Home is where the art is... | Raphael Vella

Will prolonged self-isolation result in an artistic revival, as more people turn to the creative arts to fill their long hours at home? For Prof.  RAPHAEL VELLA – head of the Department of Arts at the University of Malta – the answer is uncertain… but no matter what, the arts themselves will certainly survive

Prof. Raphael Vella
Prof. Raphael Vella

A recent social media ‘meme’ invited people to consider what isolation/quarantine would be like in a world without books, poetry, film, and the arts in general. On the basis of that observation: do you think that this crisis may also lead to a reappraisal of our attitude towards the world of art?

I’d love to believe that a crisis like this could lead to an overhaul in people’s attitudes towards the arts. More likely, however, those who had already invested time in the arts in the past will be able to invest more time in them now that they are staying home.

At the same time, memes are actually a good place to start in order to understand the crucial role that creative work plays in our times. Memes bring together several features that we love and hate about digital culture: visual information, brevity, remixing, parody, triviality, a shared repertoire of images and humour.

The comedic side of ‘social distancing’ has been articulated in memes that borrow imagery from the history of art, especially pastiches of Leonardo da Vinci and Edward Hopper. More relevantly, the biological and cultural connotations of the word ‘meme’ (in the ‘genetic’ sense Richard Dawkins originally gave to the word: an idea that is spread through imitation) echo the contagious effects of COVID-19.

The sharing of memes is the digital counterpart of the virus’s infectious spread – concise enough to be virtually invisible, but sufficiently powerful to be transferred across borders with ease. Unfortunately, coronavirus-related memes disseminate racist ideas too, about the coughing Chinese kid, for example.

Will the arts, like memes, emerge stronger from this storm? It’s difficult to predict.  Music, perhaps, has an edge in situations like this. Many of us will not easily forget those scenes of professional and non-professional singers and musicians on Italian balconies in the first week or two of lockdown, or live-streamed mini-concerts on Facebook.

The arts can bring people out of a sense of isolation at times like these.

At the same time, though, the pandemic also threatens the very existence of many artistic disciplines: especially those which rely on audiences (for example, theatre/cinema/live music, etc). What are your predictions for the future of the arts scene in Malta? Can it even survive the current crisis?

The economic consequences of the pandemic are very serious, with millions of people losing their jobs across Europe and the US as businesses close down. For artists around the world, this is an unprecedented crisis because the arts depend on social interaction.

Malta is no exception, and cancellations of events have hit artists hard. This situation does not only undermine freelancers’ financial stability; it also affects the confidence, focus and forward-looking spirit of artists. What do you plan for when life becomes so unpredictable?

Having said that, the arts will definitely survive, as they always do in times of crisis. But some artists may feel pressured to move on to other, more stable, occupations or to sustain their arts activity with other part-time work like teaching. Many already do this anyway.

In a recent press opinion piece (written before the pandemic), you made the point that art, in Malta, is regarded as a ’means to a commercial end’.  This seems to be borne out by the government’s economic rescue programme, which clearly prioritises sectors on the basis of their direct contribution to the economy. Are we overlooking the importance of the liberal arts when it comes to such measures?

I don’t think so. The government’s ‘Covid Wage Supplement’ also includes self-employed persons in the creative arts in its list of sectors that are eligible for financial support during the pandemic. People whose main source of income is an artistic activity are now entitled to a monthly contribution, along with many others involved in a variety of occupations, from retail to transport and hairdressing.

Needless to say, such measures help to stimulate a creative sector that is, even in ‘normal’ times, quite fragile. For the last few weeks, we have seen governments around Europe intervening through emergency services and solidarity measures like these, at least on a national basis. These well-intended ‘socialist’ measures can also be seen as indirect ‘control’ strategies: driving away, at least temporarily, the possibility of civil unrest.

In the US, civic groups, crowdfunding initiatives and other organisations are also offering artists various types of grants. In Malta, creative individuals and their families will be relieved to receive state benefits. At the same time, subsisting for a long time on state aid also has its dangers. It’s important that the arts remain autonomous and connected to communities, including communities that have known the meaning of isolation for a long time.

In the same article, you also wrote that “in a climate which puts a quick buck before regular citizens’ safety, health and environment, the arts become more crucial than ever.” Do you feel this view is more, or less relevant in light of the present crisis?

I was referring to the construction industry in Malta: which, interestingly, is still more or less active until now, despite the overall paralysis we are experiencing. More than ever, artists in Malta need to move away from a neoliberal, individualistic model towards a model of shared action, which should not be confused with a shallow ‘feel-good’ approach to artistic production.

It is understandable that many people working in the arts are currently at a loss about how to move forward, but the political role of the arts remains as decisive as ever, if not more so. In a society whose conversations revolve exclusively around a single topic, art can be an interrupting force, reminding us of other realities.

Education has been particularly affected, with the advent of ‘online learning’. How has this impacted the sector on a practical level? Can digital technology effectively replace the traditional class structure?

Without digital technology, higher education would now be at a standstill. Primary and secondary school teachers would be unable to communicate with pupils in their homes. Many mainstream art teachers and international academics I have corresponded with in the last couple of weeks have explained how they are coping with their work, despite the obvious difficulties of teaching practical subjects this way. Facebook groups, offering advice to teachers, have sprouted.

But is it the same thing? Not quite, and I do not say this because we have suddenly lost touch with traditional school timetables, examinations and so on. A break from structures like those might actually be a good thing.

Online teaching is not the same, because education relies on dialogue and social encounters. In a university setting, how do you teach about social engagement through the arts while practising social distancing? And in compulsory education, the visual arts encourage children to encounter real-life experiences through the materiality of their media.

Connections with other people and materials help us to dream of what we might become, as opposed to being exposed through online media to what is ‘wrong’ with us.

There is a lot of talk about how this crisis is reshaping our perceptions of society: with many expressing the belief that some of the changes we are witnessing may give rise to new (and better) political/social realities in future. Do you share this optimism?

Many of us have certainly learnt to savour simple things in our everyday lives.  Solidarity with vulnerable groups filled many of us with hope. But the pandemic has also fuelled the prejudices of hate groups and right-wing factions around the world.

In India, #CoronaJihad helped to spread Islamophobia on Twitter. In some countries, nationalistic sentiments have been articulated in expressions of sovereignty, fear of foreigners and restricted definitions of public health that segregate groups in ‘open centres’.

Emergency powers granted to the Prime Minister in Hungary have led many to question the true motives of such legislation; COVID-19 has essentially become the government’s springboard for additional authoritarian measures, crippling judicial powers, cultural institutions and minorities.

Once this crisis is over, governments everywhere will be expected to return to a ‘normal’ state of affairs – a world in which dolphins in Venice’s canals remain as fake as they always were, and poverty as real as ever.

And artists will have more work to do, helping to build relationships and to facilitate a more global approach to education and culture.