The art of processing our collective grief

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Keeping you in the know, Culture Queue is an ongoing series of recommendations for timely books to read, films to watch and podcasts and music to listen to.

We have heard the phrase “grim milestone” so often in the past year that it now falls into the realm of journalistic cliché. Monday’s news that the US has surpassed half a million Covid-19 deaths should not, however, be any less poignant for its morbid familiarity.

These are the moments in which individual and shared grief intersect. But as we struggle to take stock of societies’ losses, what does coming to terms with grief, as a culture, really look like?

Whether portraying others’ grief or revealing their own, artists are often able tap into something universal. One need not be Christian to feel Mary’s anguish in Renaissance depictions of Christ’s crucifixion; one need not have lived through the Spanish Civil War to feel the harrowing abyss at the heart of Picasso’s “Guernica” (pictured above). The torment of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” is clear to all.

The New Museum in New York City explores this idea of processing grief through art with painfully appropriate timing. Just days before Monday’s Covid-19 milestone, it opened the new exhibition, “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America.” In another cruel twist, the show’s mastermind, Nigerian curator and critic Okwui Enwezor, died before its opening following a long battle with cancer.

Rashid Johnson's "Antoine's Organ," brings together lights, plants and various objects within a black steel frame.

Rashid Johnson’s “Antoine’s Organ,” brings together lights, plants and various objects within a black steel frame. Credit: Rashid Johnson/Hauser & Wirth

The show was, however, conceived before the emergence of Covid-19. (Enwezor passed away in 2019, though he might well have predicted how a pandemic would disproportionately affect people of color.) It instead addresses racial injustice and, in the late curator’s words, “black grief in the face of a politically orchestrated white grievance.”

In the exhibition, memorial and commemoration take many forms. In “Peace Keeper,” Jamaican artist Nari Ward covered a full-size hearse in tar and feathers. Rashid Johnson’s living installation, “Antoine’s Organ,” meanwhile presents plants and various household items (including shea butter and books chronicling the experiences of the African diaspora) in a commentary on the nature of life and decay. Elsewhere, LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photographs of working-class hardship and Julie Mehretu’s abstract landscape paintings all struggle with loss in their own unique ways.

The original version of Nari Ward's installation "Peace Keeper," pictured at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1995.

The original version of Nari Ward’s installation “Peace Keeper,” pictured at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1995. Credit: Nari Ward/Lehmann Maupin/Galleria Continua

These varied responses to the show’s central premise — that grief is irrevocably woven through the Black experience in America — are both personal and, by virtue of their exhibition, inherently public. Artistic creation is often an act of both private catharsis and solidarity.

Julie Mehretu's painting "Rubber Gloves (O.C.)."

Julie Mehretu’s painting “Rubber Gloves (O.C.).” Credit: Julie Mehretu/White Cube/Marian Goodman Gallery/Tom Powel Imaging

Audiences interpret the creators’ grief through the lens of their own, and thus individual suffering is communicated to society as a whole. Culture may not cure, but it can soothe.

Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” runs until June 4 at the New Museum in New York.

Add to queue: Comprehending and expressing grief

LISTEN: “Le Tombeau de Couperin” by Maurice Ravel

The trauma of World War I had a profound effect on classical music — and on French composer Maurice Ravel, who served as a lorry driver delivering munitions to the front lines. He dedicated each of this stirring work’s six movements to different friends who died in the fighting.

READ: “The Anatomy of Grief” by Dorothy P. Holinger

Drawing on her clinical and personal experiences of loss, psychologist Dorothy P. Holinger explains what happens to body and brain when confronted with loss. Neither a memoir nor a self-help book, it instead offers, in her words, “an understanding of the changeable and unpredictable nature of grief.”

Exploring grief through humor, this long-running podcast series sees Cariad Lloyd speaking to fellow comedians and others about the loss of loved ones.

Ricky Gervais’ dark humor proved well-suited to this Netflix comedy, in which the bereaved Tony copes with his wife’s death by constantly insulting everyone around him. A third season goes into production this year.

British electronic producer Deft wrote his debut album as an act of catharsis following his sister’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. The resulting beat-driven soundscapes are, at times, haunting, though they are punctuated with intrigue and optimism.

Last year, Nintendo’s smash hit saw players around the world revel in the normalcy of fishing, tending to their gardens and furnishing virtual houses. Users have since gone on to hold virtual funeral and memorial services in online spaces.

Angelia S. Rico

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