Harry Styles was on the nation’s pulse when he guilelessly said that the coronavirus lockdown would create “a lot of powerful music”. Back in March 2020, everyone thought something along the lines of: boring or anxiety-inducing but cosy times in the home, with or possibly without a job, would mean a punk-style cultural boom. That’s before you even consider the airborne plague killing people around the world and the economic fall out of that.
Lucy Robinson, a Professor of British Contemporary History, heard the pop star’s suggestion and was initially seduced by the idea. By October 2020 she finds it – and the reality – partly amusing but mainly deeply concerning: “actually the idea that people produce just by contemplating on your own in your attic or whatever is a mythological version of how creativity happens.”
This idea of “hard times” being great for arts and culture resurfaces continually throughout time: punk emerged from the economic “dark ages” of the 70s courtesy of politically disaffected kids in North London squats; Thatcher’s 80s birthed new romantics, goths and rave culture, similarly out of a recession and perhaps a desire to escape from unsatisfying realities. Grime was a cultural form constructed by the young, Black and particularly marginalised in the early 00s. In 2010, ahead of devastating cuts to arts and culture funding, the results of which have been obvious to witness over the last decade, the BBC rhetorically asked, “But isn’t austerity supposed to deliver punk rock and poetry?”
This myth of downtrodden masses thriving is seductive, particularly during an enormous and threatening economic downturn. Although it might feel colloquially true in an abstract sense, the idea doesn’t stand up historically. “There are clichés we tell ourselves about the moments when popular culture seemed the most exciting – or we’re told it was,” says Robinson. “They’re explained as being the creative reaction to hard times, but actually those are also moments when the hierarchies break down in other ways.”
In a modern context, “hard times” is a romanticised idea driving sales of expensive artworks to people who can afford them, or reinforcing the Conservative narrative that cultural activities are nice hobbies, but not important careers (over 400,000 arts jobs are expected to be lost in the UK as a result of the pandemic). It provides cover for the fact that emergency arts funding has been awarded in staggering figures to higher cultural institutions like Secret Cinema and concert halls or those who began with money. If the idea were true then 2020 would be a pressure cooker environment for working class arts and culture, and what we’re seeing is the opposite.
Throughout the post-war 20th century, despite a myriad of time-specific social and economic difficulties, much was in place that supported a creative society. Factors included free access to higher education, squatting was legal, young adults had appropriate access to benefits and housing benefits. None of this exists anymore. The issue isn’t that art won’t be made anymore, but that it’ll exacerbate the problem of the last decade: art will be less likely to come from those without the financial means to make it.
Writing about this “clichéd equation” in 2009, after the economic crash, Simon Reynolds reviewed the 60s – a decade in which a focus on pleasure, the self-confidence of young people and easy-to-gain employment created a boom in fashion, pop and countercultural activity. “Fact is, you can generally bend the socio-ecomonic evidence to suit whatever argument you seek to make,” he writes. “There is nearly always a sense of malaise and crisis going on in the world, on some level or another.”
Similarly Matthew Worley, Professor of Modern History, tells me that not only are creative scenes and cultures always occurring, regardless of socio-economic circumstance, but that these periods we think of as revolutionarily creative (punk, rave!) thrived because they formulated around groups of people – artists, musicians, writers – in particular spaces – clubs, squats, bars. Any space we have now is digital and crucially “diffused and separated”.
In an email, Reynolds echoed those fears that longer-term effects of Covid-19 and our current economic situation will be “stifling” to a hibernating culture: “Everything encourages caution, withdrawal.” Never before in history has this been the case.
If hard times = good culture meant anything in a contemporary world, we would already be deep in a rich cultural explosion, one that goes beyond more bingeable TV than anyone could possibly have time to watch. Back in 2016 cultural discourse was fervent with the theory that Trump would mean powerful protest music or at least great rock and roll. This also seemed to equate art as at least a palatable return for any suffering resulting from Trump’s administration.
In her 2020 essay Listening in an Emergency, cultural critic and academic Sara Marcus remembers that the same people touting the myth also ignored the political Obama-era music of the previous eight years: the likes of D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé. Marcus, like many critics, argues that pop culture has failed to grapple with or effectively respond to the complex seriousness of our current political landscape.
“History suggests, in other words, that even though pop culture can be a platform for challenging an era’s injustices, it can mirror and buttress them just as easily,” Marcus writes. “In the bleakest times, many people want songs to tell them what they think they already know. Other people are too busy trying to stay alive to pour their terror and despair and even their relentless hope into works of musical genius.”
It doesn’t take much interrogation to understand this is currently the case. Out of work arts and culture workers are making ends meet by any means necessary and much of the cultural activity (live-streamed gigs, charity auctions) isn’t focused on providing a fun alternative or pushing boundaries in innovative and new ways, rather conjuring poor substitutes with the aim of keeping these industries afloat.
It is important that we as culture creators and consumers resist this idea now. As Robinson says, historically “it’s a horrible story [governments] sold back to us.” It’s a subtle framing that lets those with power and money off the hook, it helps to make us forget injustices of a period.
I’ll remember 2020 culture as watching hours of TV on Netflix to conclude each show was “fine” and rinsing Dua Lipa’s party-sex album and doing neither of those things. I will remember the first UK-wide lockdown as a time that creative people anxiously wanted to create, but mostly couldn’t, feeling crushed by the expectations of productivity. Or their day-to-day reality, fears of losing their job or having to relocate away from friends.
“It’s almost a double pressure on creative individuals to both keep us entertained and put up with the fact that their industry’s been smashed,” says Robinson. “Actually surviving and looking after oneself is a really creative process in this changing context.” If great arts and culture come from 2020 and the next few years of recession, division, isolation and hardship, it will be just as it’s always been: a testament to our collective ability to survive and resist in spite of everything but not because of it. It’s not a reason to be grateful but a reason to be mad.