What’s worth reading?

Everyone seems to agree that the COVID-19 pandemic, or at least how we are responding to this new disease, changes everything. The economic effects will certainly be profound, not least from the huge spending commitments. The effects on social relations, psychology, politics or culture are harder to foresee, but surely as important. We’re nowhere near through this crisis yet, but alternative futures are already being promoted. Authoritarian nationalists claim vindication, as do progressives for social solidarity, public service, human rights and environmentalism. There are still those who argue, as in 2008, that we just need to ‘get back to normal’, while most people are too busy coping with the emergency and its impact on their lives to think about any of it.

In this ferment of events and contestation, it’s valuable to be reminded of the bigger picture. There is a swelling tide of analyses and solutions being published online (to which I add in my small way). Not all of it is helpful; it’s often too quick and too short, essentially using the moment to vindicate existing positions, But there is some really good writing too, so I thought it might be worth gathering some of it here, when the focus is on art and culture. That’s obviously not the all that matters (many people may ask if it matters at all right now), but it is all that I can comment on with much knowledge. It’s also, I guess, the reason you’re reading this. So here is a first pointer to something I think is worth reading. I’ll add more to this post as and when I come across them.

Justin O’Connor: Art and Culture After Covid-19 (9 April 2020)

Justin O’Connor is a Professor at the University of South Australia, but has a long career in mapping and analysing the creative industries in the UK, Europe and East Asia. This long essay repays careful reading because it places the current situation of cultural organisations and workers into a historical context, reminding us of their developing relationship with the political economy of recent decades. It’s challenging too because it asks what compromises have been made by cultural actors in pursuit of recognition and at what costs. It is richly informed by examples and references, but always lucid and readable. If the ideas for what comes next are not new, it doesn’t make them less worthwhile. Here are some passages that resonated for me:

I am suggesting that what the cultural sector sees as universal – the possibilities opened up by culture and creativity – is in fact highly circumscribed by class chances (intertwined with gender, ethnicity and regionality). 

It is culture’s job to protest that the sheer preponderance of ‘economy’ can only lead us to a catastrophic social and environmental nihilism. It is art’s job – along with the other natural, social and human sciences – to help articulate how we might inhabit the world in a manner that might promote human thriving not its extermination.

If the state and society are to come back, along with a re-invigorated role for culture within these, then a lot un-forgetting needs to take place, and not just at the abstract theoretical level either; our everyday language is sodden with the common sense of economic rationality.

Think of the energies such a radical rethinking might release! The chance to reframe the way we think about funding, producing and enjoying culture together, outside the ideology of market efficiencies. To re- embed the economy of culture in the social life of those it serves.

Justin O’Connor, Art and Culture After Covid-19

More good reading

Other people have begun collecting articles and information about culture in the time of coronavirus (including work in languages I don’t read), and you’ll find some excellent pointers here:

Creative responses to the crisis

People are starting to make art from the experience of lockdown too. Here is Ronnie Hughes, who writes an excellent blog from and about Liverpool, on a new zine that he’s been involved in producing; Writing for the Soul.