Archippus Sturrock: Art and culture should have been at the heart of government response to coronavirus pandemic

This week’s guest writer is Archippus Sturrock, a Welsh poet and adviser on cultural affairs to the SNP Shadow Culture Secretary in the House of Commons. Originally from Christchurch, Monmouthshire, he currently lives in Edinburgh.

The streets are empty. Vacant buses trace unusually calm roads. And those few who have ventured out to replenish their cupboards are keeping as wide a berth as possible from other passersby. For eight weeks now, the lockdown has been our new abnormal.
And with our newfound isolation has come both frustration and introspection. Never has the fabric of our society felt so fragile; never has an appreciation for our lifeblood-labourers been so fierce. These are truths we are reminded of each Thursday evening as we cross the thresholds of our confinement and come together as a community to applaud our essential workers.

One key worker, ever-present throughout this crisis, has mostly gone ignored by governments.

I speak, of course, of the artist.

None among us can claim to have not sought, throughout lockdown, either solace in a book; encouragement in music; or distraction in film. A world absent of poetry, song, or cinema would be unimaginable, unliveable. And a lockdown void of the arts would have been truly torturous. And yet, while financial support of our artists and cultural institutions is welcome, why were the arts not placed firmly alongside health and wellbeing in government strategy to weather the coronavirus crisis?

Was the place of the arts in the public heart not resoundingly clear when the lamenting songs sung from Italian and Spanish balconies extended their reach to us? Was it not repeated when Wales not only clapped for carers but—in our choral tradition—burst into song for them? It was on Easter Monday, in the old tongue of Wales, that we chanted in countrywide concert the words: ‘Gwlad beirdd a chantorion’ (Land of poets and singers). Words which, only weeks later, fail to echo in government policy.

Archippus Sturrock "We cannot afford for creativity to be an afterthought to legislation"

Beyond neighbouring England in France, lockdown came earlier and stricter. Questions on the impact of lockdown on both wellbeing and adherence are already being posed across these islands. The French Culture Minister Franck Riester - who was among the first parliamentarians to be diagnosed with coronavirus - knew early how worthwhile it would be to put culture front and centre in the French Republic’s approach to tackling the pandemic.

With their #CultureChezNous (#CultureAtHome) campaign, the French government offered the opportunity to connect or reconnect with French culture during what was—for people in France—one of the most stringent lockdowns in Europe. Bringing together almost 700 cultural works from over 500 artists, France gave its people access to both discovery and distraction by way of virtualised exhibitions, museums, films, documentaries, podcasts, theatre pieces,
books, video games, and other artistic practices to accompany them through confinement

Here, on the other side of the Channel, little credence was accorded to similar measures. The only time the arts appeared at all prominent in public policy was in matters of economy and finance. We cannot afford for creativity to be an afterthought to legislation.

And certainly not in the land of poets and singers.

Never has the significant power of culture been more evident. And yet imagination so woefully lacking from our executive. Discussions are underway in the now virtual ethers of parliament to paint a picture of what Wales and the wider world will look like when we eventually emerge from our collective quarantine. And if one thing is certain, it is that we will have to learn to live with COVID-19. Normality as we knew it is no more and cohabitation with coronavirus looms.

Meanwhile, culture continues to play a significant role in getting us through the day. Through culture, we better understand ourselves and the crisis in which we currently reside, and—perhaps most importantly—culture could have helped us not only to strive through lockdown, but to have thrived in it. Let these strange times offer us the opportunity to discover or rediscover the immense talent and creativity the people of Wales have to offer.

Let it not take another crisis for the arts and culture of Wales to be recognised as essential.

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