In order to understand the anger of show business workers and artists who have taken part in the protests that exploded throughout Italy during these days, it is enough to consult studies and documents issued in recent years, and one can easily find out that COVID befell a poorly regulated sector, based on an extreme fragmentation of work, with no real protections and rights for most workers.
A sector that is struggling to open up to new experiences in production and distribution, characterized by injustices in terms of labor rights and freedom of expression, cannot claim to embody innovation or great ideas about the future. We must face the fact that these weaknesses didn’t come from the pandemic.
The street protests seem to be dominated by the extreme right, but this is not enough to understand what they are generated by, and it is not enough to excuse the “political left” for having once again abandoned whole parts of society to their fate.
Those who are governing have the duty to understand why anger is overflowing and spilling out into the streets, and it is not enough to invoke the situation of the healthcare sector to explain everything. And it is not enough to repeat the mantra “there will be no new lockdowns,” because if the French and Germans are doing that, we, not having similar levels of public services, are likely to do that too.
That said, those who play an intellectual role must help us understand certain dynamics, and they cannot limit themselves to shouting out-of-place slogans such as those claiming a “salvific” role for culture, which is an irrational position, or self-aggrandizing statements such as “culture is a primary good.”
Culture is a “process” that exists in society, and is part of the behavior of individuals and social groups, for both good and ill. It is not necessary to have read Leroi-Gourhan or Lévi-Strauss or even Karl Marx to know it. It is enough to not live in a closed-off world, and take into consideration that the social environment that develops in a bar or at the stadium is as important (I repeat, for both good and ill) as that which develops in more exclusive places.
But what is the condition of those who are working in the wonderful world of entertainment? There is a passive resistance to exploring this subject, a strange modesty that ends up assimilating creative work to “embarrassing” practices such as prostitution, something that needs to be talked about rather quietly because there’s something not quite right about it.
There is clear evidence of this curious trend: for example, in 2017, a worthy work of research by the Fondazione Di Vittorio entitled “Vita d’artisti” (The Life of Artists) did the rounds for some time, and was also presented in the Senate in 2019, but was mostly surrounded by silence.
Clear data emerged from this research that helps us understand who they are, how much they earn, where these strange beings live—the “show business workers,” i.e. actors, dancers, musicians, scriptwriters, directors, singers.
They are concentrated in big cities (Rome – 30%, Milan – 12%, Turin – 7%, Naples – 5%). About 94% of the people who participated in the survey said that they would accept any working conditions they were offered.
Susanna Camusso said something crucial: “Rather than an unemployment benefit, we would need a continuity allowance, because this type of work is performed even when you are not on stage but you are preparing, studying, working to go on that stage.”
Here is the key point—entertainment work is considered, very often by the artists themselves, as a non-job. The survey revealed very significant parameters: for example, 75% of live entertainment workers in Italy are young and under 45 years old, they are paid very little, the average annual salary is €5,000 and they have practically no protection, because 80% have temporary contracts and only 17% are union members.
Since €5,000 is the average salary of 150,000 people working in the entertainment industry, it goes without saying that most of them are not paid at all. During the last lockdown, there were many protests because even public administrations called on artists to do shows or COVID testimonials without even considering reimbursing their expenses.
Theatrical impresarios broke off the contracts on the day of the promulgation of the Decree that closed down the country, and workers, actors, scriptwriters and directors were left holding the bag. Fortunately, also thanks to the prolonged and painful period of inactivity in the spring, associations like UNITA were born and decided to join forces and take coordinated actions.
While respecting the health criteria, I am convinced we must not stop before the pandemic—neither on the front of the fight for rights nor on the creative front. We must experiment, fight, remain in touch.
Not stopping does not mean denying the evidence of the effects of a pandemic that is changing our habits and our life expectations. It means not succumbing and finding new ways.
At this juncture, “Culture” risks becoming part of “conservation” if it does not develop new models of thought and if it does not find new ways to express ideas, as well as artistic research.
If we do not contribute to building the future, our children will spit in our faces and they will be right to do so. No one will remember our frustrations with our film that was not released or the show that was cancelled. We work, we study, we experiment, we complain—but it’s of little use, unfortunately, and it risks proving right those who keep telling us: “You don’t understand what danger we are facing.”
We recall that saying by André Gide that we like to invoke in “normal” times to feel as if we’re heroes oppressed by power: “Art is born of constraint, lives on struggle and dies of freedom.” Perhaps it makes sense not to trot it out without thought, and instead keep it in mind as a teaching, a prescription, precisely for moments like the one we are living.