It’s hard when you realise how much things are going to continue to change as Covid and climate breakdown become central in our world. But if looking at change and how humans cope with it isn’t a cultural task, then it’s hard to know what is. The changes that are upon us, and the changes that are to come, prompt some thoughts on the cultural realm as the climate crisis and the associated pandemic unfold across the human experience.
Most current commentaries have a direct focus on the role of electronic media (TV, radio, film, games). These perhaps find it easier to adjust, so I want to take a broader look. The digital world now exerts its presence across human experience, but by stressing what can and cannot be done online and at a distance, we sometimes forget to look at culture across more traditional categories and see how these categories may be affected by the changes now taking place in the social and economic landscape. Much of the surface worry is about who pays, who is paid, who controls and who innovates, but there are other areas that may feed into the discussion about our cultural future, and this will sometimes involve looking back at our cultural past.
Art and Art Galleries
Art galleries are based on the display of works paid for the very rich (rich people, states, religious bodies, companies and other organisations). They are made available for general viewing, for research, and to make a cultural statement about values and power. As the rich still seem to like to collect art, why not use this acquisitiveness and the vast unseen stockpiled resources of art museums to fund cultural activities and change? I would guess that the warehoused stock of artworks in the worlds museums (mostly never on public display) could, if judiciously put into the market, raise billions to fund the operations and development of the world’s art museums, and leverage a shift towards a less archival art museum culture. Rich people have the money, we (the state, the religions, the civil society institutions) have the art, so let’s make a deal.
For each 10 million raised from such sales (whether in dollars, euros or pounds) the funds could be split, say, as 2 million for upkeep of the museums, 2 million for capital investment, 2 million for education, 2 million for the purchase of artworks (to a maximum of 20,000 from current living artists thus providing a much needed boost to a struggling sector), and 2 million for public outreach in the form of more art classes for adults and children, getting people to do art, not just to consume it.
Putting the people who can pay back into the role of the people who do pay might put art museums nearer to the centre of making art and learning about art and wean them away from being institutions that reinforce the cultural value now given to highly priced and tradition bound objects.
Music and Performance
Music has long been created at either a grass roots level or in response to commissions from rich people, states, or religious bodies. If these groups are reluctant to pay taxes to fund these activities, why not encourage them to commission private concerts for friends and family? This could be done alongside a provision to licence live streamed and packaged musical packages for other audiences, or perhaps include distanced ‘viewing’ or ‘listening’ by the masses, across a valley, a river or some other suitable barrier acceptable to both the rich and poor. Soccer and other sports are forging the way in developing new economic models like this and these models may be usefully adapted for cultural performances.
Can more venues be connected, making smaller audiences more viable by aggregating them? This works online, but what about less centralised, less formal networking, through, say, mass usage of smartphones to stream performances from innumerable personal viewpoints, viewable by all, in random creative order. Could this generate income? Someone will work out a way and that income could be shared with people organising personal local performance by musicians, choirs, music groups, and this could encompass both offline and online collaborations.
One of the sectors seen as most under threat is that of live theatre, where the economic model is based on high income from seat sales, something impossible with social distancing. What new models could be available? Again it could be select private performance – the visiting band of actors perhaps, harking back to Hamlet or Midsummer Night’s Dream – financed for the benefit of a small personal or corporate elite, thus retaining the services of costume, lighting, special effects. To this could be added a more structured and better funded system of streamed performance, something that did not just seek to extend a stage performance to a screen, but which, building on models like that of Creation Theatre’s recent Zoom Tempest, made a new dramatic event for a broader audience.
Words and Texts
Some books, publishers and booksellers have done well in the times of crisis, others not so well. Writers and illustrators may also have done badly, but this might encourage them and us to look for new ways of sharing the writing and circulation of texts and images. Why not add the value of sharing to the creative outputs, not just by the add-ons of appearances, podcasts, audiobooks and customisation, but by sharing acts across individuals and groups. This could including reading aloud, listening, gathering to hear each others’ voices, see each others’ visual representations of stories, and participate in enactments of favourite scenes and tableaux. Add these experiences to some other kinds of performance and this could see a reawakening of total artworks that do not rely solely on technology to attract audiences, or funding. Perhaps, if you build it people will come.
Publishers, booksellers, writers and illustrators might expand their roles and become both a basis for and evidence of co-creation and sharing, balancing and reconciling solitary and communal livelihoods. People might be encouraged to memorise more, not just as a Fahrenheit 451 security device, but as a way of internalising words and stories in a way that digital media do not encourage. Children and older people could all (re)learn the pleasure of internalising narratives, something that has only recently been lost from human culture. This may be particularly true for poetry and song, where reading and singing aloud, listening, new writing, experimentation and mixing of words, music and actions are part of a long tradition stretching through market performances, dada events, poetry slams and surrealist happenings. Let’s see more of this develop within the new constraints of the pandemic, breaking away from conventions of what a poetry or music event should be.
