Lessons from Covid-19 – the digital arts (1)


Covid-19 has hit the performing arts particularly hard. While there have been many notable digital initiatives that point a way forward, on balance the situation is very serious. Art needs encounter. As egocentric as its actors often are, as much as works of art can and should have an impact beyond the lifetime of their creators, art-making makes little sense without perception by others. Beginning with cave paintings, art was an externalisation and objectification of inner thoughts intended for others. It is therefore particularly affected by the pandemic.

A first simple inventory

The lockdown has put many artists in a precarious situation. In addition to money, many also lacked interaction with other artists and contact with the audience. This made the first public performance all the more emotional. Unfortunately, the hope for a partial normalisation lasted only for a short time. The consequences of the pandemic for art are far from over. 2021 will probably be marked by few audiences, few sponsors, tight state coffers and company closures. For many artists, this means much less or no income from the arts AND fewer opportunities to earn money with other work – even without a second lockdown. In addition to the artists, the curators and mediators, who in normal times make access to the diversity of art attractive, were also hit. Museums lost sponsors, festivals were cancelled, associations lost money, art mediators were not employed at all – but with great differences from context to context. The Salzburg Festival dared and set an example. They were also a role model in terms of television broadcasts and live streaming, thus enabling many to participate in the festival free of charge and securely, even if this is not comparable to being present in the audience on site. And Zurich’s theatre spectacle even addressed the new situation (see FAZ of 27 Aug: Alle Traurigkeit wird vorüber sein). This courage with a sensible sense of proportion (i.e.: a security concept with identification of theatre-goers so that they can be contacted directly in the event of an incident) has proven its worth and given everyone – artists, curators, mediators and audience – a lot of hope. Associations that promote, curate and organise amateur art were also met. For example, in some regions there was a sharp decline in the number of members of choirs. Unlike in professional art, much more stringent regulations apply to amateur singing (e.g. in Bavaria) or stringent measures are at least recommended (e.g. by the Swiss choral association SCV). The same applies to amateur theatres (see e.g. the model protection concept of the ZSV). In some countries, however, cultural associations in the amateur sector can apply for state financial aid if they have suffered damage due to cancellations (e.g. in Switzerland). This does little to change the fact that the future remains unclear as long as we cannot return to life before the pandemic. In addition to the direct consequences of the pandemic, however, the indirect consequences also affected and continue to affect those working in the arts and the entire ecosystem around them, for example in literature. Many – even very large – publishing houses stopped accepting new authors. The Leipzig Book Fair was cancelled. New works were not reviewed, not read, not sold. Thus, a whole season of new publications became invisible and a whole generation of young authors may never find their way into the bookshops, neither offline nor online.

Individual practices among art makers and art consumers

Some artists successfully tried to counter the health crisis with digital action. Igor Levit’s living room concerts on Twitter and Instagram demonstrated that despite all the technical limitations – partly because smart technology stupidly corrects transmissions – online concerts can be a great experience. Other pre-crisis podcast-inexperienced artists, unlike Levit, also showed that internet streaming can be used to reach people. Those who, like me, listened to an artificially modified concert transmitted via Zoom, experienced something aesthetically unique: a kind of John Cage composition 2.0. Even without live events, YouTube existed and still exists as a large archive for music recordings, in which one can find above all the rare, the new and the experimental. Artists also dealt creatively with the lockdown in terms of alternative income opportunities. For example, they organised online courses via social media to compensate for part of their loss of income. From a Swiss perspective, they had to offer courses at unusually low prices, but in return they gained course participants from all over Europe. Conversely, the opportunity costs for collaborative projects without funding fell, thus removing some of the natural restrictions on innovation in the arts. There is justified hope that something new will emerge from this. For their part, the museums’ online exhibitions won many new fans. Here, Google Arts & Culture in particular, but not only, offers a diverse, fascinating, virtual access to works of art. Although navigating through museums using Google Street View technology is not necessarily easy, some things are possible online that are not possible offline: for example, zooming into a picture. On top of that, some people discovered in the lockdown that the experiments are not only educational for children or started to play with selfies and pictures by means of Art Selfies or Art Transfer. In most cases, the offer had been around for a while, but it became better known as a result of the lockdown.

