Cultural Institutions in Times of the COVID-19 Crisis

By Joanna Zienkiewicz

Due to COVID-19 the activities of many cultural institutions, as well as of creative/artistic businesses and of self-employed creative workers had to be suspended. The situation has exposed and amplified the usual precariousness of the cultural industry’s workers, being exceptionally difficult for those dealing with artistic media that require liveness or social contact: music venues, festivals, theatres, etc. Many, for instance Berliner Schiller-Theater can count the losses from the performances that got cancelled in millions of euros, threatening the existence of the institutions and the jobs they offer (Wagińska-Marzec). Although audiences are usually encouraged to keep the tickets for events they already bought to use at later dates, any need to return the revenue already made adds extra pressures to the situation of reduced income. At the same time, arts and entertainment are consumed by the society of lockdown probably more than ever: stuck at home, many turn to watching series, films, reading books, listening to music, and participating in online cultural events from the comfort of their couches. The switch to online events allowed many institutions – for instance, the Groningen music venues Simplon and OOST who decided to stream their DJs live on platforms like Twitch or Zoom – to preserve their audiences; however, as the online events are normally expected to be free of charge, they cannot make up for the revenue lost from predicted ticket sales. While arts and entertainment are then nowhere close to disappearing, the threat of cultural institutions and workers not being able to deal with the financial losses experienced in the pandemic leads to widespread calls for crisis funds, grants, and larger subsidies from the cultural sector.

In these times, it might be especially crucial to examine what leads to such vulnerability of cultural institutions in the times of crisis, and how it might be dealt with. As Bojana Kunst pointed out in 2018, precarity is at the core of cultural institutions – a highly flexible, but also insecure sector (168). With a focus on projects, institutions are grounded in projective temporality creating a peculiar loop between the present and the future (Kunst 169). They are simultaneously imagined and suppressing irrational imaginations through protocols, bound by the neoliberal falsehood of progression and economization of creativity, in a “complex rhythmical loop between acting as-if and imagining of what is not-yet” (Kunst 178). In her view, already before the pandemic there was a strong “need to develop imaginative temporal forms of working that would have the power to resist the flexibility and precarity of contemporary work” (Kunst 177). Today, this need seems more urgent than ever. In fact, the crisis appears to intensify the “not-yet” aspect of cultural institution workings: maintaining grants and previously made ticket sale profits depends largely on the promises of delivering the live performances/festivals to the public in an unspecified time of ‘once the COVID-19 pandemic is over’.

In response to the social calls for supporting the arts, many financial measures have been promised by governments, ministeries, and art funds on national and European level.  In the Netherlands, funds for non-subsidized professional arts workers, programs of support for subsidized cultural institutions, and allowances to pay fixed costs have been already introduced; a few more funds and loans are waiting to come into action (CulturalPolicies.net). Some other countries- for instance Poland- still wait for the proposed financial measures for the cultural sector (“subsidies for the development of digital forms of artistic creativity and an additional programme compensating losses in culture caused by the epidemic”) to be implemented, with the only one adopted so far being the “Anti-Crisis Shield” fiscal leniency program (CulturalPolicies.net).

The pandemic – and the financial losses associated with it- do not wait. Still, the procedures for obtaining funds, grants, and subsidies continue to be lengthy, even in the times of crisis. Often, they require artists to participate in creative project competitions and to prove the economic value that their “not-yet” imagined futures (in which they obtain the funds) would bring. The bureaucracy associated with such competitions leads to their potential inadequacy for the fast-developing crisis: for instance, choosing the winning projects within the Polish ministerial program promising “20 million Polish zloty for culture on the internet” took around 2 months, causing the program to not be implemented until the end of May – the time by which many cultural institutions were already allowed to begin reopening (Ministerstwo Kultury i Dziedzictwa Narodowego). Additionally, as Daria Gosek-Popiołek (a Polish Left deputy) argued, many relief plans and grants assume that the no-contract employees of the cultural institutions are artists only, which leads to a failure of financial measures to address the loss of income experienced by other workers carrying out activities in connection with such institutions: an example could be workers who contribute to language, sport, and psychological courses publically available in regional cultural centers (Januszewska).

