Apparently, in a pandemic, culture is meaningless
A quick scan of the performing arts listings reveals that the following events are going on in the United States this week: A performance of Sweeney Todd in St. George, Utah, a performance of “Blink: The Musical”, in Provo, Utah, and an outdoor performance of Handel’s “Water Music” by the Salt Lake City Symphony. So, relatively, Utah looks pretty good. As for the rest of the country, we have a passel of shows in Branson, Missouri, including the Dolly Parton Stampede, a socially-distanced concert by a Fleetwood Mac tribute band in Atlanta, a trio of Jason Isbell shows in suburban Nashville, and the Grand Ole Opry. That’s it. That’s the Arts in America.
Maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps a lone guitarist is strumming out Bob Seger’s greatest hits to a small audience of drunken bikers in darkest Tucson. Maybe some hippie banjo player is entertaining a couple of dozen in a park in Manitou Springs. There might be a hip-hop speakeasy in Houston. But the fact remains: It’s not much. October is typically the liveliest cultural month of the year in this country, the former cultural capital of the world. But no more. Now we have nothing but reality TV, politics, disease, and charity celebrity Zoom readings of 80s teen comedies.
We’ve destroyed the performing arts in America. Congratulations. Good job to all of us. There’s no public singing, dancing, speaking, or otherwise emoting. Coronavirus may continue to spread, but the arts are gone.
Everywhere you look, there’s artistic tragedy. An August survey indicated that 70 percent of America arts businesses had lost 75 percent or more of their revenue. In Charlottesville, Virginia, an arts pavilion sits empty, having hosted zero events in 2020. Its general manager encourages people to go for a walk instead, because it’s “free and healthy”. A Chicago Sun-Times feature about the Lifeline Theatre, a modest Chicago arts institution that I used to frequent when I lived there 20 years ago, says the theater is now producing “virtual plays” and staying alive by hosting small socially-distanced weddings.
The performing arts are completely gone. As far as I can tell, there seems to be no plan to bring them back, other than “wait for a vaccine.” The federal government isn’t exactly rushing to save the ballet from destruction, and our biggest cities and arts centers seem completely paralyzed. Los Angeles is reluctant to open playgrounds, much less theaters. New York City can barely bring itself to allow people to eat inside of restaurants. Thus, Broadway is dark until God knows when. The Metropolitan Opera has canceled its entire season. Vital cultural touchstones have moved online, a thin substitute.
The Fall for Dance festival at City Center is offering $15 tickets to online-only performances for a greatly reduced schedule that features only New York City dancers. How is that an acceptable alternative, in any way, for dance fans? It’s not. The New York Times dance critic says we need to be “patient.” While I’m sure that’s true to some extent, does everyone have to be patient everywhere? About everything?
Look at my home, Austin, Texas, “the Live Music Capital of the World.” As far as I can tell, there’s little live music available, other than some isolated two-step action at the Broken Spoke and Gruene Hall. Austin City Limits is doing a handful of charity small-batch lounge shows this month and next, intermittent and very limited. People are out and about downtown, eating their sushi, having their ludicrous bachelorette parties, enjoying those dumb Bar Bike things where they all drink from a keg while a wage slave wheels them around. The city of Austin is supporting music and other performance venues with grants and bailout money. But they’re not encouraging them to be creative about presenting their arts. In a city that built its international reputation on music, there’s no arts, no humanities, no dirty rock, nothing.
Without the arts, our cities are violent simulacrums of themselves. They’re nothing, they’re empty vessels. And other countries have figured that out. In South Korea, Spain, Italy and France this week, people will be listening to live music, going to the opera, seeing the ballet, and attending plays. Not as much as before COVID-19 hit. We are in a pandemic, after all. The audiences are smaller, some of the performances outside. But it’s not as though those countries, particularly the European ones, have completely eradicated the disease. They’ve just decided to live with it in a certain way, and that way includes the arts.
The United States has completely neglected the arts during the pandemic. We’ve smothered any idea of leisure activity with a blanket of fear. But we haven’t publicly declared war on them. At least we’re aware that this is a sad state of affairs. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, is actively treating the arts as some kind of enemy. A prominent U.K. minister said last week that it “doesn’t make sense” to keep supporting Britain’s music sector. This led to an national day of action. “Many artists have received zero support so far, said Dave Rowntree, the drummer for Blur. “There is no acknowledgement of their plight or any hint of a solution to get them through this crisis.” England without music isn’t England, and yet that’s where England stands right now.
U.K. chancellor Rishi Sunak announced last week a plan to protect “viable” jobs in the country. Not among the jobs mentioned: writers, actors, dancers, artists, musicians, or performers of any kind. This prompted British soprano Louise Alder to tweet that she had just concluded an indoor performance in front of a socially-distanced audience…in Munich. “In Germany,” she wrote, “I am viable. I choose to stay there.”
You’d be hard pressed to find someone more skilled or more viable than a pro musician. You’d also be hard pressed to find a non-musician who fully understands the skill and viability inherent in a pro musician. There’s a reason our world is filled with music, and it isn’t magic.
— Vaughan Fleischfresser (@VFleischfresser) September 26, 2020
Suddenly a whole generation of British and American performing artists finds itself completely unappreciated at home and considering flight to continental Europe, which appreciates and supports their talents. It’s like the case of Josephine Baker en masse, except that this reasoning isn’t about race. It’s about their nations allowing fear of a virus to transmute into a disdain for the arts.
We can be better, and we can do better. Not all arts organizations or performers feel comfortable returning to work right now, and that’s their prerogative. And the same goes for patrons. No one is making anyone leave their house to support the arts. But there are plenty of people who would, just like there are plenty of people who would go to the movies, given the opportunity. Our governments need to remove obstacles for making the arts happen, not put them in the way. Our creative class is one of our greatest assets. The bureaucrats, particularly in our biggest cities, need to stop controlling them. We’re more than the sum of our brutalist political calculations and health-care concerns. The creative class needs to be creative.
Let’s use the Atlanta Opera as a model. Starting October 22, they’re staging an outdoor performance of Pagliacci, as well as a German opera called The Kaiser of Atlantis. The performances are shorter than usual, only 60-70 minutes. People must sit in socially-distanced pods, and they need to wear masks. Fine, it’s the COVID-19 era, we must make accommodations. And there seems to be demand. The Saturday night, October 23 showing of Pagliacci is already sold out. I wish I could go. Maybe something like it is coming to a stage near me soon. But probably not.