It is a sad fact that culture is one of the main collateral victims of the current pandemic.
Indeed, nothing is sadder than empty concert halls, unoccupied theatres, closed cinemas and deserted museums. Nothing is more distressing than dismantled symphony orchestras, bankrupt theatre companies, museums forced to sell some of their works, artists who are unemployed or forced to change professions altogether, even though they are known and admired as violinists, pianists or actors.
And yet, if you think about it, a large part of culture is not affected by this crisis: we can still read the books that are piled up in our library; in fact, without even buying anything new, we all have at home many books that we have not yet read and that we could usefully read or read again if we were really forced to make do with what we have. Similarly, we can always listen to the records we own. In addition, there are now those found on platforms: millions of books, films, plays, dance performances, concerts. We can also watch shows on television, listen to cultural radio stations, and consume unlimited podcasts.
What we are deprived of is not all culture, but only a part of it, the so-called live performance, I mean the performance that we attend with others, strangers, in a hall or in a museum.
And it is the specificity of this moment that must be designated. It can be found in other activities that are just as impractical in times of pandemic: attending a sporting event, playing football, judo, having lunch or dinner in a restaurant, walking around a museum. What do all these practices have in common? Not an artistic dimension at all, only, and perhaps more importantly, opportunities to experience real events with strangers.
For me, this is the essential thing, because it refers to something quite fundamental; and I would argue that it is by sharing the experience of an emotion with strangers that we can prove to ourselves that we are alive.
In this sense, live performance is not important because it is a performance, but because it gives us proof that by attending an exceptional event (an artistic or sporting performance or a meal in a restaurant) we also find the opportunity to talk about what we have experienced with strangers; and even if we don’t talk to them, we know that we have experienced it together; and the others, by their looks, by their simple presence, give you proof that you are alive.
There is nothing more important in life than to receive proof that you are not dead. And for me, it is the main function of live performance to give us this. The best proof is that we don’t dare to read the books we have in our library, to ward off the fear of death by thinking that we won’t be able to die before having read them.
This is why the ban on live performances (while you can take a train or a plane and eat next to your neighbour) is particularly absurd: a journey is not a performance or a moment of emotion, and, apart from an accident, you have nothing to share with your neighbours. Unlike a show, or a restaurant or a sporting activity, where one is embarked on the same adventure, and one has an opportunity to exchange, even silently, a reciprocal recognition of the other’s life.
This is also why this prohibition is so dangerous for any power: any individual who does not receive permanent proof that he is alive sinks into depression; any society that cannot prove to its members that they are alive is threatened with violent death. This is how almost all previous civilisations have disappeared.
Moreover, in many fields of art, live performance is a necessary condition for creation: what is the point of writing new plays, new operas, new symphonies if they cannot be performed? What would be the point of imagining new performances if we cannot realise them?
Particularly in times of pandemic, when the fear of death looms larger than ever, we all need to reassure ourselves: are we alive? So to be deprived of the gaze of the other, of the connivance of the stranger sharing an emotion with us, is particularly intolerable. It is therefore particularly urgent to give us back this proof that we are alive, please.