What will art, culture and sport look like after the virus?
Sunday National, April 26th 2020
The UK economy and life as we know it are undergoing the kind of fundamental shock the like of which we have never seen in living memory.
The only comparisons of similar economic and human carnage in peacetime are of the depression of 1920-21 and Great Depression at the end of the 1920s. Literally we are living through what Naomi Klein called ‘the shock doctrine’ of ‘disaster capitalism’ at a vastly accelerated pace.
All of this raises questions about what life will look like after the worst of the virus? Not just in relation to the economy, but to wider society and things that are crucial to how we see ourselves as human beings – such as art, culture and sport?
Part of Scotland has been getting into a right dander over what happens to football. Sadly, most of these deliberations, even in official channels, are about the Premiership title and how it is won, the Celtic-Rangers rivalry, and the issue of league reconstruction across the current 42 senior clubs.
Little thought is being put, as Hibs chief executive Leeann Dempster has said, into the future of how the game comes back and its long-term prospects. This involves such issues as the sustainability of some clubs with no gate receipts, and what happens when football is resumed; and how, if at all, pre-vaccine, crowds are eventually allowed into games in smaller numbers and respecting social distancing.
Similarly – across arts and culture – what will be the cumulative effect of many months of cancelled concerts, theatre, gallery openings, visual arts and other performative pieces? What will be the effect of people consuming culture exclusively in the privacy of their own homes? In what ways will it change culture, the behaviour and experience of individual consumers and how they interact?
J. L. Partner’s recent poll showed the understandable hesitancy among the public for any quick return to so-called normalcy. In any loosening of the lockdown, 43% of the public are prepared to return to the workplace either immediately or in a few days; and 26% would wait a few months, or until there is a vaccine. Those figures fall to 19% in relation to going to the pub – with 75% waiting a few months or until a vaccine; and in terms of going to a music concert, a mere 8% would immediately consider it while 78% would wait months or longer.
Beyond these headline figures there are huge cultural debates required about the continued rise of Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services, the role of the BBC in the public life of the UK, and how artists and cultural practitioners fund and support their livelihood.
Popular culture pre-virus mirrored wider life and society. For all the rhetoric of the arts as participative, empowering and democratising, and at its best it can be all those things, too often they now fall way short of this and are distorted by hyper-inequality, wealth and privilege.
From the music world being defined by a global elite of artists such as Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran and a few others, to the role of Frieze Art Fair in London (and its international profile with Frieze New York and Los Angeles) in the commodification of the arts and role of dark and dirty money, it is not a very edifying or uplifting picture.
The unequal nature of the arts and culture have been increasingly laid bare, and this crisis has only amplified the reality in the UK that many artists struggle to make a living. For many incomes from music have become centred on touring and gigs, due to streaming and the decline of physical sales; this being as true for legacy acts as for emerging talents.
What happens to such artists when their main income stream is turned off? The legacy act if prominent enough can hope their back catalogue and merchandise sales will suffice, but those options are not available to newer artists.
The changing role of broadcast media has a major relevance to this, and so far the BBC has been having a good crisis to the extent that for now the Tories feel they have no option but to call off their attack dogs. The BBC has effortlessly moved into providing a public information service function – one which justifies its sense of itself and provides its audience with what they expect in such difficult times.
Yet underneath the plaudits demographics still point to faultlines in this with the over-65s watching an average six hours live TV per day – the same as a decade ago, whereas 18-24 year olds watch half of what they did a decade ago namely 85 minutes per day.
This market segmentation undermines the basis of the licence free – with older, richer audiences consuming a plethora of BBC services and younger, poorer audiences looking elsewhere. In reflecting on who the corporation makes programmes for – and who makes them – one BBC journalist commented that: ‘In our sensibilities, delicacies of speech, we are super-serving upper middle class people.’ Less pronounced divisions caused Finland in 2013 to abolish its flat-rate licence fee of €252 per household and replace it with a progressive tax ranging from zero to €140 per individual to fund the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE).
The above divides are only one part of how UK culture has been transformed in recent decades. As the late Mark Fisher put it in 2015: ‘Self-educated working class culture generated some of the best comedy, music and literature in modern Britain.’ He assessed that since this there had been retreat: ‘The last 30 years have seen the bourgeoisie take over not only business and politics, but also entertainment and culture.’
