Aesthetic Dissonance and Covid-19

Janet Bothne, “Distance As A Verb” (2020). 8” x 24” acrylic on canvas – triptych (3 panels). Used with permission by ©Janet Bothne 2020

Is Zoom Changing the Way We See?

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Naomi Fry began exploring the aesthetic impact of Zoomification as a result of the radical shift in our virtual presence. True, many of us already spent a great deal of time online before the pandemic. We chatted with friends abroad or just across the country via Facetime, Zoom, and Google Hangouts. We scrolled through the daily tally of digital artifacts of material lives, deposited on social media for public and private consumption.

As Fry notes, however, as a result of the mid-March lockdowns across America and the world, “Zoom became, seemingly overnight, not only a professional lifeline but also a way of life. Suddenly, we couldn’t see anyone in person, but everyone appeared to be seeing one another on Zoom.” Instead of opting into virtual spaces we were forced, almost instantaneously, into dwelling for most of our day in tiny digital windows.

As a lover of active pedagogy, I spend a lot of time creating and using warm-up activities when I teach. More recently, I’ve adapted those activities to these tiny frames: blind contour drawings of a Zoom window; waving like a tree in the wind to show agreement; showing a part of yourself or an object that is just out of frame.

In the photographic idiom of Roland Barthes, I ask the participants in my workshops and classes to disrupt the punctum, thus throwing the images’ studium (the subject, meaning, and context) into a new relief. The punctum is the aspect of an image that we fixate on, that catches our eye and calls for deeper inspection. It perhaps even draws our eye to the edges of the frame.

We may wonder what’s beyond the Zoom frame, but we can never really know: Did my colleagues wear pants today? For most of us, this was not a question we normally had to consider until now.

Shifting Aesthetics in the Age of Covid-19

We may wonder, too, what impact this pandemic will have on our long-term psychological and physical well-being. There’s good evidence to suggest that we are experiencing communal trauma; in some cases, as with the recent spike in non-accidental brain trauma in children and domestic abuse cases, the physical scars of Covid-19 will extend beyond the ones left on the lungs of those seriously infected by the virus.

There will also be an aesthetic shift. We are already experiencing a phenomena called “aesthetic dissonance” that I have written and spoken about, most recently in a book seemingly abstracted from our current dilemma. In Gunpowder, Masculinity, and Warfare in German Texts, 1400-1700, I define aesthetic dissonance against the history of gunpowder warfare as “the perceptual chasm between idealized precedent and material reality found in textual representations.” It’s basically the gap between how we have been told to imagine the world and what we are currently experiencing.

Unlike the physical and psychological impact of Alvin Toffler’s “future shock,” we will eventually – thanks to artists and authors – square the material reality of the present with an aesthetically coherent narrative. Masks are already being integrated into the social aesthetic fabric by a cottage industry churning out colorful, homemade mouth and nose coverings. It’s only a matter of time before that accessory is represented widely in art, literature, and cinema.

The aesthetics of disease and loneliness are already popping up everywhere. Artists like Janet Bothne (“Distance As A Verb”, 2020) are taking on the abstract visual depiction of social distancing. The American tv shows Parks and Rec and Saturday Night Live are integrating the frames, filters, and foibles of video conferencing in a fashion that is still jarring. Musicians are playing streaming concerts from their bedrooms to a viewership no longer restricted by time, or money, or physical space. Art persists and evolves to meet such challenges.

Art in the Age of Mass Death

Ours is not the only experience of mass death that humanity has overcome with the help of the arts.

The expansion of gunpowder warfare in Europe, starting with the first known European uses of firearms in the early 1300s and expanding more rapidly after 1400, resulted in strategic, tactical, social, moral, and gendered upheaval surrounding the distinctly human activity of war. It evolved first slowly and then more rapidly until 1700. The coup de grȃce was the Thirty Years War, which resulted – according to some estimates – in the death of nearly 20% of the population of the Holy Roman Empire.

That kind of event has long-term cultural consequences. Even today, notes the Oxford historian Peter H. Wilson in The Thirty Years War, “The sense of the Thirty Years War’s destructiveness remains deeply embedded in the popular consciousness.” That war is still etched into the landscape of Europe, the political boundaries and narratives of European politics, and the literature of Nobel prize winners and pacifist playwrights.

Gunpowder not only changed the way people fought wars, but it also changed the way people imagined them. Accompanying the material turbulence of firearms in the early modern period was an evolving aesthetic practice that attempted to square the medieval European narratives of war with the new tactics and experiences of gunpowder warfare. An entire new language, geography, and geometry of war had to be designed in order to account for the impact of gunpowder weapons; and someone needed to translate those changes into cultural representations. That new aesthetic didn’t settle for about three hundred years.

Using Art to Heal Aesthetic Dissonance

We should not expect artists and authors to forget the aesthetic upheaval of this pandemic moment any more quickly than the consequences of the Thirty Years War, the American Revolution, the Spanish Flu, the World Wars, the Holocaust, the American Genocide of Native Americans, the AIDS epidemic, or September 11th. These are social traumas that have all – in one way or another – forced a radical shift in perspective linked to aesthetic dissonance.

From the ashes of the Covid-19 tragedy, representations will emerge to help us to cope with and comprehend our new reality in visual and narrative terms. Like the imagery of the phoenix on the frontispiece of Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus Teutsch (1669), the agents of aesthetics will help us to grasp what we are witnessing, so that – even if we must live with a new era of death and disease – we can “eschew foolishness and live in peace.” Perhaps that is the great value of artistic culture over the long view: it balances our reception and perception of the material world around us.

Zoomifying interactions won’t replace the physical encounters we can’t have with our friends and family, but it is changing the way we see and prioritize our relationships.

And art can’t cure Covid-19, but it’s gonna help us get through it.


This guest post was written by Patrick Brugh, affiliate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Loyola University Maryland and an administrator at Johns Hopkins University.

Gunpowder, Masculinity, and Warfare in German Texts, 1400-1700
Patrick Brugh
Hardback, 9781580469685, £61.75 or $81.25