Five weeks after Italy imposed a lockdown on its citizens, the United Nations on 15 April 2020, which is ‘World Art Day’, explained that “with billions of people either in lockdown or on the front lines battling the covid19 pandemic”, the day picked to celebrate world art (the birth anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci) “is a timely reminder that art has the power to unite and connect in times of crisis”.
The agencies of the United Nations system have for over seven decades busied themselves, when not pondering or influencing the fates of humanity, with inventing days, years and even decades for all sorts of projects and concepts: environment, education, the girl child, oceans, AIDS, indigenous peoples, Africa, science and so on. Since these demand sometimes lengthy preparations for worldwide events for a particular day, or even better, for a specially designated year, they are popular with UN agencies for their ability to swell budgets.
Like many other messages from the UN and its agencies about its celebratory days and periods, the message that accompanied World Art Day 2020 was maternally saccharine. “Throughout self-isolation, art has nonetheless been flourishing. Pointing to performers tapping into their creativity to relay health guidelines and share messages of hope – as well as neighbours singing to each other on balconies, and concerts online,” gushed UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
The Mona Lisa was “revisited in a variety of ways, including images of her self-isolating in the Louvre Museum, or covering her enigmatic smile with a surgical mask” which according to UNESCO “is how, despite the crisis” showed “art is demonstrating its resilience”.
But culture and resilience have other dimensions, many of them very different to what is envisioned by the world’s cultural authorities. By early May 2020, it had become clear to all those in the throbbing tourist hotspots of South-East Asia that the squadrons of flights bringing tourists were not going to resume soon. When they would resume, no-one could say. The popular markets of the region, to which tourists thronged and from which local families derived their regular incomes, fell silent – Chatuchak in Bangkok, Kuta in Bali, Phsar Chas in Siem Reap, Ben Thanh in Saigon, Divisoria in Manila, Glodok in Jakarta.
These are the famous ones, the ones that get written about in glossy travel magazines and are the subjects of tens of thousands of pithy ‘reviews’ by travellers. For each of these, there are hundreds of local markets that cater to local needs. In these humbler but no less important smaller and provincial markets, the wares on offer and mix of stalls is decidedly different, the accent being on what rural and small town households need and can afford. Curio kiosks and pop art counters, fingernail salons and smoothie bars are not part of these marketscapes.
Regardless of the difference in these two kinds of markets, the “resilience” that UNESCO mentioned is very much more a characteristic they can claim than can the Louvre, the Uffizi Gallery, the Tate Modern, the Rijksmuseum or any of Europe’s most visited cultural and art centres. But while state-funded museums (whose capacious treasuries are well attended to also by private art foundations) can survive closures that are months long, local markets cannot, because their resilience must be renewed every day. This is what the wave upon wave of lockdowns all around the world have damaged, in some places likely permanently. The lockdowns are, for those familiar with the marketscapes and the creative ambiances they include, culture killers of a kind never before seen.
The lockdowns that began in February 2020 did not pause to discriminate between the commonly recognised grades of culture: high culture, contemporary (or even pop) culture and folk culture. In Europe especially, ‘high culture’ is surrounded by government, arts foundations, arts councils, academic institutions. Where it manifests or is nurtured, in cities, are awe-inspiring structures designed to project pomp and power. Orchestra houses, national galleries and museums are typical of such structures. A great deal of money is mobilised every year to maintain them. In France and Germany, spending by government under the head of culture approaches some 2.3% of the annual budget. In the USA, the comparative figure is under 1%, but American arts foundations tend to be better endowed.
In contrast it is the other two grades – contemporary and folk culture – which receive very little of the culture budgets that remain, and compete or struggle for the small grants and project funds that city councils and private foundations give out. Between these two, it is folk culture, in all its diversity, that is the worse off, not least because it straddles so many subjects at the same time, such as indigenous peoples’ rights, environment and ecology, traditional knowledge systems, living heritage.
It is also folk culture that is the fountainhead of the world’s handicrafts, hand weaves and household arts traditions and products. These include basketry, rugs and carpets, woodwork and wood carving, canecraft, the spinning and dyeing of yarn, the weaving of fabric on shuttle looms or waist-looms, incense sticks and aromatic oils, decorative metalware, lacquer, tapestries, traditional toys and games, jewellery as the most common.
The lockdowns choked not only the world’s tourist flows (which spur the making of handicrafts) but also, in every metropolis, city, town and district centre, choked the normal commerce that provides the baseline sustenance that local artisans and creative collectives depend upon. What has been seen often in the last 15 or so years, with the establishing of ‘creative cities’ networks (notably in Europe), is the blending of the three typical grades of culture in festivals, extending the benefits of state sponsorship which flows disproportionately to the top cultural tier, to the other two as well. When museums shut their gates, galleries downed their shutters and theatres switched off their lights, the locales for such festivals disappeared from urban landscapes.
