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Why we need culture now more than ever

As the savage and unseen attack being wrought on our society by coronavirus bites harder by the day, we are all scurrying home and locking our doors to keep everyday life and the burgeoning danger of infection firmly at bay. Overnight we have become a nation of isolated individuals – definitely not what most of us envisaged, familiar as we are with eating out, drinking in bars, sharing challenging experiences, enjoying our families and, if we’re lucky, holidaying in different countries.

But look how fantastically ingenious we humans are. We’re already knocking it out of the park as we master video conferencing with our mates, remote choir singing, living-room pilates, online portrait painting and even baking competitions. Well-known DJs are boogying in their kitchens, famous musicians are teaching us tunes from their living-rooms and stand-up comedians are broadcasting from their sheds.

With my Leeds 2023 chair’s hat on, I’m struck by how people are flocking to cultural activity for comfort. We’ve made the transition to home-working with surprising ease, but I don’t see much evidence of people demanding more office tasks, more corporate strategy, more production-line output. No, it’s arts and culture we turn to for sustenance in times of need.

For me, the vision of embattled Italians singing opera from their crumbling balconies, sometimes in areas of great poverty, is the most moving emblem of human spirit imaginable right now. Their collective voice shines like a beacon of resilience across the world. And yet on one level they’re just singing. How can we measure the joy and comfort their simple efforts bring to us? Maybe the point is that we can’t. We just know that the Italians have moved us, reached us, momentarily warmed us – even if we’ve never listened to opera before in our lives.

Let’s face it, it’s not likely you’d have listened to any sort of Italians singing on their balconies before coronavirus, and that’s something else to cherish about our enforced isolation: it’s connecting us to cultures and communities across the world.  People are finding different ways to cope, but from the richest to the poorest a plethora of poignant and creative online videos shows that we are united by a human need to do more than just survive.

Culture can’t feed your family but it’s essential in its own way. Let’s say you have to choose whether to spend £20 on a much-needed meal or blow it on tickets for a film you’ve been dying to see for months. You’ll go for the meal, of course you will – but even as you eat it, a small part of your soul will remain hungry for the film. That’s what culture does. It feeds the soul.

All over the internet and in our media, comparisons are being drawn between sci-fi books and films and the current crisis. The War of the Worlds, The Day of The Triffids, just about every apocalyptic superhero movie you can think of, resonant now because they provide a curious reference point to help us make sense of what’s happening in the here and now.

Buried somewhere deep inside us all is an ethereal desire to express hope at the most hopeless of times. And there you have it. Culture helps us to triumph over adversity more effectively than almost anything else.

In Yorkshire, councils and enterprise partnerships, cultural and arts organisations, businesses big and small are pulling together to minimise the impact coronavirus is having on all our lives. At Leeds 2023 we hope the exceptional year-long festival of culture we’re planning will bring joy back to our lives when this storm subsides – we’ll certainly need it.

In the meantime we’re standing beside all our friends in the creative and cultural industries and we’ll do everything we can to help people feel just that little bit better, because connecting with others through shared cultural experiences is more important now than ever before.


‘First published in the Yorkshire Post on 26th March 2020’


Image: Ruth Pitt