On Optimism and What Culture Will Be Like in 2021
On Optimism and What Culture Will Be Like in 2021

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On Optimism and What Culture Will Be Like in 2021

The most asked question in 2020 was: ‘When will all this be over?’ At least it was for me, sitting at the pub, scanning the drinks of my max five acquaintances to determine whether their glasses were half-empty or -full.

Whether ‘all this’ referred to the pandemic, Brexit, public pedagogies of hate, climate change or some other seismic wave of social upheaval was left open to them. But the conversations that followed invariably told me that optimism and pessimism are no longer the neat dichotomy we presume.

From the breakout docuseries Tiger King to Animal Crossing , Dua Lipa, Lockdown Drawings, Window Swap, and so much more, it’s clear that culture helped us get through a turbulent year.

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Tiger King...the Mayhem and Madness we needed to make sense of our own in March 2020. Image courtesy of Netflix

I believe that culture in 2021 will (1) be ecologically conscious, (2) improvised, and (3) continue to push for diversity. Looking ahead, I find myself looking for reasons to be hopeful. But it’s hard when there’s still so much uncertainty.

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When I feel despondent, I turn to my most reliable source of a lift: poetry. W.S. Merwin’s ode ‘To the New Year’ begins cosily enough, with ‘first sunlight reaching down / to touch the tips of a few / high leaves’. It puts me in mind of the first lockdown, when we all discovered how still and beautiful spring could be, that all the blossoms were a lot blossomier than we remembered (after Dennis Potter and George Shaw.) When Merwin describes ‘the hush of the morning’, I recall Drew Daniel’s ‘Quarantine Supercut’, an archive of the low sound we all suddenly became aware of, then promptly got used to and forgot.

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Vincent Van Gogh, Orchard with Cypress Trees (1888)

From Merwin’s hopeful beginning, which evokes the pleasant stirring of New Year’s Day, the tranquil scene and air of mystical curiosity is eroded, leaving us in a state of precariousness, much like the end of 2020. ‘Our hopes such as they are’, he writes at the end, ‘invisible before us / untouched and still possible’.

Merwin was a great poet of fruitless striving, of the barrenness of lost time, of wondrous possibility and inevitable extinction (‘with the forests falling faster than the minutes / of our lives we are saying thank you’). But here, he finds melancholy hope in the promise of continuation: it’s as if we must abandon our hopes – lose sight of them (‘invisible’), stop trying to reach out for them (‘untouched’) – in order for them to still be possible.


For every study touting the benefits of optimism, for life expectancy, general and mental health, you can find a study suggesting the opposite: psychologists Robins and John (1997) found that optimistic illusions of performance are more likely to be associated with narcissism than mental health.

Robins and John’s findings echo Freud’s 1927 proclamation in The Future of Illusion that (religious) optimism compensates people for the sacrifices necessary for civilisation and is at the core of what he termed the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity.

Cruel optimism


Affect theorist Lauren Berlant goes as far as calling optimism cruel. Her provocative concept states that cruel optimism ‘exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing’.

Examples abound: glossy magazines whose style guides promise a ‘new you’ amidst unattainable airbrushed perfection. Influencers who urge you to ‘live your best life’, as if there is a better one to be living, if only strived for. The people on Twitter who thought lockdown was the perfect time for you to write the next King Lear.

Last January, several lifetimes ago, Cheer landed on Netflix. As well as stirring within me the emotion of its title, it was one of the year’s best TV shows, and precisely because it dramatised what Berlant describes.

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There is no halftime for cheerleaders. Image courtesy of Netflix

Cheer showed young people who had latched onto cheerleading as a way to make sense of a traumatising and uncertain world. It showed us how painful cheerleading could be – the falls, concussions, and sprained ankles – but that pain was not as painful as not having anything to latch onto at all.


Berlant’s Cruel Optimism was published towards the end of Barack Obama’s first term, at a time the president was disappointing his most ardent supporters with his policies on drones, Syria, immigration, and the Keystone XL pipeline, i.e. a time before liberals got a real taste for frustration and disillusionment with the shock election of Donald Trump.

2020 provided a glimmer of hope when the American electorate voted Trump out – though I suspect the general reaction among liberals was like that of my household, less a ‘Hooray, Joe Biden’ than a ‘Thank God, Not-Trump’. Like me, Biden also found in a poem a view through muddy rose-tints, quoting Seamus Heaney throughout his campaign; I hope, at least, the President elect can ‘make hope and history rhyme’.

Making hope and history rhyme is a lovely idea, isn’t it? Biden makes it sound so easy. Heaney, however, must be attuned to the fact that ‘hope’ and ‘history’ do not rhyme. It’s a point so obvious I almost forgot to make it, as I was swept along by the idea. Hope, as a concept, requires you to get swept along. You can’t have ‘confidence in the future’, if you’re hithering and dithering.

