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Culture and pandemic: can art change the world?

Francesca Mencattelli discusses the capacity of crisis to not only render culture more accessible but also to reveal its crucial place in our lives

Confronted with an indefinite period of self-isolation, many of us are broaching the question of how to occupy ourselves over the coming weeks. This peacetime challenge to ‘normality’ is unprecedented; we have been forced – many of us for the first time – to operate outside the sphere of daily routine. With educational institutions suspended, the leisure industry closed, and work cancelled for many, the only choice is to remain in our homes.

Such an environment may appear antithetical to the growth of art and survival of culture. Art Basel, one of the biggest international art fairs, was due to take place in Hong Kong on the 17th March; it has now been cancelled and adapted, as far as possible, to an online format. Many of the largest and most profitable events keeping the global arts market afloat have followed suit, including the Cannes Film Festival and the Met Gala. In the UK, the implementation of more rigid containment policies has led to the closing of the Royal Opera House, the Tate Galleries, and the cancellation of Glastonbury Festival, amongst numerous other casualties. Across the globe, many theatres, opera-houses, and other arts-based institutions have been seriously threatened by a decrease in commerce in the weeks preceding their official closure by government regulation. How, then, can culture survive a pandemic?

In these circumstances, many have found their daily lives become increasingly dependent upon and centred around various art forms: books, music, film, and television are the most common examples. In this respect, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly reshaped notions of ‘culture’ as a previously inaccessible and elitist domain. Popular opinion previously conceptualised art as requiring a certain level of cultural capital; for many, ‘art’ or ‘culture’ was synonymous with pretentious art exhibitions and incomprehensible operas, which have little tangible bearing on day-to-day life. The current crisis has begun to shift this definition of art to something more accessible, helping bridge the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ perceptions of culture. More and more people are recognising books, films and music as art forms to turn to in crisis, both for guidance and genuine enjoyment. Alongside this, there has been a substantial increase in the participation in and publication of online art forms, including a surge in online library engagement and the popularisation of virtual galleries. The technological solutions of the art market to the crisis posed by COVID-19 have functioned to make many of these cultural spaces more accessible to a wider section of the population. Such ubiquitous trends suggest that art and pandemic in fact come hand in hand.

An acknowledgement of this statement leads to another, more fundamental question. Crisis revives culture: why does this matter? When this pandemic passes and society returns to ‘normality’, many people will place their books back on the shelves, and films will once again become a pastime for a hungover evening. However, if this is to be the case, such an outcome does not negate the significant role art has played in these times. This period will nonetheless have existed; it will be entrenched in the global consciousness as a time when the world turned to art for solace. Art functions primarily as a means of communication, providing us with insights into other cultures and modes of thought; it can thus act as a unifying force in a time when society is experiencing unparalleled fragmentation. This pandemic has highlighted the role of culture in the modern world and its ability to co-exist with the demands of daily life. The proliferation of popular art forms has highlighted an alternative system of approaching everyday life – one in which periods of reflection and engagement with our creative faculties counter and compliment the haste of daily routine.

Oscar Wilde famously propagated the anti-mimesis aesthetic: “life imitates art.” The sceptical will disagree. But art can certainly inform and shape our approach to life and aid the construction of creative solutions in response to crisis. Our return to art and culture in times of pandemic demonstrates the twofold function of art: both as providing immediate, temporary pleasure; and as a system of values, an immersion which can contribute to longer-term shifts in the way society approaches and responds to the pressures of daily life.

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