This post was written for a meeting of the What Next Young Vic chapter, held online on 8 April 2020. Because of that, it steps back a bit to reflect on what has happened in the past two or three weeks, and you may find that it repeats – or perhaps summarises – things I’ve written already.
When President Macron addressed the French people on 16 March 2020 he used the phrase ‘we are at war’ six times in half an hour. It was a deliberate effort to convey the gravity of the coronavirus epidemic to a nation which, like Britain, is still defined by the terrible wars it endured in the first half of the 20th century. I generally dislike the careless use of military language, but in this case it felt justified, because it’s an accurate measure of the danger we are facing.
War threatens our lives and our way of life, and both are at risk today to a degree I’ve never known. Tens of thousands have already died, often in grim circumstances, far from those who love them. The mortality forecasts are daunting. Our way of life – what seemed normal as recently as the first weeks of March – no longer exists. Its splendours and its miseries, in Balzac’s phrase, are equally irrecoverable: lost illusions. We will, at some point, be able to leave our homes again, although that may be further off than we hope. But we will not be able to resume that way of life. There will be restrictions, and possibly setbacks. The damage done to livelihoods during this period will be made good with difficulty, if at all. Many businesses, including some in the cultural sector, will not survive the loss of income during closure. And most importantly, I think, we will have changed as people, marked by individual and collective trauma it will take years to accommodate.
This is a bleak prospect, and I don’t evoke it casually. It is dangerous to imagine dystopian futures when we need courage and hope to get through present difficulties. But it is also dangerous to plan for a return to normality. We will get there in time, but it will be a new normal. What does that mean for the small part of the world concerned with art and culture? Only a fool or a prophet could answer that question with confidence: I hope I’m not the first and I know I’m not the second. Still, like most of you, I earn a living here and so I must think about how the present crisis might change what I do, who for, how and why. The first step in doing that is to accept that whatever the future holds, it is not the past.
We might be coming to the end of the beginning. Buildings have been closed and projects unmade. We are, mostly, safe at home and learning to live and work in new circumstances. Arts Council England has acted with speed and clarity to put in place a rescue package, and everyone involved deserves our gratitude. Never forget that this is a crisis everyone faces both on a professional and a personal front. That said, ACE’s £160 million will not last long, and those who don’t benefit from it enough (or at all) will feel devastated. Rejection in these circumstances is not about shelving a cherished idea: it may be about going out of business. Only government action can sustain companies, charities and self-employed people now. Whether the measures put in place will be sufficient remains to be seen. But, in the short term, the public cultural sector has been stabilised.
What now? I can’t say. Different organisations, different creative professionals have already adopted a range of strategies. Some have ramped up their online offer – something that, in itself, will influence the new normal that is to come. Others, especially those whose work is rooted in process and relationship, do not have such obvious solutions. They are aware of the difficulties their audiences and participants now face, and are looking for ways to support them – including through unprecedented tasks like food distribution. The desire to act is understandable, but I am cautious too. The longer this situation continues, the harder many people’s lives are going to become, living in cramped accommodation with financial problems and anxious about the people they love. As I have said before, it may be that there is a much greater need for kindness right now than for creativity.
And afterwards? Again, I don’t know, but I do think that we’ll all have been changed by this experience. Many will emerge hurt and grieving. We will have lost people central to our lives without being able to say goodbye. We will have lost our futures too – the life we had planned and worked for, the security we felt in knowing how things were, any ease we once had in crowds. It seems unlikely that we will soon want – or perhaps be allowed – to gather in large audiences. More subtly, I wonder whether the stories we were interested in just weeks ago will speak to us then. Will we be drawn to other artists or different ways of participating in culture? History shows that war has radical effects on cultural life and we should expect that now. The values, practices and concerns of the cultural sector before Covid-19 might look very different to us after it.
There is one other way in which this present situation resembles a war: we really are in it together. Indeed, one thing that should be clear to everyone – even to politicians who’ve made capital from division – is that the virus does not discriminate. We cannot protect ourselves individually, either from disease or from the consequences of quarantine on social and economic life. Collective action, coordinated by governments, is the only effective response. I believe the same will be true when we reach the period of recovery. We will turn, as in the past, to solutions like the Marshall Plan, the Works Progress Administration and – as President Macron said repeatedly during his 16 March address – the welfare state. That need for collective action must also be recognised by cultural actors, which might not be easy given its propensity for individualism and competitiveness. A couple of weeks ago – though it feels more like a couple of months – I wrote about the need for the cultural sector to recognise its interdependency:
We must see the cultural ecosystem in which every person, every organisation, every cultural expression, has a legitimate place. We must prize mutuality and solidarity above sectarian interest. We must use what resources we still have, whether we lead a great institution or a neighbourhood arts group, to protect the most vulnerable. Those with the broadest shoulders should take more of this burden, and that might mean some redistribution to help those on freelance contracts and minimum wages, those on the margins, whose voices have not been heard, those who have always had less easy paths to the work, the stages and the funding. Let’s live up to art’s inclusive values. We have one shot. Let’s be our best.‘Let’s use this breathing space wisely’, Parliament of Dreams, 25 March 2020
I will finish with that plea: to work together, with true generosity of spirit and action, in the understanding that everyone is important, everyone is needed, everyone has something to give. If we allow narrow self-interest to determine our decisions, the cultural life we save will not be worth much. We really are all in this together. Let’s leave no one behind.