‘Arts make our lives richer’: Coronavirus and the importance of shared experience

Over the last few months the coronavirus has forced us inwards, causing us to lead very isolated and insular lives.

As mass gatherings have been banned, traditional, shared experiences like concerts, theatre shows, and festivals have become a distant memory. And if something isn’t done soon, this is the reality that we could be permanently left with.

To put it simply, a shared experience usually refers to us participating in an activity with another person. But seeing as most communal activities have been banned over the last few months, we haven’t really been able to participate in any significant shared experience lately, or at least ones that don’t involve a zoom call.

On paper, the current global pandemic, and the subsequent lockdown, certainly qualifies as a shared experience. You could say we are all experiencing lockdown together. But, arguably, the socially distanced nature of our lockdown means that in reality this ‘shared experience’ has left us feeling more isolated than ever. Such a lack of commonality is more of a problem for British society than you might think.

Thankfully technology and the internet have enabled us to adapt and keep our day to day lives ticking over. In times of social distancing, it has provided us with a much-needed connection.

With Friday night zoom quizzes becoming a thing of the norm and the gaming industry seeing an increase in sales by 159%, our social spaces have firmly become virtual spaces.

Yet despite this adaptability, virtual meetups and streaming substitutes aren’t quite measuring up to the real deal of live, face to face, shared experiences.

But why is this?

A recent study from Yale University, conducted in 2014, exposes the importance of shared experiences. It found that sharing positive or negative experiences with another person, in fact, amplifies them, making them more enjoyable in general.

Not only does this study highlights the benefits of communal experience on our mood, but it indicates they hold the key to developing deeper more meaningful dynamics. It is this deeper meaning which helps humans feel like they belong.

Shared experiences are vital in bonding our societies together. Researcher David Ronnegard wrote in Philosophy Now: “Sharing an experience affirms the reality of what is being witnessed. If I’ve had an experience, but no one was there to share it, did it happen? The character of the experience, its sweetness or bitterness, is validated by another’s similar perception.”

However, with the rise of individualism and technology, and now Covid-19, the opportunity to engage in such communal events are sadly becoming less and less.

In our neo-liberalist society, the arts have inadvertently become one of Britain’s main provider of mass-scale shared experiences. Whether your preference is to attend a theatre, comedy or live music show, the significance of the arts within British society is unquestionable, especially when they contributed £32.3 billion to our economy alone in 2018.

Recently in the Evening Standard, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden wrote that our arts “make our lives richer in a much deeper sense, too – in the way they bring us together and strengthen our communities, the way they civilise and enlighten.”

He added: “The things they teach us about the human condition, the centuries of memories they provide. Our cultural heritage is too precious to lose.”

And yet, ironically, despite these assurances, it appears his lacklustre response has already caused us significant cultural lost. The governments inefficient funding and lack of Covid-19 related guidance has caused the arts to fall to their knees during this pandemic.

The current crisis that the arts industry faces could result in disastrous consequences for our communities if something isn’t done to support them soon.

In the UK, the arts industry suffers from a lack of public funding. For example, it is estimated that only 30% of UK orchestras income comes from public funding, in comparison to other EU countries where they receive upwards of 80%. The UK arts industry is heavily reliant upon box office revenue in order to pay their staff and performers.

As the lockdown has blocked this source of income, many theatres have sadly struggled to stay afloat. Some regional theatre like Nuffield Southampton have been forced to close permanently, with the loss of 86 jobs. But it isn’t just small regional theatres that are suffering, the world-renowned Royal Albert Hall told inews that it is facing insolvency by early 2021 if things continue.

Many campaigns and petitions have occurred over the last few weeks to try and put pressure on the government to take action and save our arts industry.

One of the more high-profile campaigns was the #letthemusicplay trend, which saw the likes of Dua-Lipa, Ed Sheeran and Sir Paul McCartney pen a letter to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to call for support.

In response to the industry’s outcries, on the 5th of July, the government finally announced, a £1.57 billion rescue pack for the arts. This represents the largest ever one-off investment in UK culture to date.

Dowden said: “We started with the urgent work of making sure we kept the “body” of the country intact — by taking all the necessary steps to battle this disease. Now it’s time to take care of the soul.”

But for many, like the Nuffield Southampton theatre, it seems all a little too late.

In the short run, yes, this money might succeed in temporarily propping up our arts industry. But in the long run many venues and theatres, including the Royal Exchange in Manchester, have said without the clearance to open at full capacity their business structures are not financially viable.

As a direct result of this, the Royal Exchange has been forced to scale back their workforce and make 65% of permanent roles redundant.

Steve Freeman, Executive Director, said: “The current economic landscape is desperate for theatres up and down the country, but we remain committed to being able to bring joy and entertainment to peoples’ lives once more.”

The music scene in Manchester has also fallen victim to the lockdown.

Last week, it was announced that the grassroots venues Gorilla and the Deaf Institute would close for good.

Prominent musicians like The Charlatans’ frontman Tim Burgess, took to Twitter, calling these venues the ‘lifeblood’ of the city’s venue network. Manchester legends New Order showed support, saying that it is “very sad news for Manchester and music.”

Thankfully, now, the venues have been saved. Burgess was involved in the deal to ensure they remain open – a move which has also secured the jobs of all staff working there.

With around 90% of grassroots venues believed to be at risk of permanent closure though, a reprieve for Gorilla and the Deaf Institute might be a shining beacon in an otherwise despite situation. 

Despite such announcements, the government is still yet to position theatres, performance venues and the wider arts sector on the corona virus recovery roadmap. Such ineffectiveness is culturally damaging, not only to the longevity of our cultural infrastructure but also to Britain’s sense of self. The Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange, Bryony Shanahan, has stressed ‘access to culture for all should not be a luxury but a right, and so we must value it as such as we heal and move forward from this time.’ 

Of course, during a pandemic, it must be a priority to consider people’s health and well-being before anything else. But restoring Britain’s arts and cultural industry carries more significance than you might originally think.

Fundamentally, they allow us to share common experiences which unifies our sense of belonging. They are the unsung heart and soul of society.

The arts tether us to something bigger than ourselves, and when they are permitted to exist on a large scale, it subconsciously benefits us all. Without the shared experiences they provide, communities will become more insular and divided than ever.

In times of crisis, it is vital to solidify commonality and preserve community, but arguably this pandemic has socially distanced us in more ways than one. Without shared experiences life doesn’t feel as amplified. It feels stagnate, grey and muted. We need culture, we need art, we need colour. Without them communities diminish.

Coronavirus has already caused so much loss and disruption to our lives. But now it appears the lasting effects could render more traditional forms of shared experience as obsolete. British society and our subsequent regional communities are on the precipice of a cultural crisis.

If something isn’t done soon, our lives could lose significant, irreplaceable meaning.

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