The unresolved problem

Nevertheless, the problem shared and unsolved with hockey remains: the experience of closeness and embeddedness via online access. The online experience is infinitely poorer emotionally than the offline experience. Seeing a play in the theatre or on screen are two different things. Viewing a painting with digital zooming techniques or virtually walking around a sculpture and studying the painting or sculpture in real life are different experiences – although the latter is clearly preferable even if it requires more distance. Even the streamed sound experience cannot compete with that in the concert hall, and the virtual reality experiences via app cannot compete with those in the museum (such as Deep Space 8K). The online 3D animation of the Pergamon Altar is not nearly as fascinating as the light installation of the Telephos Frieze in the museum. Clearly, detaching the artificial from the material is a problem, even for those of us who distrust the aura of the authentic.

The implications

In sum, the outlook is depressing. As a result of the precarious situation, the role of art in our society could further erode because artists will have to look for other occupations. A life with much less art would be more joyless and frustrating. For many unbearable things are put into perspective when we listen to great music, stand in front of a fantastic painting or simulate the experiences of a theatre character in our heads. Art experiences enable us to deal with others in a more tolerant way, to accept the unchangeable more calmly and to apply ourselves with energy where we can actually improve the world in a concrete way. For many, amateur art is also a way to live out their creativity together with others in a collective. This, too, is severely limited by the pandemic. But the precariat of art also affects the economy and, to a certain extent, even democracy. Art is an important economic factor – first and foremost for hubs of artistic networks like Vienna, Salzburg or Basel, but then also for many economic hubs. The municipal theatre and the opera make a city richer (see e.g. Jan Guldener in “Die Welt” of 26.5.2013: Where there is an opera, growth is not far away). The city’s economic elite traditionally benefits most from this. The political festival, popular in Switzerland, brings the village community closer together and establishes political independence (see Tobias Hoffmann-Allenspach: Abschied von den Mythen) . The amateur theatre, which is also strongly anchored in Switzerland, is a visible expression of a democratic society in which people dare to stand at the stage ramp. Moreover, artistic creation can devote itself to research topics in a depth that is not possible for science, since it must reject the exemplary as anecdotal if it wants to be true to itself. Contrary to clichés, art is not necessarily only an instrument for deconstruction, but can also help to simulate visions of the future.

A societal question

The socially interesting question is how the financial squeeze on the curating institutions – theatres, museums, festivals, publishers, associations – will affect the orientations and qualities of art productions. As long as enough money is spent by the state and art consumers, there is room for the “long tail”, which includes many creative innovations. But if money becomes scarce, only those that are in mass demand will be curated. This demand is to a large extent driven by offers and critiques. In line with Andreas Reckwitz’s thesis of cognitive-cultural capitalism (from Jenseits der Industriegesellschaft), in recent years, the moralistic pushing of values has partly replaced the commitment to the value of art itself, which many artists enthusiastically support. In the crisis, this increase in the economic value of moral values is likely to largely kill off that art-making that takes place for the sake of art itself. The result would be a progression of Guillaume Paoli’s zombification, for example, even more first-person literature that satisfies our longing for authenticity. In the short term, one thing will count above all: Relationships and networks. In the current recession, organisers, exhibitors and publishers simply don’t have the money to judge art freely. However, Alexander Kluge’s sentence also applies: every time after the downfall, a steamship appears and makes everything good again.

The next two parts of this series will be published on 30 October 2020 (Part 2) and 13 November 2020 (Part 3).


Many thanks go first and foremost to Tine Melzer, who pointed out the author’s short-sightedness (actually hearing loss) and contributed the literary perspective. Furthermore, the following people contributed to the creation of this text: the colleagues of the board of the IGNM Bern, as well as Claudia Blacha, Michael Harenberg, Arthur Clay, Peter Revai and Andrew Kresch with interesting discussions; Erich Schweighofer with the invitation to give a lecture on art and science at his “farewell concert” at the Villa Klimt via Zoom; Friedrich Lachmayer with his visual philosophical suggestions, which I await every morning; and Stephanie Tabea Blum with the editing.

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AUTHOR: Reinhard Riedl

Prof. Dr Reinhard Riedl is a lecturer at the Institute of Digital Technology Management at BFH Wirtschaft. He is involved in many organisations and is, among other things, Vice-President of the Swiss E-Government Symposium and a member of the steering committee of TA-Swiss. He is also a board member of eJustice.ch, Praevenire - Verein zur Optimierung der solidarischen Gesundheitsversorgung (Austria) and All-acad.com, among others.

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