The reason for the inadequacies of some financial measures can often be traced back to deeper misunderstandings of the role of arts and culture within the neoliberal framework. Art subsidies, as Robert Oosterhuis stated, are often not viewed as legitimate by the public in the first place – this is the result of the subsidy boards catering mainly to the opinions of professionals rather than employing audiences, users, and participants in their decisions. Cultural institutions need to constantly prove their use for the society; project proposals and competitions exist to codify human creativity in the constraints of “progression” and “economystification” (Kunst). While seeking to liberate the arts from such constraints of neoliberalism can be an ultimate goal, one might also ask – within the system, why is culture regarded as inferior (for example, to the sciences) in economic value and potential of contribution to the society in the first place? Seeing as the arts make substantial contributions to the national GDP of most European countries (e.g. in the Netherlands: 3.7 percent, which is considerably more than agriculture, forestry, and fishing (CBS)), the prevalent questioning of economic and social legitimacy of art appears to be ideological rather than practical. In other words, it might be that the issue was never in an actual lesser socioeconomic value of the arts; but rather, in the difficulty to discuss the “logic of imagination” (Kunst) in terms of contained solid spaces and protocols which the current social order came to privilege.

For the cultural institutions to persist in the pandemic, the support offered to them should aim to resist precarity first and foremost. It could be beneficial for application procedures to be simplified and de-bureaucratized at least; additionally, the funds could address the crisis better if they were developed in close discussion with cultural institutions.

Works cited:

CBS. ‘’Culture and Media Contribute 3.7 Percent to GDP”. CBS, 3 Dec. 2019, https://www.cbs.nl/en-gb/news/2019/29/culture-and-media-contribute-3-7-percent-to-gdp.

CulturalPolicies.net. ’’Comparative Overview: Financial Measures”. CulturalPolicies.net, 11 Jun. 2020, https://www.culturalpolicies.net/covid-19/comparative-overview-financial/.

Januszewska, Paulina. ’’Koronawirus Zabija Instytucje Kultury. Czy Rząd Wyciągnie do nas Rękę?”. Krytyka Polityczna, 17 Mar. 2020, https://krytykapolityczna.pl/kraj/koronawirus-instytucje-kultury-daria-gosek-popiolek/.

Kunst, Bojana. ’’The Paradox of the New Institution: On Time and Imagination”. The Future of the New, edited by Thijs Lijster, Valiz, 2018, pp. 168-179.

Ministerstwo Kultury i Dziedzictwa Narodowego. ’’20 mln zł na Stypendia dla Artystów! Rozstrzygnęliśmy II Część Programu Kultura w Sieci”. Gov.pl, 22 May 2020, https://www.gov.pl/web/kultura/20-mln-zl-na-stypendia-dla-artystow-rozstrzygnelismy-ii-czesc-programu-kultura-w-sieci2.

Wagińska-Marzec, Maria. “Niemieckie instytucje kultury w okresie pandemii koronawirusa”. E-Teatr, 24 Mar. 2020, http://www.e-teatr.pl/pl/artykuly/288332.html.

Commoning during times of crisis

By Maria Méndez

In the short story “La autopista del Sur” (The Southern Thruway, 1966) the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar narrates a highway traffic jam on a Sunday afternoon. After several hours, all calculations of yards versus time become useless, and the characters begin to speculate about what has paralyzed traffic to such an extent. A few days later, with no conclusive news, the people get out of their cars and begin to constitute modes of organization: they put together all the food and water they have and ration them; they start sharing cushions and blankets at night; and they create a common fund to buy more provisions for everyone whenever necessary. In addition, as weeks pass and the weather gets colder, they create an inventory of coats and sweaters available in the group; and since people cannot afford to keep the heaters on all the time because of battery life, they decide to reserve the two best equipped cars for the sick. The traffic jam is so big that beyond this specific group, other cells become organized and face similar problems. Around them, there are fields and farms, but no one approaches them to help.


© mxpxche_ybarra. Accessed June 3, 2020.

Finally, one day, after various changes in terms of seasons and what could have been weeks or months, the traffic finally clears up and people are able to drive back to the city. Amid the excitement, the protagonist realizes the created sense of community has been lost in a split second, but he keeps moving, “[…] not knowing why all this hurry, why this mad race in the night among cars, where no one knew anything about the others, where everyone looked straight ahead, only ahead” (Cortázar 29).

