BBC predicts explosion of creativity and art

Quarantine culture: Julian of Norwich, the Decameron, and Rembrandt’s lover.

Could the virus spark an artistic renaissance? As lockdowns come into force and people around the world face lonely weeks ahead, the stage is set for a huge flowering of modern genius.

All over the world, city centres are deserted. In countless museums, paintings and sculptures stare out at empty galleries. In theatres, silent stages face rows of vacant seats.

No aspect of life has been untouched by the coronavirus – but for culture and the arts the impact has been total.

Audiences and visitors have disappeared, told to stay at home to prevent the disease’s spread.

What is Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes without someone to look at it? What is Kendrick Lamar’s live show without someone to watch it?

In response to this crisis for culture, the BBC has announced that it is launching a virtual festival – Culture in Quarantine – to connect art with “an audience that can’t be there in person”.

To many, this is welcome news. They hope it will support artists to make work – and enable audiences to enjoy it – during the tough times ahead.

There is cause for optimism: if history tells us anything, it’s that self-isolation can be a powerful driver of creativity.

In the 1340s, the Black Death was wreaking havoc across Europe. In Italy, a writer called Giovanni Boccaccio imagined a group of men and women self-isolating and telling stories to pass the time.

These stories, ranging from the heart-breaking to the extremely rude, form Boccaccio’s masterpiece, The Decameron, a book which changed the course of European literature.

The creative power of self-isolation hasn’t always been connected to epidemics either. Later in the 1300s, a woman called Julian became an anchorite in Norwich, England.

Living in complete isolation from other people, she had a series of spiritual visions, recording them in her astonishing, poetic Revelations of Divine Love – the earliest surviving book in English written by a woman.

And in the 1920s, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was left bed-bound after an accident. Her mother made her a special easel which allowed her to pioneer her legendary style whilst recovering lying down.

So, could self-isolation in response to COVID-19 spark a huge burst of creativity?

Time to think

It seems likely. Humans have always responded to adversity by making things. As the critic Jonathan Jones points out, “much of Europe’s greatest art” comes from a time – between 1300 and 1700 – when plague and quarantine were a normal part of reality. Self-isolation will give people time to create new work; initiatives such as the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine will allow it to be shared.

On the other hand, now isn’t the time to talk about an artistic renaissance. Many people – including artists and performers – are freelance. The current lockdown has destroyed their livelihoods. They are worrying about how to buy food and pay rent – not about making their magnum opus. Our focus needs to be on supporting those worst hit by this crisis, and ensuring the government does so too.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather spend a year on your own and paint the greatest picture in art history, or be able to see your friends whenever you want?
  2. Is the government advice to self-isolate worth the economic cost to cultural organisations, charities, restaurants, pubs, and other small businesses?


  1. Imagine you are designing a virtual exhibition featuring your five favourite works of art. These can be anything, including books, films, music, paintings, and computer games. Write a one-page guide to your exhibition, explaining what you have included and why.
  2. Choose a scene from a play you are studying (or have studied). Plan how you would stage it for a livestream broadcast, so that it would be entertaining for audiences watching from their homes.

Some People Say...

“All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), English anchorite and mystic

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Many cultural institutions – museums, theatres, cinemas – across the world have taken the unprecedented step of closing their doors for the foreseeable future. Huge festivals, such as Glastonbury, have been cancelled. This will have a massive impact on staff, and it may be a challenge for these organisations to survive without the income they would normally receive from visitors and audiences.
What do we not know?
What long-term impact the virus will have on cultural organisations and on creativity. Hopefully, there will be some positive consequences, such as innovations in how culture and the arts are accessed and shared, spearheaded by organisations, such as the BBC. Self-isolation is bringing about an enormous transformation in our daily lives, and it remains to be seen if people will find time to get creative, or be preoccupied with other things.

Word Watch

Artemesia Gentileschi
Italian painter, 1593-1656. Her painting Judith Slaying Holofernes is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Black Death
An outbreak of the plague which caused the deaths of between 75 and 200 million people globally between 1347 and 1351.
Wreaking havoc
To cause chaos and destruction.
Someone who lives in isolation for religious reasons.
A difficult or unpleasant situation.
A new way of doing something.
Self-employed; when you work for yourself, which can offer freedom but has its downside – like you don’t get sick pay from an employer.
Magnum opus
Latin phrase meaning “greatest work”.

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