How the Pandemic Killed Our Respect for Artists

Courtesy HBO

Or why we now only have room for the easiest and most straightforward sorts of thrill

We used to hope, I think, that the pandemic was going to make us better. When the first lockdown hit, we were able to persist under the impression that a sort of big reset button had been pressed on our lives: that our bad old routines had all been broken, that ‘nature was returning’, and that once we had all been rebooted, ‘when the pandemic was over’, we could all resume our old existences as the best versions of ourselves.

This, alas, has proved to be wildly, farcically untrue. The pandemic hasn’t ended: even the threat of lockdown has never really gone away. We have instead stumbled, half-awake from the restrictions into a sort of limbo, life never quite feeling able to resume. The conscientious take tests to give themselves permission to go to the pub; we slip masks on and off depending on convention; posters – which for some reason, a symptom of the general cultural sclerosis I suppose, have not come down since the first months of 2020 – still remind us to wash our hands. Nothing really works any more. Everything in society has been completely rewired to help prevent the spread of a moderately severe, highly transmissible, respiratory disease. The fact that anything might spread it, becomes an excuse to never do it. We exist in our own little bubbles, apart from one another: everyone is potentially unclean.

In an article for the FT last year, the writer Imogen West-Knights described the phenomenon of pandemic ‘treat brain’: the comfort-seeking behaviours with which we have come to justify our existence, struggling through the ongoing suspension of our lives. More than ever, we force ourselves to work based on the promise of a midweek takeaway; an evening binging trash TV; some expensive face cream; a more-pricey-than-usual bottle of wine. In a way, of course, there is nothing wrong with this – living in pursuit of small treats. Life is hard right now, it’s OK to do what you need to, to make it through (this, if anything, is the most universally held ethical maxim of our age).

Posters in Sheffield, UK, 2020. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Tim Dennell; CC BY 2.0

But I guess I’m still worried about this turn. I’m not worried about the treats as such – about any individual act of ‘treating oneself’ (treat yourself as much as you like, who cares!). What I’m worried is that ‘by the time this is over’ (say, a decade from now?) the pandemic-conditioned acceleration of ‘treat brain’ will have turned everything – every experience we ever seek out – into a treat. And then I’m worried that this is going to make it impossible for us to ever do anything differently. I am worried, for instance, that this is going to make it impossible for us to have the sort of transformative experiences often associated with Art.

Maybe this is part of a more general phenomenon that other people spotted first elsewhere, or even spotted emerging before the pandemic (maybe it is also related, for instance, to the ‘YA-ification’ of all discourse surrounding literature, or movies – no representation of anything bad or violent or difficult without the author explaining explicitly, somewhere, that they know it’s wrong; that you shouldn’t behave like e.g. the character of Algernon Racist-Bankerman does, in fact). But I first became worried about it when I noticed the mini-trend in reviewing the latest shit churned out to us by big content providers where the verdict goes something along the lines of: ‘well, it’s bad. It’s very bad. But you know what: it’s not supposed to be good. And so, in a way – it is good.’ And not in a ‘so bad it’s good’ sort of way. More like a ‘well this is all we deserve, we may as well take it’ way. ‘Whatever happens,’ one review of Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop remake states, ‘happens.’

This feels like poptimism’s endgame. Maybe when it first became a ‘thing’, in music writing at the height of indie-boy-era Pitchfork’s ascendancy, ‘poptimism’ was a necessary corrective to a certain ascetic cynicism: it’s OK, you know, to just enjoy a good bit of (major label) pop. But now poptimism has turned toxic – this is where it has bottomed out. ‘I hate this gruel, that we are being given. But I know that I have an ethical imperative to enjoy it… we must Let People Enjoy Things. So I will. Thank you.’

But the phenomenon does not end, I think, with just Letting People Enjoy Things. As B.D. McClay points out, the imperative to ‘Let People Enjoy Things’ is itself rooted in ‘a pathological aversion, on a wide cultural level, to disagreement, discomfort, or being judged by others.’ We must, therefore, not only Let People Enjoy Things. We must also guard against the possibility that they might not Enjoy Things: because the Things in question are maybe difficult, or unsettling, or Weird. A couple of Extremely Online controversies from the end of last year are instructive. We are no longer able to tolerate the idea that a Michelin-starred chef might serve their diners a ‘citrus foam’ in a plaster cast of their own mouth, then explain their method by sending their biggest critic a drawing of a horse. We act as if Succession’s(2018-) Jeremy Strong is an idiot for being so committed to method acting that he refuses to acknowledge that the show his character, Kendall Roy, is trapped in is a comedy; a jerk, despite the obvious brilliance of the performances he draws out from everyone, for not being ideally accommodating to the other actors on-set.

