Cultural endeavour mutates to survive this weird new world

Coronavirus will profoundly damage the arts but new creative spaces will also open

Savage Beauty, an artwork by Finnish artist Kari Kola involving 1,000 lights spread over a distance of five kilometres, has transformed the Connemara mountains in a wash of vibrant pulsating colours. Video: Janne Tapio Media

 

As we stepped uncertainly across the threshold of a new reality this week, there was an understandable sense of shock at how rapidly everything had changed for so many people.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the culture sector has already been devastating. Artists, performers, technicians, venue staff and many others suddenly find themselves without work and without incomes. It remains to be seen how effective the emergency financial relief measures announced by various State agencies including the Arts Council and the Department of Social Protection will be, but no matter how the crisis ultimately unfolds, the damage will be profound.

It is an intriguing paradox that digital technology, blamed by so many for ills ranging from poor mental health to social fragmentation, now offers the best defence against both

At the same time we are seeing a remarkable outpouring of the human creative spirit in a multiplicity of new and ingenious forms, from musicians livestreaming their performances to best-selling writers setting up short story competitions for young people. For the moment, at least, it feels as if this energy is only going to increase in the days and weeks ahead. New forms of creative connection are being formed, as people explore the potential of different digital platforms for performance, collaboration and education. A society that had soured on the negative effects of the internet is now rediscovering its potential for community and personal connection. There is an intriguing paradox in the fact that digital technology, blamed by so many for ills ranging from poor mental health to social fragmentation, now offers the best defence against both.

New reality

For the time being the more established channels for distribution of culture – broadcasters, music companies, film distributors and others – are adjusting to this new reality. For some it’s an existential threat, for others a hyper-acceleration of trends they’ve been experiencing for years. Ultimately, it may end up being both. This is also true of newspapers (which are themselves cultural producers, after all). This week, I’m very proud of the work of my Irish Times colleagues and friends as, for the first time in our history, we put together a weeks’ worth of newspapers and a range of digital services from outside our office.

Clearly some artforms, particularly theatre and live music, will not be figuring prominently in these pages for the next while

Culture in all its forms is important for all of us in this new, isolated world. As Arts and Culture Editor, my job is to try to give our readers the best information and the most informed picture we can of this highly fluid and unpredictable cultural landscape. You may notice that this week’s Ticket is a first attempt to reflect that reality, with extensive recommendations and reviews of films and TV series available online. And we will continue to monitor, preview and review the film releases on streaming and rental services.

Clearly some artforms, particularly theatre and live music, will not be figuring prominently in these pages for the next while, and our weekly Going Out cultural highlights section has been suspended. But books continue to be published, albums continue to be released, and our coverage of both is undiminished.

Novel ways

Also, the world of culture and ideas is certainly not limited to new releases. One of the opportunities this time presents is to pick up that novel we’ve been meaning to read for years, or to return to a much-loved work from decades ago. There were also signs this week of people’s growing interest in getting involved themselves in making art and creative work of some kind. And museums, galleries and cultural institutions around the world are opening up archives and offering virtual tours. We’ll seek to reflect all of that in our journalism too.

If you’re trying to put some personal limits on the constant flow of the news feed, I hope we’ll be able in some small way to help

Culture and ideas help us to find ways of thinking about this crisis and making sense of it. Not in a simplistically utilitarian way but because, as John Banville said about literature this week (noted by Mick Heaney in today’s radio review), it’s not for escaping from reality, “it’s for escaping into life” ( some of us do occasionally like escaping from reality, too).

None of this is to distract from the primary challenge we all face of protecting lives and health, particularly of the most vulnerable. But if, like me, you’re trying to put some personal limits on the constant flow of the news feed, to find space and time for reflection, contemplation and pleasure, I hope we’ll be able in some small way to help.

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