2020 will be a year defined by the triumphs and tribulations we as a society collectively faced. That being said, 2020 has been the hardest year specifically, for young people to date. For my generation, it has been a time mired with anxiety caused by doubt and uncertainty for our individual and collective futures. Rates of anxiety in teens and young adults as a Hartford Health summarization of a CDC issued report provides us with a staggering insight into the drastic effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our mental health.
A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study of more than 5,400 American young adults age 18 and older revealed more than 60 percent reported feeling this way. The results – three times as high as the same time in 2019 – also include a reported increase in suicidal thoughts and substance use. (Hartford 2020)
Due to the tumult of the times, we have had an abundance of time for introspection and reflection of the uncertainty of our times. Through this reflection, we have been making leaps and bounds to normalize and destigmatize mental health issues. We now know, comfortably and broadly accept, that anxiety is a defining characteristic of what it means to be human. Everyone has, or will, experience and face anxiety in various ways throughout their life, hence the title of the Exhibition A Synchronous Feeling: Unified Through Anxiety. Anxiety is a defining feature of the human experience and one can not comprehensively define what it means to be human without including anxiety.
Yet, it was not too long ago that mental health issues were heavily stigmatized and widely misunderstood by the prominent thinkers and physicians we often designate as the founding fathers of medicine. Anxiety was “discovered” by Greco-Roman philosophers, among the ranks of those who “discovered” anxiety included Hippocrates, Cicero and Seneca. Each had different explantions but all misexplanied the phenomena as either a disturbed mind or an acute phobia but diagnosed as a medical disorder (Crocq). Anxiety continued to be misunderstood by even the founding fathers of Western psychiatry. Sigmund Freud, throughout his career, posited three distinct theories of what he perceived anxiety to be. Freud’s first theory assumed that anxiety was a result of libido that was not physically released, in turn this pent-up libido released itself through anxiety. His second theory built on his first; that anxiety was a caustic by-product of libido by surmising that it was not from the physical blocking of libido, but rather, psychological inhibitions (Freud 2018). Freud’s final theory attributed anxiety “...he had posited anxiety as a result of repression, he now understood it as preceding repression and giving rise to it.” (Freud 2018). With this final understanding he differentiated automatic anxiety and signal anxiety which provided the foundation of our understanding of anxiety. Automatic anxiety was a traumatic situation where your helpless ego is overwhelmed and signal anxiety is a warning of an imminent danger; with Freud being Freud, these imminent dangers stemmed from the threat of castration (Freud 2018).
While Freud attempted to grasp what anxiety was in three drastically different theories, to varying degrees of accuracy, his third theory provided one of the first modern explanations of what anxiety was, and what it stemmed from. Freud’s explanation paved the way for the widely accepted, contemporary definition of anxiety provided succinctly by Gary Vandenbos in the APA Dictionary as “An emotion characterized by apprehension and somatic symptoms of tension in which an individual anticipates impending danger, catastrophe, or misfortune...” (Vandenbos). This broad and at times, all-encompassing definition, provides us with the foundation of this exhibition where anxiety can not be limited to a defined criteria. This has been the guiding mantra when selecting my works in this exhibition. Certain works of art I have selected provide an overt homage to anxiety; works like Andrew Moore’s “Birches Growing in Rotting Books, Detroit” or Mona Hatoum’s “Over My Dead Body”. While other works may not instill a direct feeling of anxiety, but upon reflection by the viewer, cause introspective feelings of anxiety unique to each viewer. Some of the works I selected to elicit a feeling of anxiety through a pensive self-reflection are Sun Xun’s “The Time Vivarium-81” and Do-Ho Suh’s “Who am We?”. Both works present a question of identity and how do we answer them, with each answer being distinct to the viewer; that is, if they can find an answer. Each and every work I have selected is different and at a cursory glance, have nothing in come. After all, the works I have selected cover a wide variety of mediums and subject material with artists from across the world experiencing drastically different circumstances when creating these works. Yet, that is precisely the point. At a glance these works have no common denominator. How is Jasper Johns’ “Flags” related to Richard Mosse’s “Man-Sized”, if at all? They are all bound together by the broader theme of the exhibition: anxiety. Anxiety is a unifying and defining feature for everyone, but it affects each of us uniquely. It is both familiar to everyone, while also being unique to anyone. To me, Jasper Johns and Richard Mosse both portray a struggle for national identity, while manipulating or depicting factors that make us deeply uncomfortable. A misportrayed American flag and a child depicted with an assault rifle. While you may not agree with the similarities I see, I encourage you to explore the similarities that you can find in these works through the unifying factor: anxiety.