Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid Arts – The State and the Arts in Sweden During the Initial Phase of the Covid-19 Crisis – Less Visible Losses in the Shadow of Lost Lives and Livelihoods
Chris Mathieu, Department of Sociology, Lund University, Sweden.
Sweden has tried as much as possible not to restrict daily life, work, and mobility. The famous Swedish phrase “freedom under responsibility” is the operative logic. The maxim can be interpreted in two related ways: 1) Responsibility is the higher value; freedom is subordinate to responsibility. It is more incumbent to act responsibly – in this case prudently to reduce the spread of Covid-19 by not acquiring it oneself and passing it along to others – than to exercise one’s freedom. 2) The other corollary is that the freedom that is enjoyed is contingent upon responsible action – i.e. irresponsible action will lead to an obligatory reduction in freedoms. In sociological terms this is characteristic of a high-trust society. Authorities trust citizens to act in the recommended manner; citizens trust authorities to guide, inform, lead, and monitor them correctly and advantageously; and citizens expect each other to abide by the recommendations for responsible action.
Hence, workplaces, elementary schools, libraries, bars, restaurants, cafés, and nightclubs are able to remain open so long as social distancing can be secured and “crowding” avoided, while high schools and universities have gone over to online instruction. But from 11th March 2020 all events and public gatherings with more than 500 visitors were prohibited, a number that was reduced to 50 on 29th March 2020.
This had a varied effect on the arts and culture sector. Major festivals, concerts, theatre, dance, and opera performances in large venues were cancelled, while some more intimate live venues remained open if they adhere to the formal (hard numbers like 50) and informal (assessments like “crowding”) limits. Regarding cinemas, an interesting “genre” segmentation emerged. The largest chain of cinemas, SF Filmstaden, has closed its cinemas oriented towards blockbuster and Hollywood fare, while other cinemas it operates under separate profiles, Svenska Bio and Cinemascenen, that tend to show more high-end “art-house” films, remain open. Cinemas run by associations and non-profit organisations largely remain open, limit the numbers of tickets to each showing, and have adopted “festival seating” where cinema-goers can choose where they want to sit and with what proximity to whom. These measures and the general social climate have led to declining patronage as people, especially pensioners, go out less to reduce exposure risks. Operating costs, screening fees, ancillary revenues, and for low-volume, low-margin associations and third-sector actors, the prospect of not having any revenue at all for months, all seem to be factored together when making decisions about remaining open or closing during this phase of the crisis.
The situation with museums is similar, with the largest national museums closing, while smaller lower-trafficked municipal art museums remain open, though also implementing measures for social distancing. Paradoxically the two preeminent Swedish museums based on arguably the most “digital-friendly” artistic medium - photography – the Hasselblad Center in Gothenburg and Fotografiska in Stockholm, remain open for the restricted number of visitors allowed. Both display only a limited number of photos on their websites from their current exhibitions for marketing purposes. So, while many other arts and culture institutions have increased their online presence, even though seeing an opera, symphony, or theatre play online is a highly reduced experience, these two museums have chosen to continue to attract live visitors, rather than making their temporary and permanent exhibitions available online. The art form and the digital medium of presentation might be paradoxically too proximate, and thus determined a threat to these photographic museums.
A prima facie analysis indicates that the mass-market, commercial ends of the arts spectra have come to an abrupt halt, while more intimate and less popular forms and establishments persevere. Like in most other countries, the Swedish government has also promised a bail-out package to the arts and culture sector, along with more general business and employment support measures. €50m has been earmarked for private and non-profit actors in the arts and culture sector, to compensate for loss of income from limiting public activities initially to 499, then to 50 participants. The funds will also be made available for smaller activities as well those that are impacted by the general atmosphere rather than absolute limitations. There is a belief that the rather well-organized arts and culture sector, with artists and producers organized in interest organizations and associations, will be able to spread a sufficient safety-net that also catches independent actors. Direct compensation is also paid out to individual artists who can document lost income, in some cases controversially going to wealthy commercial artists. State institutions are dealt with directly outside of this €50m, with scheduled subsidies being paid out earlier.
