Let’s give culture a chance

, by Cesare Ceccato, translated by Brittany Ingham-Barrow, translated by Lucia Evans

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

Let's give culture a chance
Photo credit: Free-photos, Pixabay

One of the areas most neglected by governments of various European states, and by the Union itself, during the post-pandemic revival, is culture. However, when considered through the eyes of the workers and artists of the field, and with regard to the place of culture within our collective history, this disregard for culture seems an unsatisfactory approach.

“Music is our authentic root as Europeans, and it is what allows us to cross borders” claimed Ezio Bosso in 2018, speaking at the European Parliament. The recent death of the composer, pianist, conductor and proud European citizen has caused the world to reflect on his words from two years ago, words that ring true in the time of the current pandemic, in which the music industry, like all other industries of art and culture, is undergoing a testing time.

Some time ago, Giulio Tremonti, who served as Minister of Economy and Finances under former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, made a negative remark that stuck in the minds of Italians: “culture doesn’t put food on the table”. Unfortunately, from the way that culture is being treated in recovery plans, it seems that current European governments are of the same opinion, even though such a statement is complete nonsense. One only need think of the countless professions in the world of cinema, or the so-called ‘eighth art’. In addition to actors and actresses, there are thousands of men and women who work in the fields of directing, screenwriting, photography, lights, makeup, costume etc. If it is hard for them, then think of managers of cinemas, with more than 1,200 in Italy alone, which risk being destroyed by the virus like the video that killed the radio star, as described in the summer hit by the Buggles in 1979. In fact, while those in charge of making films may be able to return to work in due course and with due restrictions, cinema managers may fall victim to streaming platforms which may decide to strike profitable agreements directly with film companies. Furthermore, if the solution to reopening cinemas is as envisaged i.e. with rigid social distancing resulting in reduced capacity and increased ticket prices, it would not be surprising to see more and more subscriptions to “on-demand cinema” services, and ever fewer people in front of big screens. During lockdown, Netflix’s value, to take the most popular platform as an example, exceeded that of the Disney giant which offered its streaming services even outside the US. In short, when cinemas are not accessible, streaming platforms flourish, and the difference between the complete absence of cinemas and the presence of cinemas which are affordable only to very few people becomes increasingly unclear.

In the field of theatre, survival is even more difficult. The beauty of theatre lies within its authenticity, its live nature, the sound of applause, the buzz or laughter of the audience. Theatre does not have the possibility of falling back onto streaming, so neither managers nor those who work on stage or behind the scenes are optimistic with regard to the current situation. It is necessary to save the theatre, just like we must save concerts after those from this year have either been postponed, even by a year in some cases, or cancelled entirely. Artists and producers are left in the dark, only aware of the fact that, especially for those backstage, it will be virtually impossible to respect the technical and scientific committees’ conditions that specify one person per square metre.

It is unquestionable that there are many sectors which Europe has to manage, but at the same time, it is unbelievable that governments refuse to learn from history. By this, I refer to one of the greatest (if not the greatest) crisis that has occurred up until now: the Great Depression of 1929 that brought the United States of America to its knees. In fact, the then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded to the crisis with the mythical New Deal. This agenda on productive recovery strongly emphasised the importance of culture. . All artists were treated like professionals and recognised as workers which, unfortunately, rarely happens nowadays. In order to deal with unemployment in the cultural sectors, numerous federal efforts were made. In terms of graphic art, it is impossible not to mention the Public Works of Art Project, an experimental program that employed artists to create works that would embellish public schools, orphanages, libraries, museums and federal state offices. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration was also of considerable importance, granting state and local governments federal grants aimed at supporting small communities of artists. Most of these grants were used by small theatrical communities and both independent and non-independent film companies.

It was thanks to the incentives of the New Deal that, in the following years, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichenstein, were able to experiment in the artistic field, launching the highly appreciated Pop Art movement of the 20th century. It was also the New Deal which allowed American actor and Director Orson Welles to make his passion a job; he did not have to search an alternative profession and was able to transform both the Lafayette Theatre and the Mercury Theatre in New York into great theatres, before achieving his milestone, Citizen Kane. Furthermore, it is thanks to Roosevelt’s agenda that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (which awards Oscars) effectively nourished a well-attended and supported film school - the first American film school, founded in collaboration with the University of Southern California just one year before the crisis. It was a radical change that led the Land of the Free to catch up with and, in some respects, overtake the old continent in one of the areas of which it had always been proud - and rightly so!

We have been saying for a long time that Europe is in danger due to internal discord, excessive power of the great foreign states, sovereign electoral campaigns, and repercussions of the crises faced in recent years. Finding our roots, strengthening them, nourishing them is the only way to survive. As Bosso said, our roots lie in culture; it is no coincidence that the European Union anthem is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, a thrilling piece by an immortal artist. If that’s not enough, look at what has happened recently: this year’s Eurovision Song Contest (impossible to organise for obvious reasons) has not been cancelled, but replaced by an event called ‘Europe Shine a Light’. During the concert, artists from all over Europe (and elsewhere) performed from their own homes, or, in some cases, from cultural landmarks in their own hometowns, giving life to an imcomparable show. It is therefore important and necessary to give culture a chance, to encourage it, support it, and invest in it immediately; this would not only support many workers in the field, as Roosevelt and his Cabinet did ninety years ago, but it would also help us to support an industry which should be at the heart of our lives and interests as Europeans; an industry that, even before the pandemic, seems to have been neglected backstage collecting dust.

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