German Theatre
Act II: Systemically Relevant?

© muukii_unsplash edited Lena Kuhnt

Are arts and culture of systematic importance and therefore worthy of support during times of crisis? How a misleading definition of the term results in disastrous conditions for Germany’s arts and culture scene.

By Lena Kuhnt

The term “Systemrelevanz” (systemic importance) was coined in the 80s, but became popular again after the financial crisis in 2008 when it was discussed that financial institutions have to be protected against bankruptcy since they are exactly that: of systemic importance and “too big to fail.”  Companies, infrastructures, and professions which are essential for the continuity of a state—if they fall others will fail as well, like a domino effect will the state collapse.

Now, during the current pandemic, the term systemic importance undergoes a revival and is being used for arguing who and which profession will receive government funding and financial aid in order to survive the crisis. Naturally, the healthcare system comes to one’s mind, food suppliers, (arguably) law and order. But art? Are arts and culture still considered a luxury and merely nice to have? And isn’t the question “how do we want to live?” Equally important as “will we live or die?” Art enables and changes one’s perspective; art is a catalyst of fears, hopes, and creativity; art brings us together and exercises tolerance; art is a mirror of society—its beauty and its ugliness—and by artistically reflecting on the same, art uncovers societies’ illnesses and enables us to critically reflect on the world we are living in. Therefore, art is intrinsically quite the opposite of systemic relevance, it is critical of the system and hence, in a democracy, of systematic importance.

It didn’t come by surprise, that the arts and cultural sector in Germany was thought of last when distributing funding and the implementation of these funding aids was poorly executed. The majority of the funds don’t adapt to the specific needs of the arts and cultural institutions and freelancers working in those realms. Now that a re-opening of many of arts centers, theatres, museums, galleries, concerts halls and many more lies ahead, the actual problem will be that, due to health regulations, only economic losses will be generated: it will be more profitable for many arts and cultural institutions to not open their doors at all.

Luckily, and due to the fact, that the arts scene has never been shy to express their opinion and find its voice, cultural practitioners all over Germany initiated days of action to raise awareness to the precarious circumstances the arts and cultural sector operates under the current situation and its impacts on the near future. Demonstrations are to put pressure on the government to increase the financial support, including in their decision-making the advice of practitioners from the respective fields, and solidarity alliances between different arts institutions are being created to help to support each other. One nation-wide initiative, Night of Light, for example, called institutions and organizations affiliated with arts and culture to illuminate their buildings with red light, an alarming color; this simple idea, although quite media-effective, may help to not forget about our arts and cultural scene during those times and make us critically ask ourselves what our lives would look like without the arts.