‘High’ culture moved online, fitfully and awkwardly. Museums essayed everything from virtual tours to guided meditation and home children’s workshops. Symphonic orchestras began to run livestreamed performances. Avant garde design studios experimented with commissioning works that were supposed to represent responses to the pandemic. Literary societies hosted weekly online reading groups. Indie film-makers mixed and spliced footage from a smorgasbord of ‘on location’ cast members filming at home. Musicians did the same, collaborating by being patched in to sound studios.
These attempts to maintain a facade of activity were at best cosmetic, a falling in line by the centres and institutions that embody ‘high’ culture not only with lockdown restrictions but also to have their regular visitors receive the same bland yet menacing message – stay safe, stay home – but from a source that is not government, not medical authority and not administration, a source which until January 2020 represented the very core of what is meant by ‘civilisation’ in ways that are fundamentally and necessarily different from what is meant by ‘economy’ and ‘technology’. The lockdowns and their restrictions did not remove from households and families either economy or technology, but they did remove culture.
This removal finally, in late December 2020, when the “cancelling” of Christmas became one more administrative cudgel, was recognised by the UN and UNESCO. “It is not only the sector itself that has been hit hard, people have also lost access to cultural events. Since covid19 hit, many concerts, art events and festivals have been taking place online. However almost one in two people globally cannot access them due to issues such as lack of internet connectivity,” said UNESCO. Its choice of words was mendacious, for what had removed culture was not a respiratory disease but lockdowns.
Its grudging admission of the elemental connexion between culture and social life was quickly given an economic cast. “The culture sector, which employs more than 30 million people globally, has been hit much harder than expected by the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout. The film industry alone could lose about 10 million jobs this year, while a third of world’s art galleries could cut their staffing by half or more. What has been in effect a six-month closure of concerts and performance, could end up costing the music industry more than $10 billion in lost sponsorships, while the global publishing market could shrink by 7.5 per cent,” UNESCO said.
In so saying, UNESCO sounded much more like an economics thinktank than an organisation that has worked on cultural matters for 74 years, works through seven international conventions on culture, and also through dozens of regional programmes. Perhaps it took its cue from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which with a squarely macro-economic bent had said plainly in September 2020 that culture has to do with economics: “Cultural and creative sectors are important in their own right in terms of their economic footprint and employment. They are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with large cities often containing the greatest share of jobs at risk. The dynamics vary across sub-sectors, with venue-based activities and the related supply chains most affected.”
The UN system agencies that have anything at all to do with creative community energies and the knowledge systems of communities – chief among them being the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Health Organization (WHO, especially where traditional medicinal systems are concerned) and UNESCO – trot out the term ‘resilience’ very often. They use this term usually in conjunction with the Sustainable Development Goals and with Agenda 2030. It is designed to sound caring and humanistic.
What connects the worldview of the OECD, the institutions and centres of ‘high’ culture, UNESCO, and the gigantic ‘development’ industry that the UN Sustainable Development Goals have become is that peoples’ cultures and ways of life, their everyday artefacts, their folk arts and expressions, all in fact that they derive meaning and identity from, fall outside what is called ‘cultural industry’. This is nothing but the full formalisation of community creativity and its translation into economic units. There is no place in a cultural industry view for the traditional knowledge systems that give a non-monetary value to a basket, that give a ritual value to a silken shawl, that give children delight in the form of puppet theatre, that fulfil a cosmological tradition when unleavened bread is baked for a feast day.
The Inuit of the Arctic, the White Mountain Apache of Arizona, the Yanomami and the Tupi People of the Amazon, the Gujjar and Bakerwal nomadic herders of the Indian Himalaya, the Bontoc of Philippines Cordillera are not cultural industrialists and have no use whatsoever for the distinction between formal and informal economy. In the same way, living heritage such as the collective fishing rite of the Sanké in Mali, the Enawene Nawe people’s ritual for the maintenance of social and cosmic order in Brazil, the making of the Noken woven bag by the people of Papua in Indonesia, the making of the Ala-kiyiz and Shyrdak traditional felt carpets in Kyrgyzstan, all these are unreachable by the economic formulae that would assign them a minimum wage, turn them into ‘resilience’ courseware, patent their medicinal herbs.
But the lockdowns have gravely assaulted their patterns of life, and these were already tenuous. Their systems of knowledge, and the products and objects that emerge from these systems, could not and cannot be virtualised and livestreamed. The meanings and symbolism of everyday and ritual objects – which assume the avatar of handicrafts in a market – must be transmitted and the receipt of those transmissions must be tested.
The generation that receives the world’s great stores of traditional knowledge does so through what is so carelessly called ‘informal education’, but which is a teaching channel that has stood the test of time. The lockdowns separated hand-made goods from markets, and when they did, they brought down a new wall between peoples who still fashion a hand-made world and those who have the sensitivity to sample some of it. The lockdowns masked and imprisoned a youth that was ready to receive wisdom and learning from their elders, and chained them to laptop screens, and when that happened, the elders retreated into an exile of silence.