Art can and is used to give a voice to those who would otherwise go unheard, and to impel people to focus on overlooked societal crises. Take for example, Keith Haring's famous 1986 Crack is Wack mural in New York, a prime example of the legendary street artist using his platform to comment upon and highlight a marginalised society, as New York's impoverished street scene battled with the highly addictive drug. Haring wasn't only interested in drugs: he also addressed subjects such as capitalism, climate change and Aids.
He wasn't the only one. Nan Goldin andDavid Wojnarowicz also dedicated their artistic careers to chronicling the ravages of AIDS and to being AIDS activists - with Wojnarowicz notoriously appearing at ACT UP's Food and Drug Administration protest in a jacket that read 'If I die of AIDS - forget burial - just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.' Goldin has continued her activism, campaigning successfully against the firms behind the AIDS crisis. And Ai Weiwei has used his art to draw attention to the worldwide refugee crisis, releasing the feature-length film 'Human Flow' in 2016. In all these instances, artists have used their voices to highlight the human element within the crisis, demanding that people take notice. But just as societal crises can drive artists to create, so too can their own personal issues and their own inner turmoil; they look to art as a form of salvation from their demons, and a much wanted release.
Tracey Emin's work has always been very honest and very confrontational - as can be seen from the first piece that thrust her into the limelight: her 1995 piece, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With. The controversy that aroused was capped by her infamous 1998 piece, My Bed, which the English artist created after having had a mental breakdown. These pieces garnered a mixed reception in an era when mental health issues were only just starting to be addressed. Since then her work has matured, focusing more on love than on the brutality of sex - such as with her neon signs of the early 2000s, featuring personal quotes like the one found in London's St Pancras station which simply reads 'I want my time with you.'
It's clear that for Emin her art is a form of therapy - a process that's necessary for her to be able to compute her existence in this world. But though the emotions her works convey describe her own deeply personal experiences, her openness resonates with the viewer, encouraging him or her to acknowledge their own feelings and accept their own worlds. One powerful example is the seven day diary of images and thoughts she released via White Cube's instagram this year, in response to living during the time of Coronavirus.
This famous, yet anonymous, street artist was homeless for almost a decade, and has said that it was whilst he was living at A St Mungo's hostel in Hackney that he found his purpose, immersing himself in his art. His simple, affectless images ring with empathy for the human condition. But he also strived to give practical help: one piece he gave to be auctioned on behalf of Cardboard Citizens, a theatrical charity for the homeless, raised £150,000. And to benefit those suffering from Alzheimer's, he has donated thousands of pounds to London's Homerton Hospital to provide art classes for those suffering from the disease. The classes help patients to access the parts of their minds that have shut-down.
The Connor Brothers are a fictitious sibling pair of artists created by London dealers James Golding and Mike Snelle, who use their expressionist work to challenge and dismiss the stigma of mental health issues and to provide an honest, amusing and shame-free narrative of living with them - using witty quotes, some self penned and some taken from literature, for impact, such as Edgar Allan Poe's 'I became insane with long periods of horrible sanity', and their own 'Normal is the cruellest of all insults'. The 'brothers' are official ambassadors for the mental health charity CALM and through fundraisers, talks and events have raised not just thousands for the charity, but also raised awareness around male suicide and how art can be used as therapy. Indeed, The pair themselves joined forces in 2012 as a form of therapy, with Mike having been diagnosed as bipolar and James recovering from addiction, anxiety and alcoholism.
Basquiat was a tormented genius who fought, and lost, his own battle with one specific mental illness, addiction, dying from an accidental overdose aged 27. He had had more than his fair share of dealing with mental illness while growing up: his mother was regularly institutionalised and there are multiple accounts of her beating Jean-Michel and threatening to kill the entire family. But there was also a more tender side to the mother-son relationship; Basquiat had fond memories of the two of them visiting museums and going to the theatre together. And it was through art that Basquiat found a creative outlet for confronting his childhood traumas - and a way in which to connect with the world.
With the world adapting to the unprecedented times brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, artists around with globe will be forced, once again, to find creativity in crisis, and artistic expression through adversity.