“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” Using Lenin’s scale, it would not be an exaggeration to say the global community has jumped forward at least a century since February 2020. For most, trying to describe the events of this year has exhausted any bank of adjectives. I personally have entered into a state of descriptive fatigue. The word “unprecedented” has become synonymous with “normal,” while “closeness” and “hugging” feel close to profanities. It seems the natural response of humanity, in these times of crisis, is to turn to escapism. To answer the ever-present question of “what comes next,” many have turned to the Black Death, and the coinciding Renaissance which followed it. The Black Death began in the mid-14th century, spreading bubonic plague across Europe and eventually worldwide. Just as COVID-19 has gripped the world in a state of paralysis and mourning, the Black Death claimed an estimate of 75 million to 200 million lives, projecting the worst “what if” question gripping us as a collective society in 2020. What is known as the Renaissance followed from this devastating bubonic plague, reconstructing the world and producing works of visionaries such as Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci. This comparison points to what may come after COVID-19, and a surge in creativity seems like a strong possibility.
An examination of historical similarities reveals several interesting comparisons. The glorification of the church, a hegemonic institution in the Middle Ages preceding the Black Death, is comparable to the internet monoculture we religiously worship in contemporary society. Our steadfast adherence to the capitalist mantra of “work until death”, where we are seen to be eternally faithful to corporate organisations, could mirror the feudal serfdom of medieval Europe. Just as serfs were dependent on noblemen and bishops to grant them their livelihood, we are a class of sycophants to the ominous CEOs and HR departments granting us an income. Calls of fake news and a post-truth world mirror the sensationalism distributed in church pamphlets across Europe, and modern tribalism has seen a return to morality politics. With all these contextual similarities, it seems natural to anticipate similar patterns to the Renaissance, post-pandemic.
The Renaissance period was a time of technological, intellectual, and artistic transformation. Disillusionment and despair have traditionally been seen to trigger a resetting and a stretching of human potential. To try to envision what our “post-COVID-19 Renaissance” will look like, it seems pertinent to reflect on the current and future state of our creative sectors.
Observable over the last 50 years has been the vast commodification of cultural outputs such as art, television, film and literature, where quantity has reigned supreme over quality. The advent of streaming services such as Netflix, Stan, and Amazon Prime have carried us through the pandemic, with their seemingly bottomless pool of content. Netflix has delivered enough original content to endorse the realisation of a society of permanent recluses, and the concept of becoming a “couch potato” has never been more applicable. But what artistic integrity have we sacrificed in our binge-watching habits? In such trying times, our mindless consumption of television and film has raised questions regarding our declining cultural standards. The trajectory of culture as determined by Netflix seems to be marketed towards more reality television and dating shows, intentionally cringeworthy romantic comedies and conspiracy theory series. The phenomena of ironic consumption, which sees hordes of people engage with low-brow cultural products, has accompanied a dissociation from content requiring a degree of critical thought and contemplation.
This culture of binge-watching and overconsumption is underpinned by our collective desire for instant gratification. Even sustaining interest in programs which upload content on a weekly basis, as opposed to uploading an entire series in one hit, is becoming increasingly difficult. With the advent of new broadcasting technologies and services, the power dynamics between creators and their audiences has been fundamentally altered. Companies such as Foxtel are rapidly devaluing due to their perceived disconnect from the demands of their audience. However, as explored above, streaming platforms such as Netflix have capitalised on binge culture and the “more-is-more” mantra of consumers. Tailoring their marketing towards audience engagement, content such as the absurdist phenomenon of Tiger King has been a commercial success, projected into the mainstream at the expense of critically acclaimed and independent films. In industries where profitability is inherently tied up with audience engagement, it is difficult to forecast a rejuvenation of artistic fervour if COVID-19 delivers a decline in economic fortune.
The underfunding of the arts sector in the Morrison COVID-19 relief packages has demonstrated clear biases against creativity held by the federal government, distributing resources in favour of perceived productivity and practicality. This explicit non-endorsement of entertainment and aesthetic industries raises questions about the feasibility of creative reinventions which have been prophesised to occur in the post-pandemic world. In the interim, at least, it seems that pandering to audience expectations is the only way to survive, even if it is at the expense of artistic integrity. With numerous practical constraints impeding the realisation of such creative fervour, it seems like even in the absence of sycophantic pandering to consumers, there is genuine concern about the ability of such industries to rebound. When turning to the youth, the future of art and creativity in an institutional context isn’t looking bright, especially when considering the price inflation of university degrees in the arts sector this year. And for current creatives, the underfunding of the Arts sector in COVID-19 relief packages saw theatres, production companies and events businesses left to sink or swim whilst hospitality, trades and retail sectors were heavily incentivised. Looking at these actions, it would appear as though the government is actively disincentivising such a post-pandemic artistic revival.
However, in conceptualising a utopian post-COVID-19 cultural rebirth, it would be wise not to appeal to an overload of new material, but rather to refinement and a reconnection with quality. Many creative industries have already pledged to slow down in the advent of this sociological and health crisis. The fashion industry has committed to moving away from fast-fashion production, aspiring to adopt a trans-seasonal approach to clothing which is designed to last. The involuntary pause accompanying isolation has inspired a renewed consciousness of environmental degradation, as well as the reality of an imminent economic recession.
This period has also reinvigorated concern surrounding the insidious structures of racial and gender discrimination written into our institutional frameworks, of which the creative industries are some of the largest culprits. As is known, the aesthetic platforms are responsible for constructing and deconstructing cultural norms and making them visible to the global public through television and film. Their unparalleled ability to affect popular opinion gives them the power to change the narrative post-COVID-19, and redesign our understanding of the world in which we live. In the ideal post-pandemic world, instead of a surge of new material, we should encourage an elimination of popular culture tropes projecting white saviourism and Western hegemony onto our screen. Films such as The Help, Green Book, and The Blind Side have been counterproductive in projecting the ability of white people to rescue BIPOC communities (Black, indigenous, and people of colour) from their perils, supposedly curing centuries of oppression in a 120-minute reel. There have been innumerable suggestions for improvements to white-BIPOC relations throughout this pandemic, which lead me to believe that we need a new Hollywood altogether. We need a Hollywood which looks like 2020, instead of 1920, or even 1820. After all, it almost seems selfish to want or even consider a Renaissance-level outburst of new creativity, if that newness would allow for the perpetuation of a broken industry.
Inherently within Lenin’s quote is the idea that history keeps moving and evolving. With the rate at which news is circulating currently, the ideas within this article could become obsolete within a month. While the future remains elusive, these exercises in speculation will remain only theories. However, if one thing can be grasped from observing the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th century, times of crisis can inspire healing and a creative reimagining of the world which is unparalleled (you might even call it unprecedented!). We have now been presented an opportunity to allow our creative industries to lead the way to ensure that the “new normal” we are craving is not a complete cultural reinvention, but perhaps simply a refinement.
Zoe Mitchell is a second year Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts student at the Australian National University. She is currently working as a freelance research assistant for The Justinian, and aspires to enter into media and communications following the completion of her degree.