As the Western Hemisphere enters what may prove to be the greyest autumn in living memory, I thought it worthwhile to reflect on the rise of Covid-state super-regulation and to speculate on the explicit and implicit impacts on creative thinking and practice. I write this from a dual perspective of someone fairly well-acquainted with galleries and museums on the one hand and artists and students of the arts on the other.
Whilst it may be true that some spectacular exhibitions (probably years in the planning) continue to come to fruition in the major cultural venues that are vaguely open for business, it is probably true to say that these are the result more of the operational inertia of big culture organs who operate grand, loan-based exhibition programmes with the effective stopping distance of oil super-tankers. We can see examples of this with Titian at London’s National Gallery, the Degree Zero drawing exhibition at MoMA, NY, Uninvited Guests at the Prado and A distanza ravvicinata(At close range) in Rome. On a different tack, Banksy continues to make the news with his sublime urban interventions, and public commissions continue to be installed as contracts are fulfilled and delivered.
The impression therefore is that at least some of art’s busyness has the semblance of reassuringly familiar patterns, media mileage, blockbuster lookalikes – essentially the production and consumption model we know so well. Headline arts events and news historically present themselves as the tip of the iceberg, an iceberg that is massively comprised of submerged creative production. A vital and visible tip sustained by tens of thousands of creatives, artists, designers, film makers et al, at all career stages, striving for fleeting or lasting oxygenation and visibility at the surface.
To offer a different angle on this, an angle I would argue that is closer to a deeper and far more unpleasant truth, relates to that very inertia; what I fear is a delayed and catastrophic longer-term creative deforestation that might be brought about by Covid-19, and the impression created by the mantra-like, politically defensible advocacy that is familiar as ‘…follow the science’.
To start with the superstructure, the cultural juggernaut/aircraft carriers such as MoMA plan in such a way (i.e. years ahead), that probably lends its exhibition programmes a degree of inertia that will slow and peter-out almost imperceptibly, before becoming exhausted perhaps in the 2023-4 season or later; and of course Covid-19 may have been miraculously eradicated by then. But by implication of regulation, physical distancing and massively reduced visitor numbers will also have a long tail toll in terms of revenues and pick-up that will affect future planning in an uncertain operating environment.
These future uncertainties exist not only around art handling, but also loan security and perhaps more worryingly in terms of risk aversion as loss adjusters seek to disqualify Covid-related indemnities/liabilities.
In the even grander scheme of things, the contemporary art pipeline, though currently in ample evidence in storage, may come into short supply for the future as artists die off without a new generation of replacements. My argument here I know is a non sequitur, which brings us, somewhat awkwardly, to art students and emerging/struggling practitioners and the non-commercial and commercial gallery sectors that are as krill to the blue whale, blue-chip museum giants.
Many smaller, non-commercial galleries have just shut up shop for good, their developing artists out of visible outlets for work; many commercial galleries are still online or are operating skeleton, stock-based shows; the expense and viability of art fairs, already challenged by cost and carbon, will do well to take place or remain viable without serious staffing and overhead reductions. Art students are finding it hard to look past the edge of their higher education, as the opportunities favour digital practices, or become increasingly exploitative of ‘free’ intellectual property. It is a bleak picture indeed for the young, aspiring artists regardless of talent, luck or the market.
A Greek artist friend of mine described the greatest challenge to artist development in that country, and others, as being the state mechanism of compulsory National Service, which essentially forms a firebreak between the development of youthful imagination and the conformity of adulthood. My greatest fear is that Covid-19, and the super-regulation around it, may well result in a similar severing of creative career continuity in young and developing artists.
The cynic in me also wonders if the current diminution of the arts, and the ‘opportunity’ of the pandemic crisis for some, helps realise a desirable political end for the ‘hawks’, an end that could not reasonably be achieved by civilised or democratic means or through reasoned argument. If you disbelieve me, or think me overly pessimistic, can you ever imagine a scenario where a political mouthpiece might direct us to ‘…follow the art’ as the weapon with which to fight an equivalent intellectual, emotional or mental health pandemic?
To be clear though, I do not blame scientists for one minute for being opportunistic in terms of drawing down resources made available by political and public will influenced by the pandemic, indeed artists would do the same if faced with support to fend off an existential cultural crisis if such a thing should ever come to pass.
One does wonder though if we have, over the preceding five decades, enjoyed a golden period for the arts and for an imaginative diversity which may not return for some time, if ever.
We may not yet be facing a shortage of art, after all, society has been preserving art and artifacts for a couple of thousand years, so museums, galleries and collections hold a good stock. What will be missing will be anything new that enables us to make emotional sense of ‘the science’ when that time comes - or when people realise that the arts are just as essential to living a meaningful life as a coronavirus vaccine is to extending it.
Read into it what you will, but I for one intend to see as much contemporary art as I possibly can in the next 3 years.