Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Art and COVID-19: A Health Humanities Perspective


How have artists expressed the impact of the pandemic, and the many existential and social issues it has raised? This course examines the art of COVID-19 using the tools of Health Humanities, a relatively new discipline that connects medicine to the arts and social sciences. Key questions include: How has the history of health inequality, both nationally and globally, impacted different communities, and their art, during the pandemic? How does art shape or express diverse cultural understandings of health and illness, medicine and the body, death and spirituality, in response to crisis? How do such understandings directly impact the physical healing but also the life decisions and emotions of  individuals, from caregivers to patients? What are the more powerful media images we have seen of the pandemic, of catastrophe or heroic battle? And what are images that have been hidden from us, such as those of dying patients and unbearable grief, which have been largely censored? How do such media choices deeply affect our sense of ourselves as embodied beings, embedded in communities, even as we confront unprecedented events?

Materials for this course include art from different media (from poetry and fiction to performance and installation), produced during COVID-19 in mostly Western contexts, in diverse communities and with some forays into the rest of the world. They also include some non-fiction readings from the disciplines Health Humanities draws from, such as history of medicine, anthropology, psychology, sociology, cultural history, media studies, art criticism, and medicine itself. We will thus be introduced to basics of Health Humanities and its methods while addressing the pandemic as a world-changing event, aided by the unique insights of artists. The course will culminate in final projects that present a critical and contextual appreciation of a specific art project created in response to COVID-19; such appreciations may be creative art projects as well, or more analytical, scholarly evaluations.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Laura Wittman

"I have been interested in how people use their culture and community to deal with death ever since I was a teenager, and my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I believe art gives us the power not just to understand but actively to (re)shape our experience of the world, the feeling we have of being in our bodies, and our ability to confront mortality with realism and compassion. Much of my academic work revolves around the art of grief, and how grief can become a hidden blueprint for the better world we hope for. In the past, such as after World War One, it was in the name of those who were gone that artists called for significant change. I suspect this will be the case again after COVID-19. 

"I also spend as much time as I can hiking in Northern California, and anywhere I can see big trees, with my family."