But what if 2021 didn’t require optimism and hope – but something else? Although there are without a doubt reasons to be hopeful – the rolling out of the Covid-19 vaccine being a key one – what if 2021 requires a new range of complex emotions to meet the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in?

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Since its inclusion in Unicode 8.0 in 2015, the upside-down face emoji – which goes something like this: (.~.) – has been proving the existence of multiple optimisms and pessimisms. Able to convey everything from sarcasm to passive aggression, confusion, irony, silliness, flirtation, pain, and frustration, above all else it seems to say something like: every silver lining has a cloud.

Always turning a situation on its head, yet almost indecipherable without surrounding context, upside-down face is a succinct acknowledgement that our emotions are allowed to be ambiguous. The idea that our glasses can be categorised as half-full or -empty, or that we might apply a one-size-fits-all attitude to meet the coming months, is the real illusion. Fortunately, a face to greet the uncomfortable undecidability of our current predicament is just a tap away.

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In his 2019 New Yorker article, novelist Jonathan Franzen argues that in order to prepare for climate change, we need to admit we can’t prevent it.

Franzen suggests the roll-up-your-sleeves narrative that ‘climate change can be “solved” if we summon the collective will’ is another kind of cruel optimism, resulting in complacency:

If your hope for the future depends on a wildly optimistic scenario, what will you do ten years from now, when the scenario becomes unworkable even in theory? Give up on the planet entirely?

Rather than swinging between hope and despair, he suggests trying to save what you love specifically – ‘a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble.’

Last year, nature took over the art world in the UK: Eco-Visionaries at the Royal Academy confronted ‘a planet in a state of emergency’, followed by foraging for Mushrooms at Somerset House. At the Hayward Gallery, we walked Among the Trees. John Newling’s Dear Nature showed at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery. There was The Botanical Mind at Camden Art’s Centre and Formafantasma: Cambio at the Serpentine, which examined the effects of the timber industry on the planet’s biosphere.

Ecology isn’t just a passing trend in the art world, but something that will underpin artists’ practices for a long time to come, as we all find ways to work with and within an unworkable scenario. How could it not be?


During the pandemic, the cultural sector has improvised by moving online, with major art galleries setting up Viewing Rooms, IG Lives, and other technological substitutes. In the worst cases, all this virtual culture felt like Coke Zeros of the real thing.

In the best cases, we were allowed to experience artists thinking on their feet, drawing on technology as an integral part of their expression. My favourite online ad-lib of 2020 was Celine Song’s The Seagull on The Sims 4, which saw the Canadian playwright attempting to perform Chekhov’s play on Twitch, the world’s largest game streaming platform.

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As her all-Sim cast wandered off and kept needing to go the toilet, someone posted in the chat: ‘Everything going on right now is more Chekhov than Chekhov.’ Indeed, the question of why so many people are watching other people play video games online, rather than playing themselves, felt like a very Chekhovian question.

Art galleries and theatres will continue with this hybrid model. We’ll see more musicians making bedroom pop, and more artists working from the metaphorical canvases that they’re already in. Why not draw on what’s immediately to hand?


The resurgence of Black Lives Matter is inspiring the cultural sector to better represent people of colour. Kehinde Wiley launched the Black Rock Senegal residency to offer artists of colour space to develop in 2019. The same year, Iniva and Manchester Art Gallery named Jade Montserrat as the first artist to be commissioned for Future Collect – ‘a dynamic new partnership to transform the culture of collecting to better reflect contemporary British society.’

Sonia Boyce will be the first black female artist to represent the UK at the 2022 Venice Biennale. This year, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was the first black female British artist to have a major show at Tate Britain.

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Lynette Yiadom-Boayke
A Concentration 2018
Carter Collection
© Courtesy of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Yet, this is not the time to pat ourselves on the backs, and diversity is a perfect issue for the argument that blind optimism simply doesn’t pay.

Nathalie Olah might be right when she considers that the bailout for the cultural sector after the pandemic is unlikely to reach small organisations or people on lower incomes.

As Aindrea Emelife says, ‘The pursuit of equity and magnifying varying voices is not just a matter of duty, nor is it just an exercise in reflecting demographics and numbers – it is a key tool to ensure museums’ relevancy in an ever-changing world.’

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There is no future for culture without everyone’s voice in it; otherwise, we will occasion a future belonging to a select few. As we move into 2021, continue to improvise, and deal with uncertainty, we must ensure we take everyone with us. As long as we continue to create and consume in a way that is engaged and meaningful and good for today, then we have something to hope for. The future will remain ‘untouched and still possible’.

By Sammi Gale

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