On the 13th of September, the 2021 Met Gala welcomed guests on the red carpets of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. After the event got canceled in 2020, everyone was waiting with bated breath to show up and show off at the greatest fashion night out of the year. The event has, however, become much more: a big promise of the revival of arts and culture.
Strolling along the museum corridors, we return to the pretentious exhibitions or grandiose talks in front of the Starry Night. This time, however, hoping that the notion of culture, a previously unreachable and elitist domain, has gotten notably redefined. Throughout the years, the art field has become synonymous with overblown displays and baroque operas available only to a few. However, in the era marked by the COVID-19, the shift in broadly understood cultural identity appears on the horizon. The tendency to turn to books, films, and music in times of crisis, shapes the definition of culture as something we approach looking for guidance, human connection, and genuine enjoyment.
The pandemic created a unique art space where you can get close and personal with the artworks. The empty venues allow communing with the works of art without the typical clusters of geeks, making the intimate conversations with the art of the “new normal” much more accessible. All those restricted by time or group sizes argue that packed museums have usually acted as barriers to involvement with arts. With the shift of focus from foreign to domestic visitors, the novel approach towards art as a sphere of intimacy has become promoted as the main reason to return to museums.
And yet, the new attitude seems to contradict the fundamental purpose of museums to inspire and educate through human connection and the exchange of ideas. The fellow feeling the artworks in empty cultural venues can now awake marks the departure from the social use of the museums. The possibility to find solace in arts slowly fades away – the vision of museums as the places for a great family day out or an inspiring school trip is gone.
However, we need two to tango: museums serve our purposes as much as we fulfill theirs. The visitors not only support the cultural venues financially or hold them accountable – they also spread the word and give artworks a meaning. Without them, arts can swiftly stop being a profession; instead, they might become a pure hobby.
The impact art spaces exert spans far beyond the individual need for understanding and acceptance: the cultural activity is integral to examining and expressing who we are1, also as a nation. With their efforts within the art sphere, the governments reach far beyond the financial sphere – the arts also improve our well-being, cultural education, and social lives. Through our cultural values, we manifest the power of the place: people turn to art spaces to forget the day’s work, build confidence, and combat isolation and loneliness. With that comes emotional and mental health enrichment.
The arts and culture create a sense of purpose and belongingness – both that much needed on our way on the return to normality. Although the end of the pandemic might be gradually approaching, such a result does not negate the role art has played in times of crisis. This period will be long time entrenched in the global consciousness as a moment when the global societies turned to art for solace in the time of unparalleled social fragmentation.
The spread of popular forms of art has brought to light an alternative way of enjoyment – one in which involvement in our creative faculties counters the rush of daily routine. Our relationship with culture in the pandemic era has exposed the complexity of the field: culture delivers momentary pleasures, acts as a foundation for our system of beliefs, and is a driver of social inclusion, cementing bonds within communities of many shapes and sizes.