A new week, new Covid-19 measures. Numbers have been on the rise for weeks and on the weekend, the Austrian government announced new restrictions: high schools and universities have to use distance learning, restaurants will be closed and also the arts and culture sector involving museums, theatres and concerts has to shut.
Last week, I visited Schönbrunn Palace. In the world before the corovonavirus, this was one of the most popular tourist sights in Austria. The former summer residence of the Habsburgs had to come up with a slot-concept to handle the influx of visitors. In winter, the main square in front of the palace was one of the most frequented Christmas markets.
During last week’s visit, it was empty. I have never seen the square, the surrounding park and the palace itself like that. It felt very spooky – and also sad. Of course, I enjoyed not being disturbed by selfie sticks and tour groups. But at the same time, I was wondering, how the museums can survive such difficult times. I did the “Grand Tour”, the longer of the two tours through the palace. During the shorter part, there were about 10 other people. In the part of the Grand Tour, there was nobody else except for the museum staff.
The new restrictions hit the cultural institutions hard after they barely have had a chance to recover from the lockdowns in spring: from tomorrow onwards, they all need to close their doors again. Numbers have been rising. For a long time, many Austrians behaved as if this pandemic had been a thing of the past. I am in support of measures to fight this pandemic and make sure that our healthcare system does not collapse. But I cannot keep but wondering: according to the restrictions, retail stores, hairdressers, nail studios and massage places can stay open. But cultural institutions – a sector which came up with incredible safety concepts – have to shut. How is it more dangerous to look at a painting in an almost empty museum, while I still can have my hair cut or get a neck massage?
“Barbarism starts where arts and culture die.” – What are we without arts and culture?
I listened to a really interesting interview with a musician on the German TV channel RBB. (Unfortunately, I cannot remember his name and I also could not find the interview online.) He referred to this quote and stressed that arts and culture make us human. They differentiate us from other species. If we keep going down the road of destroying arts and culture, we will be reduced to our economic contribution to society only. Human beings need more than just a mission of economic performance.
Moreover, the latter cannot live without the arts either. A thriving economy needs creative minds and problems solvers. Furthermore, in addition to cultural tourism and culture as an industry itself, companies are more likely to choose locations with a thriving cultural scene. Arts and culture create an environment enabling critical thinking, reflection and criticism.
They also give us a sense of empowerment, of belief. Think about how cathedrals, palaces, temples and arenas were built. And we particularly need them in this current corona-crisis. Arts and culture challenge us to think and question the status quo. They help us to see problems from various angles. It is not a coincidence that authoritarian countries try to limit and monitor education, arts and culture.
During the current pandemic, the risk is interferences in fundamental rights, damaging of the arts, cuts in the educational sector in the name of the pandemic while actually serving other purposes. I do hope that this is not the motivation behind the measures, but I would like to point the danger out. Especially now, we need artists to not only document the times but also ask critical questions.
Last week, there were protests in Germany against the measures affecting the arts and culture sector. Many famous local artists such as Campino, the lead singer of the band Tote Hosen supported the protests by the members of the cultural scene. “It’s not about saving Christmas. It’s about the whole year and many livelihoods,” Campino said referring to the economic effects of the measures on artists. They will be hit very hard considering their precarious situations and contracts. Now they are on the brink of losing everything.
Roland Kaiser, a “Schlager”-musician, asked for more support by the government and pointed out the importance of the cultural sector which employs over 1.5 million people in Germany and generates a yearly revenue of EUR 130 billion.
This is the perspective that I am missing from the Austrian discourse. Politicians talk about saving the economy – which is crucial, without a doubt. But their understanding of “economy” seems to be tourism – hiking in summer and skiing in winter – and retail. The significant contributions and spillover effects by arts and culture are completely ignored.
Austria calls itself a “Kulturnation” – a cultural nation. But since the start of the pandemic, I do not see much of this Kulturnation. Economically-speaking, Austria cannot compare itself with the big players such as Germany or France. Due to the country’s commitment to being neutral after the Second World War, we are also not a military superpower like America. Hence, Austria’s foreign policy has heavily relied on arts and culture for decades. We may not be able to win militarily, but we have a big cultural standing.
I would be interested to find a study of the spillover effects of culture for tourism and the overall Austrian economy. (If I find it, I will share it here.) Most of my friends from the Americas, Asia or Australia travel to Austria not because of skiing. They stay a night in Vienna because they want to listen to a concert in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein or to a performance at the opera. Arts and culture are very often seen as something which “does not generate money”. But their impact on the country’s economy is difficult to ignore. The sector creates thousands of jobs – some more, some less directly linked to the culture scene. Do we really think the tourists will keep coming if there is no culture left? Do we think retail alone will help fill the hotel rooms?
While our politicians are discussing concepts to open the ski slopes and skiing huts (some proven epicentres of the pandemic’s spread in Europe), soccer games where the players “miss their fans” and try to keep the carousel of consumption going, those are punished who already came up with elaborate concepts. The Salzburger Festspiele (the annual classical music festival in Salzburg) have been internationally applauded for their coronavirus concept. While people got infected at private parties, I am not sure if there was a single case reported at the festival? And if our government decides that it is crucial to close cultural institutions, it needs to offer real support just like it does with so many other sectors as well.
I would like to anticipate the cristism and emphasise that in no way shape or form am I doubting the magnitude and risk posed by this pandemic. I do take it very seriously. I would just like to offer some food for thought about what measures are fair and really help to fight this disease.
I would like to end this plea for the arts with a demand for every one of us: Let’s do what we can to fight this virus. Let’s socially distance, wash our hands, wear masks and please, stop the crazy parties and the “Bussi-Bussi” (the two kisses Austrians exchange when they meet). These are very small things but they will not only save lives but also the livelihoods of many – in the arts and culture scene but many other areas as well.
(Note: Already long before the current pandemic, I discussed the importance of arts and culture for the EU member countries with Croatian artist Igor Eskinja. You can read the interview here.)