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The World Is Sick. Culture Can Heal Us

It might be time to hunker down. But you can still support artists and get your culture fix.

Dorothy Woodend 13 Mar

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

James Bond was the first to go.

The premiere of No Time to Die, the new Bond film, was one of the first events to fall victim to COVID-19 when its release was pushed back to November.

Other events, big and small, began to go dark. SXSW Festival went down. The Metropolitan Museum of Art shut its doors, the Seattle Art Museum cancelled its programs. Broadway’s lights were turned off. Even Disneyland closed.

Closer to home, Vancouver’s The Growing Room festival — “with a heavy heart” — pulled the plug on its public programs after the event had barely begun.

With any event larger than 250 people banned, and people advised to practise social distancing, the cancellations kept coming — the Vancouver Opera, Hot Docs Documentary Festival, gallery openings, screenings, concerts, plays, book launches.

It’s very quiet.

For those of us who grew up in rural locations, where cultural events were a two-hour drive away, this is strangely familiar. Now we’re now all on our own in finding ways to feed our need for culture, or even amusement. For how long is uncertain.

How do we keep ourselves entertained, educated and, more importantly, sane?

The Tyee is here to help.

If you can’t go out to things, let the cultural things come to you.

The most obvious form of entertainment and edification is still the best. Books! And newspapers, magazines, web sites — it’s time to read your damn face off.

Although it’s hard to tear away from the constant scroll of headlines, reading in depth can actually provide considerable comfort and much needed perspective. The news is moving so quickly that if you step away from Twitter for 20 minutes breaking news is bound to happen. Tom Hanks, Sophie Trudeau and basketball players have tested positive. Another country has shut down its borders. Time is doing strange things at the moment. The days feel incredibly long, simply because so much can change within 24 hours.

If ever there was a moment to sit down and read all 1,100 pages of Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital and Ideology, it is now. The French economist is infamous for the length and breadth of his work, but a period of confinement is ideal for reading and understanding Piketty. This stuff can be a little dense. In preparation for the release of his new book, I cheated and watched the documentary Capital in the 21st Century. Director Justin Pemberton’s film lays out Piketty’s theories alongside a host of other thinkers and writers who describe how we came to be where we currently are.

It’s very much a survey film, but still useful in offering the bigger picture. The film is scheduled to screen at the Vancity Theatre on March 26, but who knows it that will happen. You can read the New Yorker’s excellent summary.

The New Yorker’s Idrees Kahloon writes that not only does Piketty’s book lay out the guts of what capitalism has wrought, it also suggests some solutions.

“Piketty both diagnoses and prescribes: he tries to expose the contradictions of the reigning ideology of ‘hypercapitalism’ and its malign consequences (including a populist-nativist backlash), and, to stave off disaster, recommends a breathtaking series of reforms. They include a schedule of taxation on income and wealth that reaches 90 per cent and the elimination of nation-states in favor of ‘a vast transnational democracy,’ which will secure ‘a universal right to education and a capital endowment, free circulation of people, and de facto virtual abolition of borders.’ A serious disease, Piketty believes, calls for strong medicine.”

That last sentence hits home.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, with sometimes startling clarity, the true human costs of globalization. It’s a little too terrible to contemplate the worst-case scenarios with millions of lives in jeopardy, but the world has never felt smaller in some ways than it does right now.

But there might be some good things that emerge from this dark hour.

As a recent Slate article indicates, even smaller events can have major consequences in the development of human society. The current global pandemic has fixed a scouring light on the fragility of global capitalism, but also highlighted the resilience and desire to be helpful that is embedded in most people. With a few notable exceptions.

Piketty’s book is just reaching bookshelves, but there are plenty of other new releases to consume, including Rebecca Solnit’s memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence. Solnit recently made the admirable decision to cancel her book tour; you can still support her by buying her book.

851px version of HelenKnott.jpeg
Indigenous writer Helen Knott, author of In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience. Photo by Tenille K. Campbell.

There are also whacks of books from B.C. writers begging for your attention. Take this time to check out publishers like Caitlin Press, UBC Press, Ronsdale, Greystone and Touchwood, who all have some extraordinary titles launching this spring. Many of the titles on offer take as their subject B.C. history and culture.

The recent announcements about the BC and Yukon Book Prizes finalists is a useful place to begin, with works like Chantal Gibson’s How She Read, Helen Knott’s In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience, Ivan Coyote’s Rebent Sinner, Yasuko Thanh’s Mistakes to Run With, Michael Christie’s Greenwood, Rhea Tregebov’s Rue des Rosiers, D.L. Acken and Emily Lycopolus’s Cedar and Salt: Vancouver Island Recipes from Forest, Farm, Field, and Sea, and finally, and most wonderfully, Bill Richardson’s I Saw Three Ships.

Support your local authors and stock up!


If you’ve exhausted Netflix, there are plenty of other options. Some, like the National Film Board, are actually free! The NFB site is a treasure trove of documentaries, shorts and animated films that showcase Canada for Canadians. You could spend days going through all the films and come away with a better, deeper, more nuanced understanding of this place we call home.

There are loads of other streaming services, but if you’re looking for films that are a bit off the beaten track the Criterion Channel has some truly great stuff. There’s also Kanopy. Make your way through the entire career of Tarkovsky or Godard and become truly insufferable.


If you’ve been putting off entering the world of podcasts, now is most definitely the time to immerse yourself. There are a ton of them out there.

Vancouver is a podcast town, and many of the most fascinating stories are being recorded in the public library’s Inspiration Lab or, as in the next podcast I describe, in a basement in Surrey. Dark Poutine — True Crime and Dark History originated when lifelong friends Mike Browne and Scott Hemenway got together to indulge their shared interest in the stranger corners of Canadian history. The combination of humour, pathos and Canadiana proved a recipe for runaway success, with more than 100,000 weekly downloads of the show.

Lighter fare can be found at Pop This! with co-hosts Lisa Christiansen and Andrea Warner offering funny feminist takedowns on everything from the joys of Legally Blonde to the seasonal atrocity that is Love Actually.

Supporting writers and podcast producers by buying books or downloading their work is easy.

But it’s harder to find ways to support the people producing dance, music and theatre when you can’t buy a ticket and see the show.

Most performing arts organizations operate on razor-thin margins. The prospect of weeks, or even months, without a paying audience could sound a death knell. If you’ve already purchased a ticket for an event that’s been cancelled, why not consider it a donation to the cultural cause instead of claiming a refund.

Make your own culture!

Through the wonders of the internet you can take a virtual tour of the world’s most famous museums and art galleries from the comfort of your laptop, if you’re not inclined to venture out.

You can also make your own art. Take a sketchbook to the park and draw trees or watch watercolour painting tutorials on YouTube. These videos do triple duty, providing entertainment, an incentive to try stuff as well as a curious form of comfort. They are the contemporary equivalent of Bob Ross painting lessons, where not only would you learn how to paint happy little trees, but also be soothed by the sound of Ross’s voice-inducing head-tickles (otherwise known as ASMR). It’s a little creepy occasionally, but also kind of fascinating.

In these grim days, culture can offer a bridge to something better and brighter. During the Second World War, then British prime minister Winston Churchill was asked about cutting arts funding to support the war effort.

His response? “Then what are we fighting for?”

OK, Churchill didn’t actually say it. But that doesn’t mean the sentiment isn’t true.

Culture endures. The arts make us more human. They offer succour, thoughtfulness, companionship, information and a sense of a common condition.

And with a good book or movie, you’re never really alone. Even in a pandemic.  [Tyee]

Read more: Coronavirus, Film

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