Is the coronavirus transforming the way we consume our culture?

By Nicole Chim

As the global pandemic sends more countries into lockdown, it has encouraged us to reinvigorate the possibilities of the digital realm.

The closure of public institutions has hit creative industries particularly hard – no ticket sales, no copies sold and no lessons held. In attempts to stay connected amid ‘social distancing’, a plethora of tangible services have moved to the virtual world with free unlimited access, from online courses and art exhibitions, to magazine labels, uniting people across the globe with perspective and inspiration during the Corona Crisis.

Had the global pandemic come twenty years earlier, how people coped would have been drastically different

New opportunities have also sprung out of difficult times like these; ZoomNetflix and delivery services have seen subscription statistics skyrocket through the roof. Families are spending more time together than ever, digging their way through nostalgia by laying their hands on dust-covered boxes of LegoMonopolyScrabble and 1000-piece jigsaws.

Is the way we consume and share culture beginning to deviate from the past, or is it a temporary coping mechanism and distraction from COVID-19?  

Education 

Ivy-League schools are not for everyone, but for Internet users taking its courses, it is the closest comparison to being a Harvard student. In response to the ever-changing landscape, up to 450 active courses at Brown, Cornell, Princeton, Dartmouth, Yale, Columbia and Pennsylvania are made available through Class Central with topics spanning from Algorithm Analysis, Contemporary American Poetry, Religious Literacy, Corporate Finance, Roman Architecture, to German Opera. Having to stay indoors almost twenty-four-seven is the ideal time to invest our curiosities into subjects we didn’t even know existed.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, we see British institutions following suit, with Royal Society making all published content free of charge, Wiley Online Library unlocking health and science-related publications and Cambridge University Press taking down paywalls on up to 700 higher education textbooks, in order to share insights on how to tackle threats posed by the virus. 

Culture

An explosion of creativity is proving technology can, by unimagined lengths, bridge across physical distances. While in ‘Corontine’, museums try to offer paralleled experiences, with national galleries in London and Washington touring visitors around exhibition spaces and virtual showrooms (with benches) through video, in hopes that long pursued processes and exceptional loans used to set up Titian’s Love, Desire, Death collection or The Dutch Cabinet instalments, will not devastatingly go in vain.

By engaging audiences and curators through imaginative ways, online viewing concepts have made art more accessible, especially for the disabled. MoMA in New York and Art Basel 2020 in Hong Kong have also adopted similar contingency approaches, uploading the History of Film documentary to its website and unprecedentedly putting prices of artwork online for art buyers and bidders. The same applies to Broadway shows and musicals. 

Lifestyle

New York-based publishing giant Condé Nast have joined the industry in a pledge to participate in creative experiments we all desperately need. The owner of 84 international media brands has provided free digital copies of its latest iconic titles including Architectural DigestGQVanity Fair and Vogue to help us kill time in isolation. 

Business of Fashion slashed its membership prices by 25%, and Monocle is just one of the labels that has experienced a transition from print sales to subscription stats. Despite having a ready supply of paper that will last the latter until Summer, they are starting to consider whether it is still feasible to send their Swiss photographer over to Austria, or whether portraits will soon have to be replaced by illustrations. 

Opinion

Coronavirus has come at a time where everything could be done virtually, not just how to utilise creative content, but also to administer yoga classes, church services, and dinner parties. Had the global pandemic come twenty years earlier, how people coped would have been drastically different – perhaps a distant wave to your neighbour or a group conversation on MSN at most.

But if there is a silver lining in this crisis, it may be that the virus is showing us technology has made it possible to be realistic and opportunistic at the same time, allowing us in isolation to stay relevant with even abstract, intangible cultural services. It has also forced us to use the Internet as it was always meant to be used – to connect with one another, to share information and resources while physical spaces remain reserved for ‘absolutely necessary’ travel.

Having to stay indoors almost twenty-four-seven is the ideal time to invest our curiosities into subjects we didn’t even know existed.

The digital divide, however, becomes an issue more real than ever. Without knowing how long we will be in lockdown, those without access to technology will be relying on a lot of community support.

Education will not be online forever. A vast majority of teaching content can be put online, but the value of education is having teachers and lecturers deliver knowledge in person, and instantly – they speak live, and we can ask questions straight away. It is not a one-sided speech we are paying for, it could be a conversation if you let it be.

In terms of art, digital possibilities will not stop people from setting foot into theatres. But this is a good opportunity for museums and galleries to develop the skills to promote their work online which would hopefully compensate for the decline in foot traffic in the last decade. These developments may happen in the future anyway, but it is undeniable the pandemic has given it an extra stimulus. 

Some would have missed the experience of browsing covers at a newsstand or a kiosk, and it is at uncertain times like these where the roles of traditional media become paramount, because people look to brands for identity and a sense of comfort. May we take this opportunity to appreciate and rediscover the wealth we have in a place like home, and acknowledge how fortunate we are to even contemplate whether to cope with a crisis on-or-offline. 

Photograph: Prayitno via flickr

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