Intervention: ‘Culture in Action’ 1993, published by Afterall Books.
Decter has contributed to Artforum, Afterall, Art Review, Mousse, Texte zur Kunst, and other periodicals and has authored numerous catalogue essays for galleries, museums, and other art organizations. He has organized exhibitions at MoMA PS1, New York; Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; apexart, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Kunsthalle Wien; and Santa Monica Museum of Art, Los Angeles.
He has taught art history, curatorial studies, art theory, and other disciplines at the University of Applied Arts Vienna; School of Visual Arts, New York; Cooper Union, New York; University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; School of the Art Institute of Chicago, New York University; University of California, Los Angeles; ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena, CA; and Bennington College, Vermont.