The Covid-19 virus has thrown the creative and cultural industries into a grim crisis. Since lockdown the only access we have to culture has been online: Instagram, YouTube, Netflix, Facebook Live, Amazon Prime, Spotify are all the platforms where I currently consume and appreciate culture in lieu of going out to an art gallery or live performance. The national and international closures of centres of culture will be financially devastating for the culture as evidenced in the Creative Industries Federation’s open letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. Signed by over 500, mainly well-known creative figures across the arts, letter raises serious alarm calls that only 50% of creative organisations think that their reserves will last beyond June this year. The letter calls for urgent funding from the government to stop Britain from becoming a cultural wasteland.
In response, the government has set up a “Cultural Renewal” task-force “aimed at helping getting the country’s recreation and leisure sector up and running again.” Naturally, many voices in the creative sector are lobbying to safeguard their interests and rightfully so. Can we imagine a south-bank without The South Bank Centre, the Royal National Theatre, The Globe and Tate Modern and the loss of civic theatres, museums and art galleries in the regions? It’s a chilling and depressing thought.
However, rather than defending and fighting for culture and safeguarding the creators of culture – artists, writers, musicians, performers, etc – as a universal, essential human need, intersectional identity interests begin to rear its head. The Young Vic in London has spearheaded an open letter to the culture secretary from Black, Asian & Ethnically Diverse leaders signed by 71 CEO’s, Artistic Directors and Executives. It’s an impressive list and an important reminder of how British cultural leadership has changed significantly over the last 20 years. Nevertheless, it feels somewhat “off” to “insist that ethnic diversity is protected and celebrated in policy going forwards” and using the “racial disparity in the health crisis…to call on the government and the sector to ensure the progress we have collectively made does not fall by the way-side.”
It is correct that people from ethnic minorities are at a higher risk of dying from coronavirus, as evidenced in a report published by Public Health England [PHE], but there may be a number of reasons for this – underlying health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity for example as well as urban deprivation and overcrowding. Nonetheless, both Public Health England and the Young Vic open letter reveal a glaring and worrying omission: the working class.
Aside from health workers, very little detail in the PHE report is given about the impact of COVID-19 based on occupations. Some data is given about the relative increase in deaths of elementary security occupations, road transport drivers, taxi and cab drivers and chauffeurs. Data published by the Office for National Statistics [ONS] for example showed that the male-dominated construction industry has a higher rate of coronavirus-related deaths than many other job types.
The bitter pill to swallow will be that not all creative organisations, both commercial or publicly funded, will survive the lockdown but it is wrong for BAME leaders to play the race card in relation to the mortality rates as a result of COVID-19, in order to protect their positions, it’s a divisive narrative.
How cultural institutions will survive and re-open, squaring up income, footfall and engagement will be complex – where will the money come from?
More importantly, perhaps this is a timely moment to re-assess priorities, not based on spurious connections with race and ethnicity, but to refocus support that allows for the flourishing of more working-class artists and talent that cuts across race, ethnicity and sex. The Brexit vote cannot be ignored, and neither can the working-class community. The cultural industries are overwhelmingly dominated by the middle and upper classes. If we want to fully embrace diversity, we need to re-imagine contemporary British art and culture – where are the young equivalents of Edward Bond, Andrea Dunbar, Gurinder Chadha, Alan Sillitoe, Grayson Perry, Chris Ofili, Jeanette Winterson, Shelagh Delaney, Harold Pinter, Ray Davies or Kate Tempest?
It’s time for the leaders of the big institutions to be more pro-active by getting out of their buildings and taking theatre back to the people, the hard slog of touring to community centres, church and village halls, pubs – places where working class people meet and socialise. Secondly, they can offer direct funds and training to local working-class developing talent, with mentorship and rigorous critical dialogue, not pandering to simplistic self-expressions of identity or performing victimhood.
It’s easy to nurture and patronise stereotypical working class art as dumbed down politically expressive rant, as Javaad Alipoor wrote in The Guardian back 2018 that “debate around class in the arts still draws on middle- and upper-class stereotypes of working-class life” it’s easy to develop cultural stereotypes, but much harder to nurture art and artists that transcend their social or ethnic origin and delve further into our complex and difficult human condition.
Image: Chris Ofili, Calypso 15, 2019 (detail). Courtesy of David Zwirner