I know artists are meant to suffer for their art and die alone in a garret, but this is ridiculous. Cinemas are open, but numbers are drastically down. Theatres and live venues teeter on the edge, balancing health risks and financial risks, trying to plan against possible lockdowns and impossible-to-predict futures. An email from a contact at a major gallery last week informed me that visitor numbers are 80% down from what they should be. The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition – bumped back so it is now called the Winter Exhibition – has just opened, but it won’t be the annual crowd-pleaser it is usually.
I am not romantic about art. The damage to the “creative industries” is not more important than damage to other areas of economic life. I don’t think everyone who calls themselves an artist is owed time and space to express themselves, and enjoy career-long critical attention and a good living just because they have creative urges. But the overwhelming majority of arts projects are not associated with huge venues and big-name impresarios. Instead, they are fragile, freelance, contingent affairs. For every film, play or exhibition that doesn’t happen, there is a huge cohort of producers, technical crew, creative artists and venue staff from sound mixers to bartenders and security who don’t get employed.
Right now, along with everything else in current events, the debate around the arts has become polarised and self-righteous. If you stay away, you are a selfish neurotic who actively wants cinemas, theatres and galleries to tank. If you go for some cultural carousing, you are a selfish covidiot with sloppy habits and no consideration for others.
The truth is that there is a silent majority of people – including me – who are rightly cautious. Art-makers are also arts audiences. We don’t want to create theatre, films or dance performances in risky circumstances, and we don’t want to attend them in risky circumstances either.
The caution is scientifically justified, but of course it is double-edged. For example, I had to cancel the shoot for a film that I had spent a year planning and rehearsing, because I can’t guarantee the safety of the crew. How do you keep multiple people a double-bed’s length apart in a regular-sized house? How do you serve tea and cater lunch, where everyone is touching everything? If someone brought in the virus or got ill themselves, it wouldn’t be my fault legally, but it would be my moral and karmic responsibility.
The upshot is that an actor, two camera operators, a hair and makeup artist and an editor, all of them freelance, lost a job they’d had booked in since the spring, and a little chunk of one-off money they had been expecting. One of them told me that all their other projects have been cancelled too.
Employers everywhere – in all areas of economic life, not just the arts – are having to make similarly wrenching decisions, knowing that there is no easy solution. As the chancellor, Rishi Sunak (pretty much the only individual in England whose Covid-era career is going super), said, not all jobs will be saved and, in this austerity-slashed landscape, not everyone will survive. Artists are sadly not exempt from this. Creativity affords no magic protection against brute reality.
Fundamentally, health must come first. The economy is hard hit now, but there will be no economy at all if many more people die from Covid-19 or suffer its debilitating long-term effects, as a significant minority of “long-haulers” are. Sometimes reality has no consolation, planning is impossible and there is nothing to do but stay in and get through it. The government should recognise the dire straits that arts workers are in and step into the breach with targeted support. As for the artists, I think we need to take the pressure off and forget about making or consuming new art for now. Nobody is really waiting for it. Instead, it is time to start the books on your to-read pile or open your laptop and Netflix the heck out of autumn.
Source: THE GUARDIAN