Dundonian born actor Brian Cox told ‘The Guardian’ earlier this year: ‘The tragedy in the UK is there’s a whole working class that is being removed from the culture. Egalitarian thinking is completely lacking in the UK.’
Cultural writer Nathalie Olah in her brilliantly titled ‘Steal as Much as You Can: How to win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity’ published last year wrote of the cost of the on-going ‘toffication of culture’ and its self-assured closure of privilege, aided by private education narrowing the range of cultural content and voices.
Unless we act and intervene culturally and politically the fate of post-virus arts, culture, entertainment and sport will be an even more grotesque version of the present. This would be a world with a massive concentration of power in the hands of a few corporates and big tech in what is close to monopoly capitalism, and a grass roots, independent DIY culture – with little in-between.
That DIY culture when it comes to independent venues and spaces is one which was already precarious pre-virus with costs and pressures of gentrification. But it will find other home grown and self-starting forms. One example of many in the current climate is that of Desert Home Discs set up by Glasgow events organiser Martin Jack (known as ‘Jacky’) which in a matter of weeks has blossomed on Facebook into an international community of over 800 people talking about and sharing music.
The group have in a short period undertaken an A-Z of people’s favourite music by artist and song title, staged themed days on best and worst gigs, and even had a 24 hour musicthon which Jacky stayed up all night to MC. Its success he says is simple: ‘Right time, right music, right theme.’ People he says are ‘reliving their own personal experience of what music has meant to them during their life’ and ‘reliving their youth while at the same time identifying new music that they like.’
Take the state of Scottish football with all its ongoing talk of league reconstruction. What happens to teams with little finance and small home supports if the game does not return for months? Some of the small clubs might be alright such are their low overheads.
This is the view of Ross Graham, chairman of Forfar Athletic, ninth in League One (the third tier league) who thinks that not playing football ‘might cost us £1,000 a week’. It is a situation he is sanguine about: ‘We can budget for that. If there is no football next season, it will cost us £50,000, but that’s not going to put Forfar under. We will find the money somewhere.’ It is the teams in-between the big clubs at the top and the very small ones who might find that they really struggle and even a few go out of business.
The pressures of the present highlight thorny issues of the role of art, culture, entertainment and sport in society. In relation to the first two – what is the balance between providing light relief and even a safety valve on pressures in life, and asking difficult questions and tackling controversial subjects?
Increasingly, art and culture like so much of public life in recent decades has been over-shadowed by corporate capitalism, conspicuous consumption and wealth, and the influence of celebrity culture.
Celebrity culture increasingly sees individuals selling their supposed personal success back to us as some kind of revelation and life plan we should all aspire to. It is illuminating that in the first period of this virus several major celebrities have committed significant PR car crashes.
These include actor Gal Gadot and her stomach churning celeb pals singing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ (key words: ‘Imagine no possessions’); Madonna in a bath of rose petals lecturing the rest of us on ‘equality’; and music mogul David Geffen posting on Instagram the message ‘hope everyone is staying safe’ from the self-isolation of his £480 million super-yacht.
We allowed celebrity culture to be done to us – aided by a media fixated on success, glamour and gossip and packaging it to the public to demean the public sphere and limit serious public conversations. This contributes to a continued celebration of inequality and the peddling of the myth of meritocracy based on the illusion that ‘we can all make it’ if we just work harder or get that lucky break.
Culture has always had a relationship with power and in previous ages it has also become associated with elites, wealth and privilege and, as of now, many artistic voices have worried about whether they are being compromised by money and issues of collusion and appropriation.
The difference between then and now is that we are living in an age of robber baron capitalism dominated by crony corporates, insider trading and dealing, and a massive murky world of dark money, criminal networks and shady arrangements in tax havens. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the UK and the City of London is the global capital of many of these networks and arrangements.
This is what needs to have time called on, and a new kind of cultural activism and practice developed – alongside a new economic and social settlement that isn’t based on celebrities, corporates and dim-witted toffs using their connections and family networks
That would require a political will and legislation to break up monopolies, support diversity, and aid independents and artists. Rather than continue to obsess with the mantra of the discredited ‘creative class’ this is the sort of terrain that Creative Scotland and other public agencies should be embracing now to aid the emergence of a very different kind of cultural landscape post-virus.