Letter from Spain

A sculpture from the canceled 2020 Las Fallas festival in Valencia, Spain, wearing an improvised mask. Photo: John McKenna / Alamy.

THREE WEEKS AGO, ARCO art fair closed in the same pavilions on the outskirts of Madrid that have just reopened as an emergency field hospital. It will treat mild COVID-19 and allow regular hospitals to cope and focus on the more serious cases.

Three weeks ago, I couldn’t have imagined I’d be writing the above words.

But in a matter of days that feel like centuries, Spain has shifted from apparent normality to an officially declared state of alarm accompanied by rigorous domestic confinement and war economy measures announced by a government that, last Sunday, extended the mandatory isolation period to four weeks. 

The pandemic has dragged a country of forty-seven million into a situation unseen since the Civil War and the extremely arduous postwar period. The tragic irony is that the most threatened by the health emergency are the elderly, many of whom already lived through those uncertain times. Spaniards born after the full transition to democracy in 1978 had heard stories of such hardships from the mouths of grandparents and older relatives. But they never believed that they would have to face, overnight, something that similarly altered the common foundations of a country. As of now, the number of those sickened climbs toward forty thousand, and the death toll is 2,696.

Since Italy decreed national lockdown a week earlier, many of us had started to follow the Italian media with the surreal feeling of reading reports coming from the near future. Both countries have similar lifestyles and demographics, and both suffered sharp cuts in public health budgets during the 2008 financial crisis and the wave of austerity imposed by conservative EU governments. Collective reactions have also been similar: Appeals to personal safety have probably been less effective than appeals to support the huge effort of the medical community at the front line of this struggle, to avoid the collapse of public hospitals, and to protect the elderly in in countries where the role of the extended family is considerable, where older people (close and distant relatives, neighbors, friends) were precisely those who supported many families through the previous recession and the cuts in healthcare and welfare that are once again in the center of public debate.

In Spain, as in Italy, both temperate climate and an everydayness textured with intense social interaction make it particularly difficult to seclude a population culturally defined by personal contact and life on the street. And not merely out of sheer or reckless party-friendly spirit: Postwar generations in both countries massively migrated from impoverished rural areas to hastily built neighborhoods in the fringes of the major cities. Many families live in meager apartments, without backyards, gardens, or common areas. For these large urban populations, squares, cafés and bars, parks and streets fulfilled this function, and their prohibition now makes the prospect of a very prolonged confinement almost unsustainable. The collective singing and applauding at the balconies, the contagious spread of tongue-in-cheek and darkly humorous memes and gifs, of solidarity among neighbors, of WhatsApp groups and calls, and also the difficulty in understanding or accepting such confinement measures (that lengthen in time and will still harden) follow similar patterns too.

A March 22 drawing by Luis Vassallo, included in an art “emergency kit” emailed by Madrid’s Espacio Valverde.

Saving lives, scraping up precious time, and averting the total collapse of the national health system, day by day, are now the immediate priorities. But in the medium term, the economic situation worries everyone, an anxiety especially acute in the cultural sphere. Artists and writers, playwrights and filmmakers, musicians and performers, gallerists, independent publishers and bookstore owners have been stripped of income sources overnight, and face paralysis under a special tax regime that so far offers little unemployment benefits or aids for autónomo workers. This fragile ecosystem, which operated in many cases almost literally por amor al arte and offered very small benefits, faces a sudden closure sine die.

All art spaces, both private and public, are shuttered, all exhibitions canceled or postponed. Publishers have suspended their spring releases and face huge returns of newly launched books. The spring book fairs in Madrid and Barcelona have been scrapped or, we can only hope, put off till next fall. Many bookstores and galleries have responded to social distancing imperatives through cooperative online platforms, home delivery, or virtual tours. Other bookstores claim to be “essential businesses,” and insist on being allowed to stay open during quarantine. Ingenuity and witty reflexes abound: In Madrid, the young gallery Espacio Valverde quickly emailed “emergency kits” to its network of contacts, with instructions from some of its artists on how to build their works at home. They will all be certified and authenticated when the quarantine passes.

But it all feels like teardrops in the rain. There is much concern about unfair competition from large distributors like Amazon or streaming platforms like Netflix (who reluctantly reduced the resolution of their films to avoid the possible collapse of networks suddenly overloaded with traffic): They may be the only ones to emerge reinforced by this crisis, at the cost of bibliodiversity and a less homogenized cultural offer. Big publishing groups are offering free downloads of e-books of their bestselling authors and titles, and new audiobooks publishers have opened part of their back catalog, perhaps hoping to get ahold of a literary market that up to now had managed to sustain a niche for less mainstream printed books, independent bookstores, and small and medium-sized publishing houses. One wonders whether the sudden free giveaways of cultural content by major online retailers do not betray a desire to “virus wash.”  

If this report sounds bleak, it’s because for the time being, the prospects look no less than that. For a long while now, digitization, monopolization, and deep public funding cuts have progressively undermined a considerable share of the cultural sector and proposed no real substitutes other than the fishy rhetoric of universal, bargain-bin access to art. These apparently idealistic rhetorics mask a hard fact: The vast majority of cultural agents in Spain are tiny, precarious self-employment initiatives who were already scrambling to make ends meet.

In the best of scenarios, the pandemic, in this field as much as in public healthcare or “old-fashioned” social welfare policies, will be a huge collective wakeup call.

In the worst, it might turn what was already a slow erosion into an irreparable cultural crash.

Javier Montes is a novelist, art critic, and occasional independent curator.