Update: We’re Still Destroying the Arts

For no rational reason

Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to shut down our entire culture in response to COVID-19. That may not be a popular, or at least not a majority, opinion, but I’ve been sounding it from my socially-distanced mountaintop for nearly a year. Two recent articles have caught my attention, and have only reinforced my belief.

First, the news, as reported by Bloomberg last week, that two-thirds of all arts and culture jobs in New York City have vanished completely in the last year. That’s tens of thousands of jobs, vanished. More than half of all arts, sports, and recreation businesses in NYC remain closed, more than a year since COVID darkened our shores. The majority of those workers, interestingly, are white and male, which doesn’t match up with the New York workforce at all. Maybe it’s a sign that, once New York decides to bless us with the arts again, that the arts should diversify more. But that’s a side note to the fact that, maybe, the arts shouldn’t have shut down at all.

Less reported, but equally relevant, is a study reported last week by the arts magazine Hyperallergic. The Berlin Institute of Technology found that museums are COVID-safer than almost any other indoor environment. That’s not entirely surprising. Museums have been open around the world for a while, though at reduced capacity. They’re even open in New York City. The study says the ideal situation is 30 percent occupancy, with a mask, though 40 percent occupancy is nearly as good. That’s not perfect, and it’s not the before times, but it’s not nothing.

Vienna Opera House on July 22, 2019. (photographed by Naval S)

Also basically safe, the study says, is going to the movies, masked with reduced occupancy. All culture activities are safer than public transportation, than schools, than gyms, than swimming pools, and than restaurants. In other words, the arts, or at least some limited version of them, are safe, and have been all along.

The spread of COVID has lots of culprits, and lots of blame to go around. But maybe we should think twice next time, or even this time, before naming the arts as one of them. Maybe a world without theater and singing isn’t healthy in the big picture. Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to vilify the movie-theater industry. 

And it’s not like culture has stopped. The last time I looked, there was still a ton of TV to watch. After a brief pause, the TV industry roared back. They’ve canceled no major sports championships, though the 2021 Olympics remains in doubt. Some of the seasons were bizarre, but they happened. That’s good. I like TV, and I like sports. But if we can have those, then why not a little Broadway? Why not put out the James Bond movie already? How about we stop putting the blame on singing in public? I would be happy to see anyone sing anything at this point, except for Post Malone doing a Hootie and a Blowfish cover. There, I draw the line.

You hear a lot of talk about how this year of isolation has given people a chance to develop their artistic talents. Certainly, some people have taken up an instrument or a paintbrush or pumped out a few short stories. But many more have not. We’ve crippled the arts infrastructure through a combination of benign neglect and self-righteous panic. And that would be fine, if it were the right thing to do. But apparently, it would have been relatively safe to allow the arts to continue, with minimal impact on the public health but untold benefits to mental health.

There are signs that the arts are starting to crawl back to life. The Austin City Limits Festival and New Orleans Jazz Festival, among others, have announced fall dates. The vaccines seem to have COVID on its heels. There is hope. But we’ve done our damage, kneecapped the arts, and millions are still dead worldwide. When historians finally tell the story of this godawful plague, they won’t say that the arts caused COVID. But they’ll definitely be able to say that we allowed COVID to kill the arts.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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