Fitting inside COVID-19 

Aesthetic Resilience of Contemporary Music facing a Pandemic Crisis

CCQO Marlies De Munck recieved a research grant of The Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities (DARIAH). DARIAH is a European network of people, expertise, information, knowledge, content, methods, tools and technologies from its member countries. It develops, maintains and operates an infrastructure in support of ICT-based research practices and sustains researchers in using them to build, analyse and interpret digital resources.

The guiding hypothesis of the Fitting inside COVID-19 research project is that the pandemic crisis has intensified the precarity already present in the cultural domain, putting even greater pressure on the resilience of art and artists. This problem is not just of an economic kind. In the artistic sector, precarity and resilience are multidimensional phenomena that also pertain, amongst others, to the aesthetic dimension of the arts themselves. In this collaboratively produced research, we concentrate on the effects of the pandemic on the aesthetics of contemporary music and on the artistic practices that musicians develop under the restrictive COVID-19 conditions. An interdisciplinary research team consisting of two musicians, a philosopher of music and a sociologist of art will study the aesthetic resilience of artistic production in contemporary music. In particular, we will examine the ability of musicians to successfully transform their performance practice to be in accordance with the COVID-19 restrictions, and still generate artistic meanings that fully resonate with their audiences. This approach accords with our view on art and artistic practices in a wider cultural perspective as part of the process of creation of meaning (De Munck, 2020; De Munck & Gielen, 2020; Gielen et al, 2015).

In the current philosophical debate, COVID-19 is approached mainly through the critical notion of biopolitics (Agamben, 2020; Foucault, 1984; Gielen, 2009; Negri & Hardt, 2000; Virno, 2004). The concept assumes that medical (prevention) measures are taken, at least partly, to redesign or, on the contrary, perpetuate social power relations. With regard to the cultural sector, especially the performing arts, current health-related measures indeed seem to affirm and even worsen the existing precarity. For example, after the lockdown, authorities took more time to lift or ease measures for the cultural sector than they did for industries, businesses, companies, shops, hotels, cafés, and restaurants. The doors of theaters and cultural venues remained closed for a longer time to the point where some simply did not open at all any more. This is obviously problematic for the embedding of the arts in society. By diminishing their cultural performativity as a source of meaning, artists and their art suffer from aesthetic precarization.

In music, aesthetic precarization also implies that the meaning of music is narrowed, for instance by a tendency to functionalize music, or that musical culture becomes too homogenous because performances are forced into standardized (digital) formats. Both forms of precarization erode music’s cultural performativity as a source of meaning. However, precarization also means that—through hyper-specialization and the forming of artistic niches—segments of contemporary music become increasingly closed off to a large part of society. Western processes of canonization contribute to a further precarization by hindering innovation and diversity in musical art forms, thereby also diminishing the chances of social embedding of contemporary art music and its connection to various social groups (Herman, 2019; DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). In addition, as a cultural signifier, art music finds itself in a difficult competitive position with regard to the entertainment industry, which appears to reach a wide audience without much effort. The increasing precarization in all these developments raises questions about the future perspectives of art music as an autonomous source of meaning in Western culture.

Moreover, COVID-19 clearly accelerates pre-existing trends towards digitization in the cultural sector. Artists have to develop new performance practices because they are compelled to use digital distribution formats (De Munck & Gielen, 2020). There is no doubt that these developments also have an impact on the artistic meaning being attached to music. But what are the actual consequences of this for the aesthetic quality of musical performances and for the artistic meaning they create? And how do these rapid shifts in the performance practice impact the relation with the public? How to retain or regain aesthetic resilience under the constant pressure of precarization?

In this research project, we will not only analyze the aesthetic effects of the COVID-19 measures on contemporary music production and its reception. Together with two musicians from the Belgian-based Nadar ensemble, we will use the insights gained from the selected cases to further investigate whether and how the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic can lead to more resilient artistic practices that can halt or slow down the ongoing process of aesthetic precarization. By experimenting with different virtual concert settings of FITTINGinSIDE, a production from Nadar ensemble, we want to actively test the effects on the aesthetic resilience of artistic production and on the perception by the audience.

With this encompassing approach, we want to address two central questions: (1) How to improve the aesthetic resilience of music productions in the face of the corona pandemic restrictions? And (2) how to improve the relationship with the public of contemporary music concerts in this new reality?

Author: Pascal Gielen