Courtesy Bros’, Lecce; fair use

By rights, these things should be experienced as glorious. It is wildly, world-historically wonderful that one of the actors in the best comedy series around right now doesn’t believe he is in one; it should be encouraged to send your critics a drawing of a horse (what did the writer expect him to do? Apologise to her for the fact she didn’t get it?). And yet, the zeitgeist, as far as I can tell, seems to hate them. Celebrities even responded to the Jeremy Strong profile as if it constituted some sort of character assassination.

It is by no means a challenging thing, in and of itself, to tell people that ‘Art should be challenging’. This is something that people have long both thought, and said (I know that recently for instance, Maggie Nelson has drawn plenty of flak for essentially reheating this take). But just because something is a cliché, doesn’t mean that it isn’t also, you know, true. This doesn’t mean we ought to be stroking our chins knowingly at art that is, say, racist, or transphobic (that’s just a pathetic sort of ‘challenging’). But we do need to be open to things that are, you know, Weird. (Beyond the acting method of Jeremy Strong, or the act of serving diners foam in one’s own mouth, a good example of the sort of thing everyone ought to be open to would be Alison Rumfitt’s debut Tell Me I’m Worthless, 2021, for my money the best novel released last year).

In his wonderful 1845 essay Two Ages: A Literary Review, Søren Kierkegaard (who didn’t know about Twitter or 24-hour rolling news or anything like this – only newspapers) coined the term ‘leveling’ to describe the ‘negatively unifying principle’ that, in a modern, media-driven society, forms the ‘mass’ of otherwise wholly isolated individuals, all coldly oriented towards the ‘action’ of current events only as spectators. This ‘sluggish crowd […] understands nothing itself and is unwilling to do anything,’ only seeking to be entertained. For the ‘gallery-public’, ‘everything that anyone does is done so that it may have something to gossip about.’

Kierkegaard identifies leveling with ‘envy’: individuals in a modern, mass-media society do not, despite their isolation ‘turn away from each other… but mutually turn to each other in a frustrating and suspicious, aggressive, leveling reciprocity.’ Through the ‘leveling’ gaze of the public, everything is brought down to the lowest common denominator. Nothing genuinely new is allowed to exist – because nothing can be seen except through the public’s suspicious, envious, ‘leveling’ eyes.

Courtesy Everywhereist; fair use

This is where, I am afraid, the prevalence of ‘treat brain’ is likely to end up: with everything truly good and novel in existence being ‘leveled’ away, as we now only have room, in our accelerated and pandemic-shook lives, for the easiest and most straightforward sorts of thrill. This is bad for Art, of course. But it’s also bad in general – in the essay, for example, Kierkegaard identifies ‘leveling’ with our present (in 1845!) inability to pursue any sort of ‘revolutionary’ political action: the ‘leveling’ public just want a show, so the semblance of a revolution would do them just fine (what people really want ‘these days’, Kierkegaard jokes, is to go on a march or something, to demand a revolution, and then read the next day that the revolution has happened, that everything is now different – even while it all remains the same).

But who knows. Maybe ‘treat brain’ won’t stick around. Maybe it won’t even outlast the pandemic.

Take, for instance, this anecdotal sample of one. Throughout the pandemic, my partner and I had taken to ordering a takeaway every Friday: our own household’s iteration of the pandemic treat routine. And at first, you know, it was fun. A lot of new places had started doing takeaways, and we got to look forward every week, to some new and different food. But around a month ago, we stopped. Every week, I realised, I had started to hate it. We had grown too used to the menus: we knew all the places we liked, and what we wanted to get there. Sometimes, we’d try looking at somewhere new, but the options just filled me with anxiety: what if this Chinese restaurant wasn’t as good? They don’t do mapo tofu here. I just want that again. In a way, I still liked the routine of ‘getting a takeaway’. But I always hated eating the food: it felt like eating £30, that I had just thrown away. I just wanted beans on toast instead. When we ditched the treat, I felt reborn.

There is hope, perhaps, in boredom. One day the dopamine hit will wear off: every ‘treat’ will hit hollow. We will get sick of that unnecessary pizza, of that four beers on a Wednesday, of that glittery new toy. We will start actually playing the games we already have on Steam instead. And that is when we will be ready, or on the way to being ready at least, to suck the metaphorical foam, from the plaster cast of reality’s mouth. One day, we’re going to want to do something new.

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