COVID-19 has laid bare how cultural policy systems function in countries around the world and raises question of their effectiveness, their inclusivity and the economic and social value of culture in Europe. While the Compendium of Cultural Policies & Trends monitors the current measures being taken, asking what these measures mean in the long term and how they may influence or change structural policy systems, is an equally important task. What are the (research) questions we should be asking and how can we ensure the presence and value of culture in society as a whole?
In his article The work of culture and C-19 for the European Journal of Cultural Studies, Professor Mark Banks (outgoing Director of the CAMEo Research Institute for Cultural and Media Economies, University of Leicester) gives us parameters and a starting point from which to answer these larger questions. The Compendium briefly interviewed Professor Banks, which marks the start of a series that examines the different dimensions of the role of artists, policy makers and the effects of COVID-19 on arts and culture in Europe.
You write about COVID-19 as a point of disruption and end your article with three points on what we can learn or take away from this unprecedented event for culture. How can cultural policy makers use the crisis as an asset to tackle persisting issues?
I’m not sure if I would see crisis as an ‘asset’ in terms of offering a resource or advantage, but it certainly gives cultural policy-makers a moment to re-make their case for culture as valuable public good. Not only have we seen cultural industries come to the aid of society by providing their usual pleasures and entertainments in a lockdown scenario, we have seen artists and cultural producers come literally to the aid of key and vulnerable workers through providing fund-raising and benefit concerts, screenings and events. That culture is a vital part of our communal life – and should be supported and valued as such – has been amply demonstrated. But the crisis can also be an opportunity to show how cultural workers – mostly low-paid and many quite precariously employed – should be treated less as providers of ‘free stuff’ and public succour, and more as people engaged in a valuable productive effort that requires material support. Let us not forget either that arts and culture play a vital political role in bringing societies to task for their shortcomings – cultural policy makers need to allow for artistic dissensus and critique too, and not just make the case for culture as compensation or commercial good.
What are the conversations we should be having about arts and culture to regain an appreciation for it beyond its economic value?
In some ways they are the familiar arguments – culture provides the context for humans to discover, disclose and distribute their creativity, and allows for the expressive examination of our shared lives. Culture makes life meaningful and worth living. Those arguments have somewhat lost ground – partly due to the perception (erroneous in my view) that such humanistic values are intrinsically elitist – but also mainly as economics has come to trump culture as the primary means of establishing value. No doubt we need both ways of valuing culture – but what global austerity and now COVID-19 have also shown is that the ‘economic’ value of culture is not that convincingly demonstrated, even to those governments who have historically claimed for it. Most national culture budgets have been slashed, save for one or two exceptions. And if we take out conventional IT and digital sectors, then arts and culture have barely ‘grown’ at all, in a decade. The climate crisis also raises questions about how sustainable chasing economic growth really can be – a theme Professor Kate Oakley and I explore in our forthcoming book Cultural Industries and the Environmental Crisis (Springer, 2020). So when economic value is found wanting as the primary metric, then what remains? An urgent discussion about other kinds of value – including the cultural, social and the ecological – is needed.
What are your thoughts on how the current crises has created opportunity for participation and access online versus the ‘live experience’ of culture that is now still largely missing?
In some ways lockdown has allowed for some creative reconfigurations and energised participation – the whole rise of a participatory ‘zoom’ culture, the streaming of performances, the new opportunities to ‘join in’ online that are offered daily. The ways in which artists and performers are bringing their performances into the home – from their own homes – is also suggestive of a new intimacy and relation between artist and audience. But we must also be careful not to over-celebrate this – not everyone has the time or resources to access online culture (and many are struggling to have any kind of leisure at all) and many performers are also struggling to make ends meet, and seeking new ways to make up for the loss of income from cancelled studio time, commissions and performances. The online economy is in danger of appearing a source of gifts and free labour – and we need to make sure that cultural workers are properly rewarded for their creative efforts. Once live performances recommence – and that seems some way away – then parts of the cultural industry will recover, but without state support it is likely that many will not – small venues, bars and nightclubs, local arts centres and community centres being the most vulnerable. Protecting local arts ecologies is going to be vital. Only then can we hope to rebuild the wider vibrancy of the public arts and culture that we are currently so keenly missing.
Mark Banks is Professor of Culture and Communication at Leicester University and the Director of CAMEo Research Institute for Cultural and Media Economies. From June 2020, he will take up a new role in the School of Culture and Creative Arts at the University of Glasgow. Recent publications include Creative Justice: Cultural Industries, Work and Inequality (2017) and the upcoming Cultural Industries and the Environmental Crisis (with Professor Kate Oakley) which critiques the current model of the creative economy and considers sustainable alternatives. Banks’ article The work of culture and C-19 was published in the European Journal of Culture on May 8th 2020.