Artists as essential workers?

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The Sustaining Theatre and Dance (STAND) Foundation recently hosted a webinar to consider the relevance and value of the arts generally, and of theatre and dance in particular, in contemporary times.

The STAND Foundation is an initiative by individuals within the local dance and theatre sector to help support South Africa’s dance and theatre ecosystem. COVID-19 and the related restrictions have shown just how fragile the sector is, how little support it receives from government, and how necessary it is for the sector to take care of itself and of those who seek to make their livelihoods within the sector.

Speakers were invited from Rwanda, India and Ecuador, three different continents that better approximate South African conditions than the traditional cultural relationships with Europe. Vincent Mantsoe, a South African choreographer now living in France, was a fourth speaker, along with locally based Yvette Hardie, the international president of ASSITEJ, a global association dedicated to theatre for children and young people.

While COVID-19 and the restrictions related to the pandemic have had a huge and adverse impact on dance and theatre globally, not least because audiences – gatherings – are a primary vector of the coronavirus, the pandemic is not the only challenge we are confronting. If anything, the health crisis has highlighted other crises which we are having to deal with: institutional racism, resource and gender inequality, the abuse of power in order to cling to power, the deliberate distribution of falsehoods as truth …

What is the relevance of the arts generally – and of theatre and dance particularly – in this world? This was the central question of the webinar.

Traditional arguments in support of the arts include the contribution of the arts to human development, the recent emphasis on the economic value of the creative and cultural industries, the transfer of innovative and creative skills to other economic and social sector, and participation in the cultural life of the community as a fundamental human right (Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone shall have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts …”).

Carole Karemera of Rwanda, Ecuador’s Susan Togra and Vikram Iyengar of India spoke about the general precarity of the arts in their respective contexts, and that COVID-19 conditions were simply reinforcing the fragility of a sector about which few Global South governments seem to care. And yet, it was argued that artists should be regarded as essential workers, for how else would many have stayed sane through the isolation of the pandemic were it not for online films, music, literature, comedy and television?

This was one of the overriding themes to emerge from the webinar: that the existential threat to many human beings posed by the coronavirus, essentially a health challenge, created the conditions for the importance of the arts to be understood as fundamental to individual and social well-being, to the health of societies.

While politicians and other policy-makers demand the arts to justify themselves in economic terms – their contribution to the Gross Domestic Product, their capacity to create jobs, their earning foreign currency, and the like – it is the humanising qualities of the arts that render them most important at this particular time.

The economic dimensions of social well-being are, of course, fundamental, and many have suffered huge emotional and psychological ills because of their inability to earn income, which has impacted their self-esteem adversely.

But the theme that kept recurring through the course of the webinar was that healthy societies were not those in which the economy was foregrounded, but where people mattered first and foremost – the emotional and psychological well-being of individuals and the relationships between people, who matter because they are human, rather than because they have the privileges and trappings of relative economic security.

If it is true – as the scientists keep telling us – that we will all be safe from COVID-19 only when every one of us is safe from it (one person could infect others and so on), then the value of the arts at this time lies in their ability to humanise the other through stories, to make connections between individuals and communities, and to encourage us to act in solidarity, rather than in competition, for our collective good.

Buro: MvH
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