The Other Columbus: The cratering of culture

Scott Woods
All People Arts, a new gallery located on the first floor of Parsons Village II on the South Side.

I recently bought a number of books online, which is my coy librarian way of saying I purchased a metric ton of books. I bought so many books that my bank shut down my card until it could verify that a living, breathing American was truly that interested in literacy. While on the phone with the customer service rep to put the IV drip of literacy back into my arm, I considered how much richer I had made the retailer, and how much of my money was going to the authors of the books.  

I won’t belabor how little writers make compared to publishers, distributors and marketing companies every time you purchase a book, but I will admit to being fixated on what the creators of culture in general make out of such deals, especially now.

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On the largest possible scale, our pandemic economy is K-shaped, where the top arm of the K represents the trajectory of the rich getting richer, extending ever toward the sky. At the same time, the bottom arm of the K represents the downward trajectory of lower income earners. The expanding center of the K is the middle class diffusing into nothingness. The contrast is so stark that the vampiric shakeout is the most damning ratio one can use to describe how capitalism has devastated the potential for a truly democratic America. 

If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it has exposed the molecular importance of culture: not just as art, but art you can access; not just as music, but live music; not just as poetry anthologies, but open mics; not just as books, but browsing; not just as sustenance, but service. Culture is revealed for the community engine it has always been, a motor that runs best on the fuel of presence and engagement. Without it, we struggle at not only getting our Saturday night groove on, but with the experiential exchange that informs our values and politics under normal circumstances. Whole levels of discourse are lost to us without the arts as part of our organic existence, without being able to engage the films that challenge our conventions, or the bands and stories that inspire us.  

The problem we’re not paying as much attention to as we should is that while there are lots of letters that economies can look like W, U, V, L the cultural economy doesn’t look like a letter at all. It looks like an underscore: completely flat. Closed theaters, performance venues unable to open, too few gigs and too little audience at the things that can open all contribute to the flatline of the cultural economy. And if you think that won’t have a long term effect on the art that gets created, you’re in for a nasty shock.  

Hollywood is instructive here. The American film industry just experienced a similar cratering in the last generation. Nobody really noticed because a) Hollywood still had plenty of fat to trim (they’re still throwing good money at Michael Bay movies) and b) millions of people still like bad movies (see a). It’s part of the reason why TV shows got better. Rather than make movies worth seeing, the industry made movies that would appeal to the largest group of people regardless of IQ, which only half works because even a tasteless lemming knows not to spend good money on Will Smith’s “Gemini Man.” 

All of this contributed to an industry-wide hollowing of quality work. The middle where filmmakers and actors could afford to take chances emptied out.

What culture will remain following three more months of a rapidly spreading pandemic? Six months? A year? What music will we have when there have been no places to engage a live audience? How many galleries will survive when no one comes to see the art? And, as galleries close, what art will artists create with even fewer places to show? Can a theater scene survive on Zoom performances?

We don’t know any of the answers to those questions yet, but what we do know is that many of the places where we would normally find such answers won’t make it.

All over the country museum budgets are being decimated. Bars and performance venues are shuttering forever. Orchestras and choirs have been silenced. We have all become buskers in the space where the arms of the K spread further and further apart. Even the organizations charged with bolstering art scenes are struggling to find the means to do their work. Everybody thought we might be past the worst of it by this point in the year and that’s not even close to what’s happening.

As we enter into the next six months of not being able to safely perform the work of culture inside or outdoors, it will become a priority of the first order to find ways to preserve and curate culture until venues and creators can find their footing again. The arts have never just been the arts. Culture is not merely the city’s value add. It is how we communicate across class and identity, how we vote when there are no polls, how we teach when there are no schools. Culture is how we live forever. Without its works, we are lost as a community.