There are a few factors present in the story by Cortázar that are applicable to the real world during times of crisis. For instance, the way in which the story unfolds is a good example of the ideas posed by Elinor Ostrom’s research, as “more often than not communities self-organize and manage to control access and use of shared resources” (Varvarousis and Kallis 30). In this line of reasoning, the main drive behind commoning is “always bounded to an economic reasoning directly related to a community’s survival” (Ibidem). Varvarousis and Kallis suggest to approach these alternative economies and practices as commoning projects, thus “emphasizing processes of cooperation and sharing that produce new forms of economy and also new forms of living in common” (ibidem). The authors further argue that often times these new commons are generated through liminal conditions, which leads to an “in-betweenness” that makes it possible for individuals to forego (at least temporarily) their fixed identity.

Cortazar’s story shows this both metaphorically and explicitly: during the traffic jam, people are not known by their names, but by the cars they are driving; as names stop being important, the characters let go of a vital part of their identity. Moreover, while being stuck on a highway, they are quite literally in between places. These are people from all over the country, some of them foreigners, and what brings them together is the fight to survive on the highway for as long as necessary; as explained by Varvarousis and Kallis, “in a liminal commons, the glue that brings the actors together is the practical production of the common” (131). Further, the need for this is brought forward by the crisis. Thus, the dynamic created by the traffic jam is “the result of the loss of an established identity, which allows space for a precarious and fluid ‘we’ to emerge” (Idem 132). As the state fails to provide for them and simply claims to work on the road, the people in the story find an alternative social organization.


© mxpxche_ybarra. Accessed June 3, 2020.

Now, some aspects of the current health crisis can also be compared to Cortazar’s story. As we approach day 80 (is it?) of staying at home, there is a sense of time not mattering as much, of the days flowing into each other in a stagnant way, similar to the traffic jam. Secondly, there is an urgency to go back to our “normal” lives that is not questioned enough: in the story, this is portrayed when, in the last minute, the sense of community created by the characters is immediately and unavoidably forgotten.

However, this leads to a key difference between reality and fiction that must be mentioned. Although in these times there is, to some extent, a sense of community worldwide that stems from the fact that we are all fighting against the same threat; the story can unfortunately seem a bit utopian as, for instance, distribution of resources and provisions across the world has never been done fairly and is still not being done fairly now. In addition, new complications arise since, as explained by Doug Antin in an article for Medium, “a global pandemic creates a tragedy of the commons when self-interest conflicts with the actions that need to be taken for the greater good”. This is easily exemplified by the hoarding of groceries, toilet paper or personal protective equipment, but can also be applied to controversies about the duration of lockdowns and moreover, the use of economic resources to help various nations through the upcoming crisis. 

On another note, a health crisis as grave as this one entails an added tragedy for the commons, since commoning is based on gathering and there is currently a clear impossibility around this. Hence, we have to resort to a new way of commoning, one that is applicable to the circumstances we are facing today. (1)

Although I do not have an answer for the puzzle this creates, I do know one thing: the current health crisis and the imminent climate one call for what the sociologist Ulrich Beck urges as a “global” response. If we turn towards the arts and humanities, we can surely find examples of this to inspire us – even if they are utopian or only metaphorically applicable, such as the one in The Southern Thruway. In this way, we might be able to let go of (parts of) our national identities and personal interests, even if just temporarily, for the common good.

Sources

Antin, Doug. “How Coronavirus Creates A Tragedy of The Commons”, Medium, March 2020. Web. May 2020.

Cortázar, Julio. “The Southern Thruway”, in All Fires the Fire and Other Stories, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, 1993.

Varvarousis, Angelos and Giorgos Kallis. “Commoning Against the Crisis” in Another Economy in a Time of Crisis. Ed. Manuel Castells, Polity, 2017.

Wimmer,  Jeffrey, and Thorsten Quandt. “Living in the Risk Society: An Interview with Ulrich Beck” in Journalism Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 2006, pp. 336-347.

(1) An example of this would be some sort of virtual commons. For instance, the Mexican initiative Albora.mx, which is dedicated to share, through their digital platform, an inventory of initiatives which are worth common funding knowing about.

Why Foucault would encourage us to criticise the Corona measures

by Nicki Günther

After about eight weeks of an ‘intelligent lockdown’, people in the Netherlands are looking forward to the first of June. Then, according to the press conference by the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte on May 19th, restaurants, coffee shops, and cinemas may re-open for a maximum amount of thirty people at a time, excluding staff. Preconditions for being allowed to have a dinner at a restaurant, or to enjoy an ice cold beer on a sunny public terrace are that visitors make a reservation in advance and pass a pre-health check, which means that they declare to not have any symptoms which could be related to the corona-virus. Another precondition for the resumption of public life is by now so self-explanatory that it almost goes unmentioned; at all times, a minimum distance of 1.5 meter from each other must be maintained. If this is not possible, protective means such as mouth caps need to be used. Further regulations concern, among others, gatherings, sports and visiting old people’s homes (Rijksoverheid 19-5-2020).

