The closure of galleries, theatres, cinemas and music venues through the Covid-19 crisis has placed a significant part of the UK’s cultural economy in peril. It has also been something of a boon to other parts of this economy, as the use of streaming services and video on demand platforms, which were already establishing themselves as powerful actors in the UK’s symbolic life, become more firmly established and lauded for providing much needed distraction in locked-down homes. The home has an ambiguous history as a place for consuming culture that I want to reflect on as we look forward to the end of lockdown.
When I was part of a team surveying British cultural participation in the early noughties, we found the great divide in the UK was not between what used to be called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Such labels were still resonant, but a more powerful split was between those who consumed their culture primarily outside the home – in art galleries, the theatre and museums – and those whose cultural life was largely provided through domestic forms of activity. This divide was principally one of income, but also of education. The wealthier and better educated you were, the more likely you were to engage with cultural institutions or venues, while less well-off people were more likely to invest their available resources into domestic leisure activities and technologies, principally television. This was more than an economic divide, though – it was about where people felt at home.
While this, for lots of reasons, feels like a lifetime ago, such a finding already resonated with decades of sociological research which variously associated cultural participation with social class or status – and with equivalent narratives which conceived a cultural life exclusively delivered through a screen as downright damaging to individuals and to society. This latter idea – the classed imaginary of the couch potato and satellite dish – was complicated by the insight from British Cultural Studies that a domestic form of symbolic life could be nourishing and valuable. Subsequent research has further revealed the extent to which ‘everyday’ forms of domestic cultural participation (such as gardening, hobbies, collecting and crafting) are important sites of informal, vernacular creativity which are often invisible to policymakers. Such insight also implies that ‘the problem’ of cultural participation is often more one for institutions rather than people.
One principal goal of cultural policy in recent decades – informed by the recognition within the UK’s cultural institutions of the homogeneity of their audiences and encouraged by policy makers under pressure to justify taxpayer subsidy of the sector – was to reach out to the variously defined socially excluded, hard-pressed, hard-to-reach families and groups and to tempt people out of their homes. This included significant investment in and attention to forms of cultural and creative production which take place outside both the home and formal institutional settings, including participatory arts with marginalised or at-risk groups, outdoor arts which bring communities together through parade or spectacle, the re-making of city spaces through public art, the opening up of heritage sites and the rise and spread of the festival economy.
The success of these initiatives and investments in diversifying the make-up of the audience for the established arts institutions is debatable. What is interesting from the perspective of lockdown – when we have no choice but to stay at home – is an accompanying policy narrative -which gained momentum in the mid noughties. This story elided the cultural sector with digital technologies as part of the on-going celebration of the ‘creative industries’ as a significant part of the UK’s economic life. A key ambition of the newly re-named department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as exemplified by its 2018 report Culture is Digital was to unite the digital and cultural sector in what it described as the ‘ultimate power couple’. As well as directing attention towards the strategic significance of the UK’s software technologies, gaming and AI industries, this also encouraged arts organisations to digitise –both to embrace these technologies in their organisation and management but also to move their activities and resources on-line as a route to – again – maximising the potential for increasing accessibility and engagement. Tellingly now, this increased accessibility was to be achieved not by getting people out of their homes and away from their screens into art galleries or museums but by bringing the collections of art galleries and museums into people’s homes through their screens. The pay-off, for those institutions which were able to enact this vision has been considerable in lockdown.
Which of these stories becomes more dominant after lockdown has implications for our understanding of cultural participation – domestic or otherwise- for a number of reasons. I’ll outline three.
First the ‘digitalisation’ of culture –of the kind inspired by the ‘culture is digital narrative’ and through the increased significance of digital streaming of music, TV and film – cements the place of the various platforms and infrastructures upon which it depends. This further empowers and facilitates what Jose Van Dijk and colleagues have referred to as The Platform Society in which big tech takes ever greater roles in the management of everyday life. There are enormous benefits and conveniences to this rise, of course. But there are also significant risks and implications including for the future sustainability of the creative industries if what we get to see, read and listen to, and the mechanisms and technologies through which they are distributed, are dependent on the strategic priorities of privately owned platforms. While, for example, many of us may have been inspired and moved by clips of the various balcony musicians of Southern Europe in the early days of the pandemic– transforming their homes into global venues which we can visit through YouTube– the business models which underpin the circulation of such videos are not obviously supportive of the artists who produce them – especially if they are not already established.
Second, digitalising content might make it more accessible from a technical standpoint but not necessarily in other ways. Again, we might have been impressed by the power and artistry of the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein, streamed through YouTube in lockdown. This initiative itself was an extension of the NT Live programme exemplifying the potential of the Culture is Digital initiative by equating improving accessibility with showing National Theatre productions to audiences in regional arts cinemas. However, while we may mostly have access to the wires and devices to receive such work, the relevant cultural codes to access it are not evenly spread across a population and remain inflected and shaped through educational and family experiences. Moreover, in the algorithmically curated, world of digital distribution in which recommendations emerge from previous activities, audiences who are entirely new to theatre (rather than new to the digital broadcast of theatre) are unlikely to stumble across it unless they have already been profiled as the sort of person who might like it. And if they did, it might appear as a slightly weird and alienating TV drama as opposed to a powerful and urgent parable about the dangers of uncritically ‘following the science’.
Finally – but linked to this last point – not everything that we value about culture can be captured through digitisation. Digitising cultural forms places them, for better or worse within a regime of measurement (of hit counts, of views, of ‘likes’) which itself is part of a regime of valuation linked to processes of commoditisation and monetisation. Such is the lot of commercial culture, of course, and it remains the case that, for many people in countries like the UK, culture produced on those terms makes up the largest part of our participation. Modes of distribution are not markers of complexity or worth but the bigger issue in this case is that such metrics are simply not able to capture the immediacy of being in a venue like a theatre, or sports ground or carnival parade or festival field where the richness of the experience of the culture that unfolds before us is alongside and in communion with the other people with whom we share the space.
It is likely to be a long time before we feel we can share those spaces again. A lot has already been written about the ways in which social and economic life will recover post crisis and which of the changes it has brought will be permanent. Participation in the arts and culture has always been implicated in both division and togetherness. In identifying what society values in its cultural life post-lockdown we might be well advised to re-balance and re-think the partnership between culture and the digital and the claims for what technology can do. Part of this re-think should acknowledge the limited capacities and interest of dominant platforms in building the spaces for the kind of inclusive cultural conversation in which we can all feel at home.
David Wright teaches on the MA in International Cultural Policy and Management at the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies at the University of Warwick. He is the author of Understanding Cultural Taste (Palgrave, 2015).
Image: Music Division, The New York Public Library. “Unidentified man and child watching Arturo Toscanini conduct on television” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1952.