The face mask has transcended what it used to be and has become the axis on which everything turns. There isn’t one mouth of society that a face mask doesn’t cover: politics, charity, glory, fashion, art, identity, law, order, entrepreneurship and more. As we ease out of the transitional period from pre- to post-pandemic, the walls of still-standing Tory constituencies will be scrawled with the new first verse of the first chapter of the new book of commandments, “And society will rebuild itself upon a face mask.”
ITV are commissioning a new game show in which one team has to guess the other team’s political leaning based on their reaction to little piece of cotton? No, not really, but I think it could be easy to win. With ‘scientific facts’ warring with scientific facts and discussions about duty of protection, it’s fascinating to see face masks being added to politicians’ toolbox, snuggled between kissing babies and celebrity endorsements. In America, the political significance of face masks is more overt; the recent battle between Biden and Trump revolved around Biden publicly wearing a face mask and Trump refusing to do so. Maybe he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s sniffing the sanitary towel he grabbed from someone’s ‘pussy’. Despite face masks being cited by scientists and medics as doing something to prevent the spread of coronavirus in public, Trump has created a discourse in which masks are seen as weak, even unpresidential.
The case is no different in the UK; masks and their multitude are of particular concern to the public, and any controversy surrounding them leads to outrage. During March, the government supplied keyworkers with out-of-date masks and PPE. This government failing was, of course, swept under the rug when the next one came along.
GLORY & HEROISM
A society needs idols. The American hero is often the main character in a rags-to-riches story. The British hero is an alcoholic, coke-head who hates Germans; that’s why Winston Churchill is revered. But the archetype for the British hero has changed. As Bansky’s recent work has pointed out, the masked nurses, doctors, porters, cleaners, ambulance drivers and countless others are the ones we should idolise. The weekly ‘Clap for the NHS’ has recently ended after it was felt it couldn’t achieve any more than it had, but a paradigm has shifted. Attention was paid to those who deserved it, something that happens too rarely. It is impossible to know if this iteration of ‘heroism’ will last more than a few months or if they’ll even get a statue out of it. To see monuments of masked heroes up and down the country wouldn’t write off any debt we owe, but it would be a breath of fresh air from the Victorian bearded men and their dogs.
ART & FASHION
The face mask has somehow found itself in ‘high’ culture. Artists are now using face masks as a canvas on which to present their work, the medium also handily taking on a political dimension. To raise money for a coronavirus response fund, artists David Shrigley, Linder Sterling and Eddie Peake have designed face masks and are selling them to the public. I’m sure when you’ve gone outside or done some essential shopping, you’ve seen an array of masks other than the standard surgical blue. As a nation, we have evolved and now strive to perform our identities even during times of crisis. ‘Vogue’ has even compiled a list of where the most ‘stylish’ masks are to be found. Some people have masks made from flowery fabric; some are branded; some are tattered and overused; some are invisible.
Maybe I’m overthinking what these masks say about the individuals who wear them, but a hierarchy is slowly forming. Soon magazines will brand people who wear the sad surgical blue as unfashionable and they will be ridiculed. Perhaps it’s symptomatic of Britain that even in times of crisis, fashion and art snobbery never die away.
LAW & ORDER
Right now, it’s a struggle to write anything about law, order, policing and justice without feeling heaviness in the heart. In the new society of face masks we’re entering into, behaviour policing is all the more relevant as face mask fines are hotly debated. More than fifty countries already require citizens to wear masks while out in public or face being fined. In Germany’s sixteen states, the cost of the rejecting ‘Die Maskenpflicht’ (the duty of wearing a mask) varies from €25 to €10,000. Some people think introducing this in Britain would be an intrusion on their rights, others don’t want to get coronavirus.
Evidently, face masks are not just a prop for surgeons anymore. They are the cornerstone for the future society we are building with our present actions. It’s time for any and all readers of this to get used to the idea of not being able to hear non-muffled speech in public. So, as we pass that wall on which the verse is scrawled, we’ll try to remember what life was like before and most likely fail. Then we’ll walk down the road a bit and pass the second verse: “All traitors of the public are to be executed at Barnard Castle”.
Image: Queen Victoria’s Statue, Manchester