© Paul Rapp. https://www.gelderlander.nl/nijmegen/bonnenregen-in-nijmegen-al-248-boetes-uitgedeeld-aan-corona-overtreders~afa0eba4/?referrer=https://www.google.com/. Accessed May 26, 2020.

Regulations and guide-lines that may sound clear in a press conference, create quite some ambiguities in practice. One ambiguous aspect was touched upon by Ulrich Beck long before the crisis. While politicians communicate the regulations by using terms such as ‘family’ and ‘household’, those concepts are no longer defined in a contemporary way (Wimmer and Quandt 2007). Cycling trough the city last week, I came across a group of four young people, discussing with two police officers about if they get a fine or not, for drinking beer together in front of a house. While the police defined this as a forbidden gathering, the boys explained that all four of them live together in a student house. As they would therefore count as a household, none of them had done anything wrong. I would have loved to hear the outcome of this discussion, but being aware of the prohibition of gathering, as an outsider to this conflict, I did not dare to stand still for too long and quickly cycled on when my eyes and the ones of the police man met.

Foto: Jaspar Moulijn. https://www.dvhn.nl/groningen/Studentenhuizen-en-corona-We-doen-elkaar-niet-in-bad-maar-voor-de-rest-zijn-we-een-huishouden. Accessed May 26, 2020.

This situation raises a number of interesting questions. The most obviously one, namely who is right, the police or the boys, confirms Beck’s claim that many societal concepts are no longer justifiable. However, much more interesting are the reasons why the boys did or did not stick to the rules, or why the Corona-crisis ensures that I suddenly no longer dare to stand still or move freely on sidewalks and cycling paths. Why do some people shout at you if you accidently cross their way on only one meter distance in the much too narrow supermarket aisles, while other do not seem to care too much about social-distancing measurements? An explanation can again be found in the writings of a philosopher, dating back way before the Corona-crisis.

Already in 1995, in his book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault wrote about quarantine during the plague as a means of discipling people. Even though people were physically able to go outside, different to inmates of asylums or prisons, people stayed at home. The mechanisms which ensured that people did not leave their houses were surveillance and the threat of the disease (Foucault 1995). While elaborating on these disciplining mechanisms at the end of the last millennium, Foucault could not have foreseen that his theories would be so topical and relevant again today. Suddenly, the concept of ‘biopower’ is on everyone’s lips again (Clover 2020, Latour 2020). Foucault describes biopower as “the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species become the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power” (Foucault 1977-78, 16). This strategic implementation of power is exemplified in his analysis of states’ health care systems, through which states in the end decide who lives or dies (Foucault 1995). However, these power-structures are already noticeable far earlier. It begins with the fact that authorities such as doctors determine what is health and what is illness (Foucault 1988). Based upon their categorisation, the government, represented, for example, by the Dutch minister for public health, Hugo de Jonge, determine who may soon visit a restaurant, use public transfer or even leave the house for groceries.

“Lange rijen, volle karren en geen aardappelen meer in de Jumbo aan de Westduinweg.” © Frank Jansen. https://www.ad.nl/den-haag/lege-schappen-bij-supermarkten-het-is-idioot-dat-iedereen-maar-loopt-te-hamsteren

The reason why we (more or less) follow these rules lays in the fact that we, as a part of a society or population, form an active part of the dominant power-system we life in. “By means of a whole ensemble of regulated communications (lessons, questions and answers, orders, exhortations, coded signs of obedience, differentiation marks of the “value” of each person and of the levels of knowledge) and by the means of a whole series of power processes (enclosure, surveillance, reward and punishment, the pyramidal hierarchy)” (Foucault 1982) we have internalised social behavioural measurements since childhood. Contrary to what we are often led to believe, Foucault stated that all of these norms and regulations are not grounded in one universal true rationality, instead, there are many different realities, dependent on the different dominant power systems (Rabinow & Rose 2006).