The discussions above sketch out general conditions. In the remainder of this presentation I discuss more individual and qualitative consequences of restrictions on physical meetings for the arts. These comprise significant but less recognized absences, the kinds of things sociologists love, as they are largely beyond immediate detection, with effects manifesting themselves through unaltered or delayed perceptions, demands, preferences, and behaviours in given populations over time. In other words, effects of what doesn’t happen when Weber’s switchmen are late for work, or self-isolating. Three different cancelled or postponed events are used to illustrate more subtle, discrete, and less visible (non-)effects on different populations.
The annual International Children and Young People’s Film Festival in Malmö was to be held between 21st-27th March and has been, at best, postponed until the Autumn. Though schools are still in session and school classes comprise the majority of attendees, the festival is based on crowding, and as an international festival, reliant on international mobility. Though most children see the films, the film festival fare is curated with the same judiciousness as art and museum exhibitions. Children going to film festivals like this thus see a greater volume of qualitatively different films than they would otherwise see; are exposed to discussions and presentations about film-making; and hear both expert and peer discussions about films. As attendance at the festival is part of the public provision of arts and culture via schools, this aesthetic development opportunity is offered irrespective of household income and cultural practices and preferences. The absence of the festival and its aesthetic and social development opportunities are a loss endured by the children who would have attended, but will not show up on a ledger anywhere, nor be compensated for. Though this might appear to be a marginal and limited case, transfer the basic process to countries experiencing real lockdowns and contemplate the effects on the general youth population. As with education in general, the closing of schools, home-isolation, and as above, being cut off from the public provision of arts and cultural opportunities, leaves children for better or (frequently) for worse, solely dependent upon the arts and cultural practices and resources of their family home. For some this may be a time of discovery, enrichment, and encouraged development, while for others it becomes a period of stagnation without exposure to, and use of, the resources that schools, afterschool activities, and other societal institutions, agencies and associations, regularly provide for artistic creation, consumption, collaboration or exploration.
The second example is the cancellation of the annual Easter Open Studio Week 2020 organized by the East-Skåne Artists´ Society, scheduled for 11th-19th April 2020. Annually during the week around Easter, the members of the Artists’ Society open their studios, workshops, and ateliers to a public that travels from the whole of Europe to view and purchase paintings, photography, ceramics, blown glass, textiles, etc., from the sites where they are produced and the artists who produce them. Aside from a sense of place and provenance for collectors, this week gives the artists an opportunity to meet their customers or patrons, observe their behaviour in encountering, evaluating, and selecting artworks, and converse with them. Aside from selling finished products, commissions are taken, prototypes are developed in collaboration between artists and clients, and artists acquire information and inspiration about trends and demand. In economic terms, artists may be able to be compensated for loss of income this year based on last year’s sales. But the creative process – a year-long production cycle – for many of these artefact-producing artists is informed by meeting their patrons during this one intensive week. With the cancellation, this segment of the creative cycle becomes a void, and irreplaceable - not just in monetary but also in emotional, social, and aesthetic inspirational terms. Production will surely continue, loss will be felt, but likely not fathomed as what is lost is absent qualitative difference that will never be known.
A final example is the much-anticipated exhibition Hilma af Klint: Artist, Researcher, Medium, that was set to open in early April at Moderna Museets (Museum of Modern Art’s) Malmö affiliate, but which was delayed indefinitely. af Klint can be described as a “canon-ball” tearing through both Swedish and international art history, forcing a re-evaluation of the origins and early period of Western abstract art. Especially for af Klint’s massive paintings, being physically present before them is almost required for full effect. Beyond the purely individual aesthetic experience, other very significant social processes are lost or delayed with the non-opening of the exhibition. Exhibitions create various types of momentums – among visitors and in significant communities who collectively develop and compare their experiences – leading to new insights, re-evaluations, and heightened experiences that agglomerate around an artist and her works. The abovementioned on-going movement to revise our canonical thinking about the origins of abstract art is probably also hindered by the postponed opening of this exhibition. Yet another subtle, not life-threatening, but possibly life-altering, Covid-19 casualty.
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