Opinion: Cultural Justice: Creativity in a Time of Crisis

The following opinion piece by Dr Zelmarie Cantillon was first published with full links on Open Forum (opens in a new window).

The shape of two hands reaching for and touching a fern-like leaf, surrounded by yellow light.The COVID-19 crisis has made it clearer than ever how crucial arts and culture are to our everyday lives. Use of streaming services like Netflix has spiked; neighbours are singing and dancing in the streets and DJing from their balconies; and we’re keeping occupied with reading, writing, drawing and painting.

Many cultural institutions and workers have moved their exhibitions, workshops and performances online, keeping the arts accessible to the public during lockdown. We rely on arts and culture for entertainment, education and distraction, but also as an outlet to respond to unsettling circumstances.

Through our creative expressions and engagements, we are doing justice to and through culture, highlighting its immeasurable value to our individual and collective well-being.

Creative responses to the current crisis take many forms. In early April, the City of Ballarat launched its ‘Be Kind – Be Creative’ campaign. It aims to provide creative ways to continue community engagement, support creative micro-businesses and sole traders, and ‘maintain flows of compassion’.

Offerings include online workshops, a virtual choir, commissioned artworks, video tours of the city’s cultural institutions and artist studios, and a podcast capturing stories from locals in lockdown.

Local governments have often turned to cultural strategies for revitalisation. Following periods of industrial decline, for example, cities across the globe adopted extensive cultural policy frameworks and ‘creative city’ strategies aimed at making them exciting places to live and work.

Although we are yet to see how cities will bounce back from the pandemic and the looming recession – or worse, depression – capitalising on the creative industries will be core elements of revival.

Cultural responses to the COVID-19 crisis are also playing out in more grassroots ways. Indigenous artists at Walkatjara Art, the Mutitjulu community’s arts centre near Uluru, created dot paintings to communicate important public health messages related to the virus.

Despite lockdown laws, political street art continues to proliferate in our urban and regional centres.

Sydney-based artist Scott Marsh circulated online a mural created in his home studio depicting senior government politicians Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison (the latter in a Hawaiian shirt and lei, in reference to his ill-timed vacation during Australia’s 2019/20 bushfire crisis) aboard the Ruby Princess cruise ship. Here, Marsh is imaginatively critiquing the politicians’ contradictory ‘stop the boats’ border policy.

In Melbourne, artists Kate Just and Tal Fitzpatrick initiated an online community quilt project as an act of ‘craftivism’. Curated on Instagram and featuring contributions from around the world, textile squares document lived experiences of the pandemic.

The focus of these textiles range from mundane to more serious issues: the scarcity of toilet paper, cutting one’s own hair, beach closures, home-schooling children, losing employment, death anxiety, grief, racism, xenophobia, and feelings of loneliness, helplessness and hope.

Each of these creative examples can be understood as enactments of cultural justice. They do justice to culture by demonstrating its dynamic potential to improve our lives, including its capacity to comfort us, create dialogues around our shared circumstances, foster senses of solidarity and community, and document our experiences for posterity.

At the same time, these cultural expressions offer an important means through which to seek justice by, for example, engaging in political critiques and drawing attention to the unequal impacts of COVID-19 on different groups in society.

It is also crucial to seek justice for cultural work. Current financial support measures introduced by the federal government have been seriously inadequate in supporting Australia’s arts and cultural sector.

This injustice is yet another by-product of the COVID-19 crisis that has invited creative responses. A group of arts workers in New South Wales recently released a song, ‘Everything is Fine’, that uses humour to reflect on serious issues like unemployment and isolation.

In the accompanying video, singer Shalane Connors shares a meal with a stuffed animal, a ball and a zucchini, and paints the word ‘help’ on her wall using pasta sauce. The four creatives who contributed to this song and music video are among the many now unemployed due to the pandemic.

Lack of financial support for the arts and cultural sector, while unsurprising considering the current government’s ‘consistent allergy to funding it robustly’, is gravely misguided. The sector is integral to the nation’s economy, but it is also important to recognise its social and cultural benefits. To undervalue and underinvest in our arts and cultural workers is an injustice to us all.