Just as little are the current corona-crisis approaches and related government measurements based upon one universal truth. That different power-systems go along with different regulations can be seen by comparing the crisis-related regulations of different countries. Therefore, this current crisis invites every one of us to critically question the current measurements and driving forces of current developments. With this, I am not implying in any way that we should ignore the government regulations and thereby endanger the lives of our fellow human beings. Especially older people or the ones with poor health definitely need special protection. However, what I am asking for is that every one of us needs to use his/her common sense by following or implementing the rules, and should criticise them were necessary. In his last press conference, Rutte explicitly invited the younger generations to engage in a dialogue and actively participate in shaping the future during and after Corona. We definitely should follow up his call, as not all current measurements make sense if adapted to the practice one by one. Many people spoke up during the last weeks, criticising the no-visit policy for old people’s homes. Again, we should not endanger the lives of others, however, if our 90-years-old grandmothers still live on their own, we should discuss with them directly, if suffering from Covid-19 would really be worse for them than suffering from loneliness. Even though, we are supposed to minimalize our social contacts and keep a distance, if a young and healthy friend of ours is really sad, the most reasonable, in my opinion, is to give him/her a hug anyway. If only focussing on our officially home addresses registered on our passports, my boyfriend and me do not form a household and would therefore be supposed to keep a 1,5 meter distance in public. Off course, we don’t do this. Yet, this is not a case of us breaking the rules, but of implying them by using our common sense, and realising that ‘household’ is not a fixed concept. Instead, such as the other concepts and measurements, this rule needs to be critically evaluated by every one of us.

Sources:

  • Clover, Joshua. 2020.The Rise and Fall of Biopolitics: A Response to Bruno Latour.” In Critical Inquiry. https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/the-rise-and-fall-of-biopolitics-a-response-to-bruno-latour/. Accessed May 7, 2020.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1988. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1982. “The Subject and Power.” In Critical Inquiry (8) no. 4, 777-795.
  • Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-78. Ed. Michel Senellart. Transl. Graham Burchell. London: Pelgrave Macmillan.
  • Latour, Bruno. 2020. “Is This a Dress Rehearsal?” In Critical Inquiry. https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/is-this-a-dress-rehearsal/. Accessed May 7, 2020.
  • Rabinow, Paul, and Nikolas Rose. 2006. “Biopower Today”. In: Bio Societies (1), 195-217.
  • Rijksoverheid. “Videos persconferenties coronavirus: Persconferentie 19-5-2020.” https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/coronavirus-covid-19/coronavirus-beeld-en-video/videos-persconferenties. Accessed May 21, 2020.
  • Wimmer,  Jeffrey, and Thorsten Quandt. 2006. “Living in the Risk Society: An Interview with Ulrich Beck.” In: Journalism Studies (7) no. 2, 336-347.

A Response to Slavoj Zizek’s “Global Communism”

Anonymous

In the article Slavoj Zizek: Coronavirus is ‘Kill Bill’-esque blow to capitalism and could lead to reinvention of communism on RT.com, Zizek elaborates on phenomena people have experienced during this pandemic, which he believes is a fatal attack on not only the communist rule in China, but also and more importantly, on the capitalist system in the world, and he argues the necessity of a radical change – the reinvention of communism based on trust in the people and in science. Zizek sees this as an “ideological virus” that he wishes could “spread and infect us”. Related to the pandemic, Zizek brings up Fredric Jameson’s attention on cosmic catastrophes in the movies that always boost global solidarity. In order to avoid misunderstandings, he emphasizes it’s not that he enjoys the widespread sufferings, the point is that it’s sad that the solidarity doesn’t appear without a catastrophe. No matter the cause, Zizek makes it clear what is the result of these catastrophes: a global coordination (modeled after the World Health Organization) that should be given more executive power. In the following part of the article, Zizek doesn’t hide his opposition to capitalism. He criticizes the “capitalist animism” manifested during the pandemic and argues that the disturbed world market indicates an urgent need for a reorganization of the world economy. In the end he introduces Viktor Orban’s words: “There is no such thing as a liberal. A liberal is nothing more than a communist with a diploma” and advocates his ideal communism – liberals with a diploma.

