For my title reference, I would direct you to a classic punk dance and track by Welsh band The Table from 1977, but I thought it also captured a certain frisson of the current mood abroad.
We know we are in a strange moment when the most salient art world news fluctuates between incidental cultural minutiae and the survival struggle of culture in shut down. In terms of the former, I cite the non-story of the creditable - but accidental - discovery of the stolen painting of a 15th century Salvator Mundi painting by Giacomo Alibrandi, and of the latter point, the desperate crises of closed museums, galleries and theatres. This week’s sobering announcement of the indefinite closure (i.e. beyond Covid) of the Florence Nightingale Museum in London, is likely to be the thin end of a wedge with dimensions unknowable. We should be under no illusions when our societies emerge from this virus-induced hibernation, some institutions will not awaken from what Raymond Chandler famously referred to as ‘The Big Sleep’.
In parallel to this crisis of somnambulistic insolvency, the music industry is undergoing a similarly portentous moment where artist revenues are in question and audience support for ‘classic’ pop music is clearly at the expense of new talent development. To put this into perspective, and in addition to the UK’s current Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into the economics of music streaming, one Gary Numan (of Tubeway Army and ‘Cars’ fame), explained to the New Musical Express this week that for a million downloads of one of his songs from a streaming service he received the princely sum of £37.00. And Numan is an established artist. What chance then for newcomers with no touring, no club venues, no rehearsal rooms…and I told you not to mention Glastonbury.
My slightly disparate points here are multiple: in global pandemic ‘lockdown’ terms, the populous is, unsurprisingly, seeking refuge, reassurance and solace in the familiar. Quintessentially we are all (mostly) living in the past or occupying ourselves with imaginable and unimaginable futures alloyed to a fluctuating composite of optimism, pessimism and/or fatalism. The seeming absence of a present and a repeatedly deferred and uncertain future thus drive what I would describe as an uneasy oil/water mix of sentimentality and fantasy. I won’t even attempt to characterize political events of the recent past in these terms, but I think too that here the parallels and separations are disturbingly self-evident. We can also see separation anxiety and insecurity manifest in the plethora of disconnected creatives in lockdown who are re-posting past works on social media as if to remind both themselves and their followers that they are still alive and still capable of practice even if ‘real’ public/physical creative outputs in audience terms remain frustrated.
In the Western Hemisphere, the fragile creative ‘industries’, (a term I contest by the way), are constituted in their main part by a mosaic of hundreds of thousands of individual, creative practitioners who have, for centuries, effectively subsidized cultural consumption by functioning as loss leaders for the few: for every Banksy, there are hundreds of thousands (or more) social sculptors lost in obscurity, for every Yayoi Kusama, hundreds of less fortunate/gifted artists struggling to make ends meet. The late David Bowie probably had it right when he said his greatest fear was of being a mediocre artist. The success stories of rich and super-famous artists, designers and musicians really are the tip of an iceberg that is made up of submerged passion, unrecognized talent, good faith, and creative mediocrity fuelled by moments of revelation; these rather than the good fiscal sense or real-world consistency sought by the unimaginative - otherwise we should all mine bitcoin, and what a dull and carbon-rich world that would be.
Of the ‘Wicked’ Problems and Sustainable Development Goals identified by the U.N. and others, rapid cultural climate change in the form of a pandemic-driven creative ice-age does not feature, yet the consequences for society and for our sense of civilization are, I would argue, perhaps just as existentially and chronically significant.
The riposte to the disciplined ascetic being one who foregoes excess, (alcohol, sex, music, tobacco, meat, aesthetics, etc.) in order to extend life, goes along the lines of ‘you don’t actually live longer, it just feels like it’. Whilst governments are currently calculating best and worst-case Covid scenarios, based on vaccinations, test and trace, and quarantine for the forthcoming 24 months (my figure), I would argue that, without substantial governmental support, it may well take the arts decades to regain ground, with some ground, of course, that may be irrevocably and irretrievably lost. This is a lost generation of talent and the interrupted creativity that might never be resuscitated.
I apologize even now for the somber tone of this piece, but if culture ever needed the support of big government across the EU and beyond, this is that time.
If we ever needed to find the real Salvator Mundi, this feels like the optimum moment.