Makers will Make, Everyone an Audience
Cultural participation is more than Morris dancing or Instagram, more than Glastonbury or the Proms, more than visiting a bookshop or a library, more than doodling or messing about on the piano. It is these things, but it is best seen as doing them with purpose, with a desire to create a new thing or event, rather than seeing culture as a pastime or, more stuffily, as the guardian of tradition and accepted form. Creative culture always shows the desire to support others who are themselves creating. It is the basis of the freedom to be critical, and reinforces the good will that respects others who are creating in good faith. It is heart and soul, and the heart and soul of everyone you meet. As such, cultural participation is not tolerance of others, it is belonging with others; it is not a result of the division of diversity but an awareness the richness of difference. As such it can engage with all aspects of our lives, and in these times it must.
Another area, so often overlooked in a world where commerce, politics and scientific endeavour are conducted in so few ‘world’ languages, is that of language. So much culture is tied up with language and yet in many societies monolingual culture predominates. We need to exploit the extent to which bandwidth can now handle multilingual culture, transmit messages in all our human languages and abandon the current hierarchy in which languages are maintained by market-driven creation and dissemination. The electronic media are now mostly limited to their language ghettos but they can and must be restructured to enable and encourage language variety, familiarity, experimentation and mixing. The human voice and human writing are the record of our diversity and that diversity cannot be treasured through one language, one creole, or one standard of understanding.
How can languages be liberated? By encouraging and enabling their use by everyone who can or wishes to use them, and that means any language they have or find at hand; by exposure through listening and reading different languages and, however imperfectly, using those languages to utter unusual and novel thoughts; by trusting to words to tell the truth when truthful people use them and distrusting even the most polished word of the untrustworthy.
Culture is communication, and it can provide what the new circumstances demand: new kinds of communication – digital, analog, haptic, local, distributed, formal, informal, in all different media that may or may not have a centre or be near one. Imagine the different network capabilities of an older technology like the radio, transformed into a multidirectional method of transmission and reception, not mimicking digital communication, but developing on the back of its analog history a communication of unlikely interface, provocative interference and surprise appearances.
We have become seduced by the chimera of rapid communication, without realising that what is rapid may be less communicative and what is slower may contain a more weighty message. Communications can be slow, they do not need to be instantaneous. The letter, or the planned telephone call (given time by both parties), the considered communication, these all lie at the heart of any cultural exchange worth the candle. Moving some way back towards the text and to the sound of voices over private networks will help to re-humanise cultural communications and correspondence.
Culture does not always benefit from constant and consecutive communication (the your go/my go text message exchanges over the tennis net of the smartphone screen). Personal messages sent from the point of view of the writer/creator can be sent without always having the receiver/reader in mind, they can allow thoughts time to settle, and give time for consideration and measured response. Letters – yes, letters sent through the postal system while we still have it – provide a useful sense of separation that is in contrast to the forced togetherness of the phone and the staccato mix of chumminess and urgency of the electronic message. Culture, art and creativity can benefit from separation, with considered communication coming at the right time.
If cultural events, creations, and communications are to take this opportunity to morph with meaning as the world adapts to increasingly critical changes in the things that affect our physical, mental and social wellbeing, then our cultural life may well need to work harder to fight the general social and political urging to return to a status quo ante to which there can in reality be no return. Now is the time for those concerned with such things to subvert inequalities; use the unbalanced nature of society as if in a martial art, using the weight and power of the dominant to unseat and unbalance their control over cultural life; move away from any idea of culture as a consumable, something that can be monetised, used up, rationed and owned; and develop new modes of creation and communication that use both old and new technologies in their place to help us work through the mess that we are in and from which we must escape or perish.
Use the market where it works, but be ruthless in exploiting the weaknesses and vanities of the rich and powerful; share in all directions, eliminate the hierarchical nature of current digital sharing and make each smallest network member as empowered as the next; encourage giving, or gifting, and give culture value by making it free to all; discourage central ownership of amassed artefacts and all the associated interpretations, memories, creative tools, sites of creation, copies and copyrights, ideas of acceptability, propriety, and standing.
This is just a beginning. The cultural world is experiencing many difficulties in this pandemic, coming as it does at the start of the climate breakdown, as Brexit turmoil becomes more acute, and as political institutions thought the world are under extreme strain from renegade leaders. It is no good trying to ‘save’ culture, thinking that governments have any interest in anything that isn’t purely economic or geared to their certain concept of ‘security’. This is a time for cultural rethink, and one for which we all now have the time, whether we want it or not – time to spend on exciting and innovative change. This is the time to act. There is no ‘normal’ to return to. There never was.