It is valuable to hear different voices in a society, based on which Zizek’s idea is valuable in itself. But this utopian thinking is not solid enough to persuade. Let aside the discussion on whether it’s a good idea, it’s questionable whether the idea is even possible. In the article Zizek argues that it’s sad that the world needs a catastrophe to be really united, as if the global solidarity and coordination that he advocates can be achieved through a catastrophe, however sad it might be. However, the fact we currently see is even sadder, with this catastrophe – the global pandemic –  global solidarity and coordination seems to not even happening, if one takes a glance at the prevailing news on China and the US’s blaming each other, or Germany’s intercepting Switzerland’s masks. On the other hand, yes, liberals with diplomas sound promising, but in Zizek’s article it seems so urgent that we need to replace the capitalist system with this communism. The problem is, can the liberal population graduate and get their diploma in such a short time? Not even mentioning the segment of people who don’t even believe in liberalism. In addition, Zizek suggests a global healthcare network, but would all the participants abide by all the rules so that it’s fair for all participant states? It’s also a question if one takes a look on whether the Chinese Communist Party has abided by all the clauses negotiated and signed by themselves when China entered WTO.

Despite what’s mentioned above, the bigger question to ask is actually whether it is so urgent and correct that we need to replace capitalism with Zizek’s new communism. In the article Zizek doubts the smooth running of the world market which is true, but there’s no evidence that a powerful global executive power organized by human intelligence can run the market smoother in a time of crisis as this pandemic. What’s to be worried is the efficiency of a heavily burdened big government, global or national. Based on what’s shown in China, bigger executive power requires bigger organizational structure which diminishes the efficiency in action, so the question is how to build a global executive power big enough to handle worldwide urgent issue yet keep a high efficiency. In the end, an example about masks manifested in the pandemic tells a story that actually favors capitalism mechanism: back in the time when the corona virus started to spread in China, the market request of masks naturally raised, which needed to be fulfill through a higher mask productivity which can be achieved through higher profitability. However, in order to make sure the majority can afford a mask, the Chinese big government intervened in the market and set rules that limited mask prices, which led to a fact that, with a higher production cost (higher cost in labour, raw material, and freight) and un-raised price, many mask manufacturers went bankrupted or stopped producing masks to avoid bankruptcy. As one factory owner said, they want to help and would continue producing masks even if there’s zero profit, but the reality is they lose money every time they produce and sell a mask, so they had to stop because they can’t afford to help. This price limitation policy, with a good will, led to a phenomenon that the mask productivity significantly went down in a time that masks are hugely needed, which then made even those who wish to get a mask in a higher price can’t buy one. So, when China got hit by the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” and sat and went through the price limitation policy, would they reconsider to let the invisible hand freely run the market and let the price go up? Would the situation be better if they allow high prices that generate a high profitability that attracts more investment in the mask industry and drives all the mask manufacturers to conduct production in their full productivity? In this case, maybe capitalism is still working, even in a time of crisis as such, and communism can better be achieved through the development of productivity that takes time and goes natural than a political structure design motivated by urgent call.

Concepts of Crisis

By Louise Vanhee

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” — Milton Friedman

Reinhart Koselleck provides us with a historical and etymological reading of the word crisis. The word crisis finds its origin in ancient Greek with various meanings attached to it; to “separate” (part, divorce), to “choose,” to “judge,” to “decide”; as a means of “measuring oneself,” “to quarrel,” or “to fight” (1). In ancient Greece, it had a predominantly political meaning. Later on, it was used to describe military situations, illness, religious occurrences, economic events, etc. The vast amount of historical events that Koselleck describes in detail, pertaining to the use of the word crisis and its meaning in that specific event, leads us to believe that it’s often used in a different manner and with different connotations. He even sums up four interpretative possibilities; crisis can mean “a chain of events leading to a culminating, decisive point at which action is required”, “a unique and final point, after which the quality of history will be changed forever”, “a permanent or conditional category pointing to a critical situation which may constantly recur or else to situations in which decisions have momentous consequences”, or “a historically immanent transitional phase”.

Looking at these four possibilities and returning back to the root(s) of the word crisis, the core concept of what makes something a crisis is quite clear. Crisis has to do with something that challenges us – or one person, or a specific group of people – and requires us to make a decision. It is not something that will resolve itself on its own. Sometimes this decision is made hastily and in an unconscious matter. Nevertheless, the decision – or multiple decisions – that ultimately resolves the crisis or attempts to, changes the situation drastically.

