My Word: Coronavirus and culture shock

Nine months is more than a pregnant pause for the creative arts.

ARTISTS AND MEMBERS of the cultural sector protest the ongoing corona restrictions outside Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv on November 23 2020.  (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
ARTISTS AND MEMBERS of the cultural sector protest the ongoing corona restrictions outside Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv on November 23 2020.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
It was quite a performance. On my way to work the other day I passed by the old Shaare Zedek Hospital building – an iconic landmark on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road – which later became the Israel Broadcasting Authority headquarters, and now awaits its next role. When I saw it this week, it was decorated with Jordanian flags – which were what first caught my eye – and I wandered over with a colleague to check out the possible story. It turns out the beautiful old building was being used as a temporary film set by the Jerusalem Musical Theater for a movie about the city’s history. “We can’t do our regular shows, so we’re making a movie to be screened during Hanukkah,” the director told us.
And then it hit me. It’s been a year since the dreaded novel coronavirus broke out in China, and it’s been nearly nine months since it began disrupting our lives in the West. Nine months is more than a pregnant pause for the creative arts. All those shows that couldn’t go on; all those songs unsung; dances with moves hidden from view; museums with a “Closed” sign on ticket office windows; libraries where books are gathering dust. It begged the variation of the classic Buddhist riddle of the tree falling in the forest: If musicians play music but nobody hears them, do they really make a sound?
Of course, the arts have moved online – my son during the first lockdown used the time to become acquainted with a broad operatic repertoire, thanks to the Metropolitan Opera and others – but it is not the same. Nothing can replace the buzz, vibe and general positive energy of a live performance. If it could, then culture would have collapsed long before COVID-19 entered our lives. It’s one thing to hunker down on a comfortable sofa to watch a Netflix movie on a cold winter night, but it’s not the same thing as getting dressed up and going out – the audience reactions are part of the experience, the group experience.
Children are never too young to be introduced to culture: Story hour at the local library should be part of the fun of childhood, learning how characters can jump off the page. Books and plays: What a great double act. And it should never stop from that early age on. Can you ever be too old for a good concert? (Although I wonder if the sound of coughing in the audience, an integral background noise in the pre-coronavirus days, will ever be perceived as a familiar comforting sound rather than a potential health warning.)
There’s nothing funny about an out-of-work comedian, a stand-up artist with no audience to stand-up for and no crowd to give a standing ovation. Drive-by movies and shows – for which you need a car and someone to drive it – are a good option for now, but not a long-term solution. They can only serve to widen socioeconomic gaps rather than make culture available to all. The effort by Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality to screen movies for an audience sitting in boats on the Yarkon made a splash but does not wave the coronavirus problem goodbye for most movie fans. And don’t forget that many major movies have had their production or release dates postponed more than once.
The culture crisis is a double downer: The quality of life of “consumers” is badly affected, but that is nothing compared to the plight of the performers and culture producers. It’s natural to put the spotlight on the stars – the actors, singers, dancers and stand-up artists – but behind the scenes every big name relies on a dedicated band of workers who help make them shine: the staff handling lighting and sound; props and costumes; scriptwriters; musicians; maintenance; cleaners and drivers – many of them self-employed or from small firms.
The OECD published a policy paper in September with the catchy name: “Culture shock: COVID-19 and the cultural and creative sectors.” The paper notes: “The venue-based sectors (such as museums, performing arts, live music, festivals, cinema, etc.) are the hardest hit by social distancing measures. The abrupt drop in revenues puts their financial sustainability at risk and has resulted in reduced wage earnings and lay-offs with repercussions for the value chain of their suppliers, from creative and non-creative sectors alike.
“Some cultural and creative sectors, such as online content platforms, have profited from the increased demand for cultural content streaming during lockdown, but the benefits from this extra demand have largely accrued to the largest firms in the industry.”
And there is no easy cure for the problems. The effects will be long-lasting, the paper points out, especially given the ongoing dearth of international and domestic tourism. Digitization and online content – often offered free of charge – is not sustainable and funding for culture might not get the treatment it deserves.
The policy paper continues: “The lockdown and social distancing measures have also made evident the importance of arts and culture for people’s mental well-being – and possibly, through the increasingly documented psychosomatic effects of cultural access, also health. This recognition provides a new opportunity to capitalize on the role of arts and culture in the prevention and treatment of illness across the lifespan, contributing to solutions for health and welfare systems, such as through reductions in hospitalization or medication rates.”
It’s probably optimistic to get the Finance Ministry to release funds for the arts on the grounds of mental health, although we have all seen that lockdowns come at a heavier price than just the economic one. Incidentally, I was not surprised to learn that Collins Dictionary had crowned “lockdown” its word of the year for 2020.
The Israel Opera earlier this month began the process of dismissing more than 60 members of the chorus – many of them older, veteran immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The lack of ticket sales and drop in donations have taken their toll, according to management, although the singers claim that the mass firing is due more to a work dispute over unionization.
During the first lockdown, several actors from the country’s leading theaters were interviewed working as couriers, delivering take-away food from pizza bars and restaurants that were not allowed to host diners. There have also been several protests – creative as could be expected – calling for the regulations to be adapted to allow performances to take place: outdoors or in limited numbers in large halls, maintaining spatial distancing. Care must be taken to protect the health of both performers and their audiences, but creative solutions can be found.
Care must also be taken to avoid turning this into a political issue or into a socio-cultural clash. Culture belongs to all: Opera and oud fans alike, wherever they live. Indeed, the fusion of Eastern and Western sounds (and all that jazz) has a growing audience worldwide. By definition, the East-West combination crosses borders.
I googled “coronovirus” and “culture” and found both scientific articles and socioeconomic ones, reflecting the different meanings of the word “culture.” Scientists seek a cure for the virus while social scientists consider how life will change. Although it’s natural that the pandemic has put the focus on science and technology, the importance of the arts – nourishment for the soul – should not be overlooked.
Museums in Israel are expected to reopen in the coming days but the performing arts are still behind closed doors. When will the curtains rise again? No one knows for sure. But the pandemic won’t be over until the proverbial fat lady sings – and receives a round of applause from a live audience.
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