Jack Newsinger continues the series, jointly published on Culture Matters and the Morning Star, on the effects of the Covid-19 crisis on culture, sketching out what needs to change and why. Can artists, writers and other creatives form closer alliances with the labour movement? The accompanying image is by Jonpaul Kirvan.
Culture matters more than ever, as Mike Quille pointed out in the introduction to this series of articles. Yet pandemic has completely shut down public arts and culture in the UK. Theatres, cinemas, libraries, music venues (including Glastonbury Festival’s 50th anniversary) – all closed until further notice, and likely to be some of the last to be allowed to reopen, with enormous impacts on the people whose livelihoods depend upon functioning cultural and creative industries.
We are all used to the glamour of the film and television industries, or the pomp of the theatre and opera, but it is worth emphasising that many of these workers are precariously employed on short term contracts often with little security or savings – the arts and creative industries are disproportionately reliant on a highly skilled, dedicated and passionate, but precarious workforce.
The people who serve coffee in the cafes are very often also the people on the stages; the guitarist in the band has also lost her other income teaching music lessons in a school. This ability to quickly contract when income disappears is how cultural organisations have learnt to keep functioning in Britain’s competitive cultural economy, but it can be brutal for many of the people who actually make culture, just like the stresses and strains faced by workers in the NHS, care homes and other public services which have suffered years of exposure to austerity economics and the imposition of capitalist rationality.
As in the rest of society, the COVID-19 crisis has made visible the weaknesses and inequalities in the arts and creative industries that were already present under the surface if anyone cared to look hard enough. Unsurprisingly, the way that the crisis has so far played out has mirrored these inequalities. There is increasing evidence that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people are suffering a disproportionate financial and employment penalty due to the lockdown. These inequalities will intersect with class, age, disability and region to compound and deepen the already significant disparities that exist in access to the arts and culture, for both producers and audiences. The danger is that commissioners used to seeing ‘minority arts’ and working-class participation as something of a side endeavour will retreat into the ‘safe’ zone of the ‘old boys’ network’ with a resulting narrowing of participation, vitality and cultural diversity.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown the cracks and weaknesses in the system. But it also might reveal ways to overcome them. ‘Lockdown culture’ is forcing makers and audiences to find new ways to connect with each other. Some of these seek to reproduce existing capitalist relationships of production remotely. For example, the Artists' Support Pledge, in which artists sell their work through Instagram, promising that once they reach £1000 of sales they will spend £200 on another artist’s work.
The crisis pushes to the forefront new ideas about how we should fund the arts. Do we want a precarious commercial model that mirrors the inequalities of the market, or can we find more egalitarian ways of providing stability for cultural producers? Can this be an opportunity to overcome the pathological elitism and lack of diversity of the arts and cultural establishment? The Arts Council moved relatively quickly to announce a package of £160m to support cultural organisations and individuals. This is an essential lifeline but it appears to be targeted at maintaining the existing cultural landscape, with larger, prestigious organisations that serve metropolitan middle-class tastes taking priority (as they always have).
In this vacuum of new ideas, it is the spirit of self-help and community organisation that offers the way forward. Debates around Universal Basic Income have become more relevant. As noted by the artist and activist Stephen Pritchard, “Is the time coming when art will finally embrace self-organised alternatives rooted in ethical practice, equitable living, commoning, fair pay, openness and hope? Can art help rebuild our lives and our communities? Can it reimagine ways of being and living together after a global pandemic that surely changes everything?”
Three things emerge from all this so far. Firstly, professional artists, filmmakers, writers, makers, and all cultural practitioners are also workers, ultimately, and need collective representation and a strong welfare state. There must surely be potential for closer links and mutual support between cultural practitioners and the labour movement, given their shared values and belief that the arts and culture generally can be a liberating force.
Secondly, the importance of looking to the people about how the arts and culture can change. People are showing that they will still put their creativity out there whether they get paid or not, which says something about the importance of the human capacity for connecting through culture beyond commercial relationships.
Finally, quarantine has demonstrated the importance of internet connectivity, and culture is flourishing online, whether it be watching a concert on Instagram live, learning how to paint on Facebook, or home art-schooling your children using the Tate’s online galleries. This is surely to be celebrated. If only we had a government that would guarantee free broadband for all…..