By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
SOME MONTHS BEFORE the Great Panic accidentally made it as close to a reality as I could possibly have thought, I had been pondering the idea of what a year-long cessation of all new arts activity would have for the country. Being old, cynical and world-weary, as I looked about me I saw little but a simulacrum of the culture I had grown up with: the buildings, as it were, still remained, but they were essentially ruins, emptied of vitality, disdained, faded, disregarded, graffitied over or turned into joke shops. Contemporary culture felt vitiated, limp, lacking in authenticity or real engagement with life. It did not seem to be adding much to what had gone before.
So many films are old favourites re-hashed, crammed with noisy action sequences, “enhanced” by CGI, stuffed with ridiculously masculinised women and feminised men, replete with blatant propaganda about racism and homophobia. So many television programmes employ a similar template. Old stories and characters, as we saw with the BBC’s trashing of Dickens and Wells, are subverted and treated with contempt. In the literary world the same impulse is at work, authors new and established at pains to signal their adherence to the orthodoxy.
Architecture has long been at the forefront of the uglification and dehumanisation of society. The art world continues its vapid descent into commercialisation and agit-prop. Classical music sank into the abyss decades ago. Popular music has achieved a level of technical excellence that outstrips its ability to produce anything of lyrical or melodic quality. Hip-hop/rap remains the most popular genre after thirty years — surely one of the most unimaginative and degrading forms of music ever created.
Philosophy has exhausted the destructive obscurantism of its postwar fashions and is scratching around in the debris for something it has not turned to ashes.
There are exceptions to this, of course, but the exceptions prove the rule — a piece of old wisdom lost to the modern world, along with other sayings some of us remember from the old days. There’s nothing new in the idea of cultural degeneration or exhaustion — the trope of decadence appeared in full self-awareness in Britain and France back in the 1890s — but that’s no reason to rule it out completely. The falling off in quality in so many areas of life is apparent to anyone over the age of forty.
And what would be the loss if for one year all this ceased? Think of it: no more new episodes of TV sitcoms and soaps, no new dramas or documentaries; no more new films, novels, plays, music; no more new artworks, photography or exhibitions; no more new arts and crafts, no more clothing fashions. No more commentaries, essays, critiques, reviews of any of these. Nothing. Not even the smallest scribbled haiku. Complete cessation of all cultural production. Only repeats of what we already have, or exhibitions and performances of existing material.
Then along came the Covid Panic and shut down theatres, cinemas, libraries, bookshops, galleries, museums, arts centres and concert halls. It — or rather the assortment of knaves responsible for it — has not entirely closed down all production but has certainly reduced it significantly. Such was the despair of the acting world in particular that directors and artistes were driven to begging the politicians for special bailouts — ironically in this case the Tories they spend so much time slagging off.
So although my original idea has not come to pass in its totality, we have a taster of what it could be like. Would we be any the worse off? I doubt it. And what would be the antidote? How would we fill up all those hours now empty of novelty? Luckily we have a huge store of quality works stretching back to ancient times, available in multiple formats. And, despite the growing censorship by the zombies and aggressive copyright-asserting by big corporations, you can still access immense amounts of material as books (remember those?), DVDs and even VHS tapes. If you haven’t delved into Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dostoyevsky yet, now is your chance. If you haven’t watched the classics of film and television or listened to the great works of composers through the ages or explored the worlds of art and performance, now is your chance.
We could live profitably on this for a whole year, no problem. Longer, in fact. The greatness of our cultural legacy lies all around us. To reacquaint ourselves with it may spark a new wave of genuine creativity. It only remains a ruin if we ignore it.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.