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On 21 July, the country will pay tribute to workers in critical sectors and essential services who have given their best to fight the deadly coronavirus epidemic and protect the population. “One group made a significant contribution: artists,” says Paul Dujardin, CEO of BOZAR.

On 3 April 2020, shortly after lockdown began, the Belgian Official Journal published a list of “businesses, companies and public and private services necessary to meet the vital needs of the nation and the population.”

This long list included of course doctors and nurses, police officers, people working in the food industry, undertakers (!) and also journalists. They were able to continue working and were not affected by the strict lockdown conditions.

After a few days, it became clear that the government had forgotten one “essential service” or “key sector” – the arts. During the long, sunny days of lockdown, it became clear how important artists were to the well-being of the population. Bookshops were closed, but online sales were soaring. Theatres and concert halls couldn’t open, but thousands of people watched performances or concerts on their computers at home. Public and private channels made more films, documentaries, and music and educational content available and opened up their archives to their viewers.

In the streets, garish advertising billboards made way for works of art, while closed shop windows were transformed into galleries.

BOZAR is far from being the only institution to have undergone a total digital transformation. More than 50,000 people all over Europe sang their hearts out thanks to Singing Brussels. Under the banner ‘Repairing the Future’, we interviewed artists, philosophers and economists in their own living rooms, beaming them to an international audience.

When our exhibition halls reopened in mid-June, the public immediately returned, even if security measures remained very strict.

On 21 July, the national parade traditionally takes place on the Place des Palais in Brussels. Soldiers and police officers parade before the podium, under the approving gaze of the King and the authorities – an age-old tradition to pay tribute to the heroes of the nation, mostly heroes who have defeated an enemy beyond our borders. This year, we also commemorate the end of the Second World War.

The enemy today is invisible. Hiding among us, it is always on the lookout. To keep the enemy at bay, this year’s national parade will be held without an audience. The focus will rightly be on those who are currently on the front lines: the caregivers.

There will be no fireworks this year, but the artists will undoubtedly set the country alight. Let us begin with four artists: Dema, Zenith, Rinus Van de Velde and El Nino 76, each of which are creating a huge work of art in a public space, in Brussels, Antwerp, Zaventem and Charleroi – a striking illustration of the resilience of artists. With venues still closed and institutions still unsure when they can reopen, they use the materials at their disposal: buildings, blank walls. Their art is determined, critical, superb and relatively accessible to all. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful contrast to the lockdown. This project will not end on 21 July, it will spread it wings by reconnecting citizens through art.

Article 23 is probably the most uplifting in the Belgian Constitution. It guarantees everyone “the right to lead a life in keeping with human dignity”, and this includes the right to employment, the right to health care, the right to decent accommodation, the right to a healthy environment, but also the right to cultural fulfilment.

If we are to promote these rights, on a day of celebration like today, we must also recognise that artists perform an essential service. Art, however experimental, impenetrable or playful it may be, is at the heart of our identity – as individuals, city-dwellers or villagers, from Brussels, Flemish, Walloon, Belgian, (Afro-)European and citizens of the world. We have seen it clearly in recent months, every time we bade farewell to a loved one. While our forefathers sent their dead to the afterlife with gold, jewels, weapons and supplies, we say goodbye with art and poetry.

Psychiatrist Dirk De Wachter, who will examine the relation between art and well-being in the coming season at BOZAR, sums up the situation perfectly: art is not just an “essential sector”, it is part of the very essence of what it means to be human. Humans are conscious of their mortality (especially now), and they strive to give meaning to their lives. Art is born from this desire.

But let us not be naïve. Without support, artists will not survive this crisis. They will start looking for another job, and will only exercise their essential profession in their free time – in their garage, their attic or the street if they do not receive support like the other essential professions.

Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat, who participated in the “Repairing the Future” interview series from his living room, declares: “Poetry is the only way to hack the system”. It brings something new. During the coronavirus crisis, those responsible for budget cuts to the arts and culture realised just how important such aspects were to the people confined to their homes.”

Nowadays, politicians are no longer arguing for new cuts to the arts. It would be utter madness! The sector needs assistance more than ever before. Without a real spirit of solidarity and continuous support, the damage will be irreversible. And the whole of society will suffer.

Paul Dujardin, CEO and Artistic Director of the Centre for Fine Arts


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