This is exactly what Noami Klein warns us about. We are now in the midst of a global crisis, and decisions have to be made – will be made, that is inevitable. Whether those will be ‘good’ decisions or ‘bad’ decisions, that is still undecided. The fortunate elite of the world will always be the first to gather knowledge about an upcoming crisis: “What causes the crisis? Who is at risk? How can we prevent it?” but also “How can we profit from it?” The corona crisis has made it abundantly clear that the schism between poor and rich is still very much intact, and much larger than we gave it credit for in certain places. Whilst homeless people in Las Vegas were ordered to sleep in the same parking lot, in freshly painted squares separating them from each other at the required 1,5 meters, the multimillion dollar corporations behind the casinos and hotels had other issues to deal with (2). Locks. The ‘24h-365 days a year’ Las Vegas strip has never in its history closed down and was now confronted with the issue of having to put locks on all the casinos and hotels.

Why not use one of the hundred now empty hotels to house these people in temporarily? Because that idea had never been ‘lying around’? According to Klein, times of crisis will be used to enhance the fortune of the richest corporations, and to politically make dubious decisions while the rest of the country is dazed and confused in the midst of the crisis. Remember that the rich always see it coming first? They are more informed and knowledgeable — and simply put, rich — and therefore able to adapt to the crisis much faster than normal people. They will attempt to push ideas that enhance their profit that previously seemed too outlandish, but now in a crisis atmosphere might pass. Klein argues that the same tactic should be used by others ­— those with ‘good’ intentions — as they also have a stack of ideas lying around that could now finally be implemented.

Are the only tools we have to fight a crisis really the ideas that are already ‘lying around’? Or can we create new ideas during the crisis, inspired by the crisis? I believe we can. Otherwise we have to believe that somebody once had an idea of putting a bunch of homeless people in imaginary boxes on a parking lot, and that this was the idea which was the most convenient and suitable to address this crisis — and that it was ‘lying around’. Just like Koselleck quoted Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls”, I strongly believe that this is true. We are being challenged, and decisions must be made. But a crisis sometimes confronts us with questions that don’t have answers yet. Occasionally, we might be able to adjust an old idea that was ‘lying around’ to provide the necessary solution. But often, we have to think quick on our feet and come up with something completely new. New ideas that surface during a crisis are not any less viable in my eyes. Perhaps they will take longer to be implemented than ‘old ones’, but they are no less important. California’s governor Gavin Newsom proved this when implementing ‘Project Roomkey’ at the end of April to house the homeless during the pandemic. In the five weeks since the start of the program, over 7000 people have been provided with temporary shelter (3). Unlike Las Vegas, California is not only using empty hotels to house the at-risk homeless population, but has also set up unsold trailers and RV’s to function as temporary housing. Many homeless advocates and state officials are now realizing the benefits of this setup and new ideas have sprung up that might allow this initiative to become permanent. Jennifer Friedenbach, director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, argues that some hotels might go bankrupt due to the crisis and could easily be bought up by the government to allow the shelter to remain while at the same time giving the community an economic impulse (4).

I am not yet able to give you a list of all the questions that surround the arts and humanities during this crisis, nor am I able to provide any solutions either. But perhaps, after some contemplation, I will find an idea that was lying around. Or I’ll think of something completely new.


(1) Kosselleck, R. & Richter, M. W. (Apr., 2006). Crisis. In Journal of the History of Ideas, (Vol. 67, no. 2), pp. 357-400. University of Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/30141882

(2) Koran, M. (March 31, 2020). Las Vegas parking lot turned into ‘homeless shelter’ with social distancing markers. The Guardian. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/30/las-vegas-parking-lot-homeless-shelter

(3) Palmer, P. (May 15, 2020). Project Roomkey: Can state program help resolve Los Angeles homelessness? Eyewitness News. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from: https://abc7.com/los-angeles-homelessness-coronavirus-project-room-key-governor-gavin-newsom/6184507/

(4) Kim, C. (Apr 21, 2020). It took a pandemic for cities to finally address homelessness. Vox. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from: https://www.vox.com/2020/4/21/21227629/coronavirus-homeless-covid-19-las-vegas-san-francisco

Arts and Humanities in Times of the Corona-crisis

During the coming weeks, this blog will publish posts written by students from the Master Arts & Culture and the Research Master Arts, Media and Literary Studies, which they wrote for the course ‘Arts and Humanities in Times of the Corona-crisis’.

In this course, students reflect on the consequences of the crisis for the field of the arts, as well as trying to make sense of the crisis from a humanities perspective by analyzing concepts such as ‘crisis’, ‘biopolitics’, and ‘precarity’.

Sara Strandvad

Thijs Lijster