Culture and the pandemic

A Letter to Brazil

By Darlene J. Sadlier

[editor’s note: Darlene J. Sadlier, a professor emerita at Indiana University, writes about  literature, arts and culture of the Portuguese-speaking world. Her 2016 book, The Portuguese Diaspora: Seven Centuries of Literature and the Arts, explores literary and artistic works resulting from population travel and displacement during and after the Portuguese empire.  Her most recent book is The Lilly Library A to Z: Intriguing Objects in a World-Class Collection.

As global pandemic and political divisions and economic hardships surge today, culture seems ironically to be flourishing under technologies like streaming and Zoom, but also struggling, like a boxer forced up against the ropes. I am thinking of especially vulnerable entities like museums, archives and theaters, whose survival depends upon public access and support. In troubled times like these, their future is decidedly more precarious. In many places, this culture might be regarded as unimportant or even troublesome, and either ignored or dispensed with like an unnecessary luxury. In my own country, the United States, necessary lockdowns for public health reasons have taken a major toil on cultural institutions. While our public schools are timidly reopening, most often remotely, cultural projects and institutions without federal or state support are trying to survive a pandemic that has already extinguished numerous small and large businesses across the nation. Without a national plan for addressing the virus here, museums, art galleries, archives, theaters, and other cultural entities are in peril because their existence in the midst of a raging pandemic depends on the protocols of keeping safe, which includes social distancing, which may or may not be tenable.


In the novella A hora da estrela (The Hour of the Star), written over 40 years ago and later adapted to the screen, Brazilian Clarice Lispector describes her protagonist Macabéa’s desire for knowledge when she listens to bits of information on Rádio Relógio. One of the words she hears is “culture,” which she asks her boyfriend Olímpico to explain. In his invariably insecure and irritated way, he gruffly replies, “culture is culture!”. 

Macabéa does not know it, but of course she already has culture, as we all do, in the broad social and anthropological sense. What she is curious about, however, is perhaps more like the learned culture of arts, sciences and letters—what Matthew Arnold described in the 19th century as “the best that is thought and said.” That sort of culture belongs to a humanist tradition about which Macabéa, as an impoverished northeastern migrant recently arrived in Rio de Janeiro, has no knowledge and no access. We can debate the sorts of things it ought to contain, but its value should be self-evident, and it should never be the property of a single social class. It should also be protected from the totalitarianism and populist ideology that has always threatened it and that threatens it today in many countries.

Four years after the publication of A hora da estrela, the British academic Raymond Williams wrote a seminal volume titled Culture, which addresses the complexities and the future of the word Macabéa seeks to understand. Williams was writing about the emerging discipline called cultural studies, or the study of cultural production in its artistic, socio-political, and economic contexts. He acknowledges that collaborative, interdisciplinary investigation of culture would likely encounter difficulties and resistances along the way from established cultural traditions or political forces, as indeed it did.

Unless a nation’s government deems culture and education as unnecessary for its citizens, which is not yet the case currently in the U.S., perhaps one possible solution lies in what Williams described as a more socially-engaged cultural effort firmly anchored in a broader, collaborative context. We are already seeing some evidence of the greater engagement between institutions that formerly used the Internet to publicize exhibits and performances and have embraced new technologies to open their doors virtually and potentially to larger audiences. However, as any theatergoer knows, what remains absent is the sense of community or attachment that cultural spaces as well as schools and universities provide. 

Culture should never be the property of a single social class. It should be protected from the totalitarianism and populist ideology that has always threatened it. 

A recent New York Times article described an innovative collaboration between arts and technology that enabled a New York City museum to physically open to the public. The museum purchased a new social distancing hardware called EGOpro Tags that buzz whenever a visitor gets too close to another person in the room. The museum also limits the number of people visiting at any one time and requires pre-entry temperature checks. Visits are limited to a maximum ninety minutes. This may not rival the enjoyment of pre-pandemic visits, where people cluster and roam freely, but it is a way to keep the institution and its art alive and accessible in person without placing individuals at risk. The virus, social unrest and political dissent in our streets have also become powerful catalysts for new forms of cultural expression. Ironically, the kinds of difficulties and resistances we are experiencing here and globally are driving new ways of thinking about and producing culture and surely will remain with us into the future.

As I sit in Bloomington, I keep my many friends in Brazil and elsewhere close through Internet exchanges about what is happening. Culture is not just institutions but also the substance of our lives — whether we realize it or not. While I am prevented from traveling to do research at places like the Cinemateca in São Paulo, which is vital to my profession (and now has been closed down by the Bolsonaro government, without regard for its staff, who have gone unpaid for months, or for the safekeeping of the film collections), I have enrolled in an online seminar called Na Real _Virtual, with classes involving film showings, critical readings and live interviews with twelve documentary filmmakers. Contained physically by the virus and restrictions that now separate our two countries, I travel virtually to Brazil and with over 150 classmates participate in the production and transmission of artistic culture. Our seminar has become a microcosm of a world that seems almost to have ceased to exist. Like Macabéa, we seek knowledge and eagerly write our chat questions to film directors in the hopes that, among the many that are sent, ours will be answered. Technical difficulties sometimes block transmissions, but culture continues to circulate. We are caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment and while we are isolated at home, we nevertheless see one another’s names and sometimes faces flash on the screen. Our questions go out to the group at large; often, as we begin the sessions, chat greetings to all appear on the screen, as if we were meeting one another not online but on a busy street somewhere or even (heavens!) in a crowded indoor space. 

My writer-friends often say that despite the horrors of the pandemic, the isolation has made them even more productive. At the same time, bookstores that sell their and other works are collapsing in domino fashion, plagued not only by the virus but online titans like Amazon and heavy real estate prices. And while there is a modicum of solace in Internet book acquisitions, the loss of the physical entity, the knowledge it holds and imparts as well as the sense of community, cannot be equated to online perusals and purchases. In the U.S., bookstores had been closing at a rapid rate long before the pandemic arrived on our doorstep. New York City is a prime example of this. But there are moments when technology can stop the bleeding. In Bloomington we have a used bookstore called Caveat Emptor that has been in business for decades. When the owners announced they were going out of business after weeks under lockdown, the community rallied to its defense. Small and larger donations were sent to try to keep the business afloat. On the Internet, a donation site was created by the owners which offered a care package of books to be delivered to those who donated. My donation resulted in the delivery of eight books to my front door by a man with a mask riding a bicycle. On the site, I marked the categories of modern literature and mysteries/thrillers and received volumes by authors such as Anthony Trollope, John Galsworthy, L.R. Wright, and May Sarton. The bookstore was flooded with donations by a community that values books as well as the physical space we associate with the joy of browsing and finding new and known authors and books. However, there is a caveat; until the pandemic is controlled, keeping businesses afloat, such as bookstores and theaters (including our city’s beloved The Ryder Film Series and its free magazine), requires more than a one-time donation. 

Despite the current hardships created by a tenacious disease and social repression, and possibly because of them, the production of culture continues. I suspect the future of culture everywhere will be forever changed by the pandemic, which has made us more conscious of our need to reach out, connect and collaborate and, most importantly, never to be daunted by any attempt to keep us from the knowledge and personal growth that is not a luxury but a human right and necessity.