By Jennnifer Bergman
It has been just over a year since European cities were struck by an outbreak of the largest pandemic in a century. Across European cities, streets emptied and once buzzing neighbourhoods became ghost towns. With social distancing and people confined to their homes, theatres, museums, gigs, and other cultural institutions were forced to close. Many in the creative sector, an already financially vulnerable sector, found themselves without an income and often overlooked by their government. In a tragic paradox, the sector that helped get millions of people through months of being locked in their homes was simultaneously one of the worst affected by Covid. A year on, as Europe is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel it raises the question: how can we understand the failure of governments’ to protect the creative sector, and how will this impact this sector in the future?
Of course, it would be an exaggeration to say that the creative sector was left entirely to fend for itself. The European Parliament recognised early on that social distancing and confinement put a strain on the cultural and creative sectors of Europe. Across Europe, governments have established financial support to replace lost income and revenue, although these have been critiqued for their insufficiency. For example, Italy, set up an emergency fund for the performing Arts, Cinema and the Audio-visual sector of 130 million euro. Within Italy this is seen as inadequate, with Italian cities pleading for the government to ease restrictions to save the creative sector (Zanetti, 2020). The UK’s attempt to support individuals consisted of grants of up to 2500 pounds for workers in the creative sector. However, conditions left those newly established in the country or sector vulnerable and did not cover limited companies (Patrick and Eldsen, 2020). These two examples are echoed across Europe in countries such as Spain, France, and the Netherlands (OECD, 2020).
The lack of financial support sends a symbolic message. As humans, we want to feel that what we do matter and is appreciated. In the context of Covid, the way governments responded is about more than the response itself but also what it represents, it showed a lack of assurance that culture and the creative sector is a vital part of society. A perfect example is the UK government’s campaign “Rethink. Reskill. Reboot”, which encouraged people employed in the arts to retrain for more “practical” professions. This received widespread critique and gave rise to a wave of memes critiquing the government (Moss, 2020). Altogether, there is a shared sentiment across Europe that there has not been enough support, to understand why this was the case we need to take a step back and look at the broader context.
We often look back to history to shed light on the present. In this instance, many have drawn comparisons between Covid and the Spanish Flu that spread across the world 1918-1920. Both pandemics occurred parallel to a time of political change which contributed to wider societal effects. Recalling the Spanish Flu, Kambhampaty said that throughout society “a sense of meaningless spread and people started to lose faith in their governments, existing social structures and accepted moral values” (Kambhampaty, 2020). Sounds familiar? Although there were similarities in the public sentiment there was an important difference in governments’ responses. During the Spanish flu, for example, both in New York’s and London’s theatres and cultural institutions stayed open they were seen as a vital part in keeping up the public morale and protecting mental health (Knox, 2020). Although this likely impacted the spread of the Spanish Flu, it also likely mitigated the financial impact the creative sector felt a hundred years ago and affirmed the importance of culture in times of crises.
In the hundred years since the Spanish Flu, there has been a shift in Western politics which can help us understand that the way governments responded in 2020 was not entirely unexpected. During the 1990s there was an expansion within politics of what is deemed a security threat, from simply war and conflicts to events such as disease outbreaks. In short, this process is called securitisation in which an issue that is not usually deemed a security threats is considered significant enough to be a threat and is thus framed as such through discourse. In practice, this translates to the issue being placed at the top of agendas and governments are allowed to take any means necessary to combat it (Balzacq, 2010). In this context, the forsaking of culture seems like a natural fallout. I am not attempting to make the argument that this is right, simply that this is how many governments work and we need to put the argument in its larger context.
Having outlined the support, or lack thereof, for the creative sector during the pandemic and how we can understand it leaves the question of its effects. Despite experiencing massive losses the creative sector was quick to adapt to the changing circumstances. Museums put on online exhibitions, theatres explored new and different platforms, and the music industry came up with creative ways of curating live performances (Spolar, 2020; Tripney, 2020; Taylor, 2021). Our modern world allows not only for creative artists to carve out their own space on the global platform but also for art to be produced on a faster basis so that they are in real-time reflecting the world around them. For example, HBO recently released their movie Locked Down which follows a couple during the early weeks of the pandemic in London.
To circle back to the beginning, in a sense the creative sector has very much been the collateral damage of this pandemic. European governments’ actions sent a message that preserving and supporting culture would not be a priority. Millions of workers, and cultural institutions, were left without sufficient financial support and with a feeling that they did not matter. However, what is significant here is that, given the broader context of how we understand security threats in the 21st century, we should not have been as surprised as we were by the governmental response. Acknowledging this does not mean that the creative sector will go under. Although it has been one of the hardest-hit sectors in Europe, as we have seen art adapts to the world around it and always finds a way to survive in the darkest of circumstances. With or without political support.
Balzacq, Thierry. Securitization Theory: How Security Problems Emerge and Dissolve. 2010. Abingdon: Routledge.
Kambhampaty, Anna Purna. “How Art Movements Tried to Make Sense of the World in the Wake of the 1918 Flu Pandemic”, 5 May 2020. TIME Magazine. https://time.com/5827561/1918-flu-art/
Knox, Aubrey (2020) “The Spanish Influenza Transformed Everyday Life. But Artists Struggled to Visualize Its Impact”. 12 May 2020. Art in America. https://inews.co.uk/culture/coronavirus-lockdown-west-end-history-explained-spanish-flu-pandemic-hit-shows-420695, https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/spanish-influenza-pandemic-art-history-1202686702/
Moss, Rachel (2020) “Ad Telling Ballet Dancer Called Fatima to Retrain in ‘Cyber’ is Pissing People Off”. 12 October 2020, Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/government-branded-ad-telling-a-ballet-dancer-to-retrain-slammed-for-lack-of-respect-for-the-arts_uk_5f841a6ec5b62f97bac5140a
OECD. “Culture Shock: COVID-19 and the Cultural and Creative Sectors”, 7 September 2020. OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19). https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/culture-shock-covid-19-and-the-cultural-and-creative-sectors-08da9e0e/
Patrick, Holly and Eldsen, Chris. “How Coronavirus has hit the UK’s Creative Industries”. 8 October 2020. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/how-coronavirus-has-hit-the-uks-creative-industries-147396
Spolar, Christine. “When the World Reopens, Will Art Museums Still be There?”. 30 December 2020. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/how-museums-are-staying-alive-during-coronvirus
Taylor, Alex. “How Covid is ‘Creating a New Genre’ for Live Music. 8 February 2021. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-55947209
Tripney, Natasha. “Play with the Format: How Theatre Shows Are Dispensing with the Stage”. 7 November 2020. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/nov/07/play-with-the-format-how-theatre-shows-are-dispensing-with-the-stage
Zanetti, Anna. “Can Italian Culture Survive Covid-19?”. 23 November 2020. Italics Magazine, https://italicsmag.com/2020/11/23/can-italian-culture-art-survive-covid-19/