40. Only the beginning | Monocle

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When music venues, cinemas, galleries and art festivals had to shut up shop and cancel all their programming, the first question they had to answer was existential: how could they survive? Many scrambled to find ways in which to carry on with the activities they had planned; publishers tweaked their schedules and film distributors delayed releases. Sadly, not all will live to tell the tale of how they managed.

But when the time to reopen does come, beyond devising plans on how to regulate the distance between attendees, all cultural players will have to make another complicated choice. What kind of films will they show? What music will they play? What books will they publish? And how much of it will be a reflection of the times?

If artists, musicians and writers at first continued with their output despite the pandemic, many have by now inevitably switched to making work about it. Singer-songwriter Matt Maltese was one of the first to release a song about life in the times of coronavirus (after Bono, that is). “When it all started there was a slight sense of ‘hide your head in the ground’ until it was all over,” he says. “I was writing my third album, completely unrelated to this – but every day it felt more ridiculous.” His bittersweet “Ballad of a Pandemic”, released as a single in March, tackled the subject head on.

Creative direction is harder to find when it comes to figuring out what would make sense on an album to be released next year. “I’m still working out how much of what I’ve written is relevant in this changed world,” says Maltese. “It will be important not to have a record about coronavirus when no one wants to talk about it any more. But how can you write something that completely ignores that this ever happened?”

The balance between escapism and relevance will become ever harder to strike. And judging by the number of people who turned to Albert Camus’s The Plague or Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion for their quarantine entertainment, the public expects its cultural provision to help interpret the world around them. Netflix’s Pandemic documentary series was eerily timely – and smaller players such as the Thessaloniki International Film Festival are adapting to events. After its documentary edition was postponed, the Greek festival commissioned directors from around the world to shoot a three-minute feature inside their own homes. For artistic director Orestis Andreadakis, making space for new ideas was fundamental. “This is not the time to panic; it is a time for creation,” he says. Yet he believes that the biggest shift in how film-makers approach their craft is ahead of us. “In two or three years’ time we’re going to see completely new things. It’s like the Second World War and those it left behind. It was during the 1960s that young people reflected on the catastrophe.”

Certain art forms have a longer gestation so it’s easy to expect them to provide wisdom in hindsight. Writing a poem can be a spontaneous act but writing a novel hardly ever is. The same is true of the visual arts. Irish-born painter Michael Craig-Martin agrees that the cultural effects of the pandemic will take time to show. “It’s going to be difficult not to dwell on it for a long time,” he says. “It’s been one of the great events of my lifetime. The cultural consequences might not appear clearly until several years later because art comes from a distillation.”

In the future, more so than art that is explicitly related to coronavirus, we can hope to see work that’s born from the lessons drawn from the pandemic: living life more slowly, more introspectively and with different priorities. Italian art collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo says that those will be the pieces with longevity. “There will be many artists who deal with coronavirus in a literal, illustrative manner,” she says.Those are not the artists who interest me. I will look at the works that talk about this situation in a deeper, more symbolic way, andthe artists who manage to explain and document these times.” 

About the author: Rimella is monocle’s culture editor and a book lover. She set out to read philosophy in lockdown but has veered towards escapism instead.

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