I am the very person journalist Scott Timberg is describing in his book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. I’ve been a musician, poet and writer. I’ve worked in bookstores, taught in colleges, and most recently have delved into writing book and movie reviews. I live in Portland, Oregon, long known as a cultural mecca, but now being gentrified to the point that artists like me can’t even afford to live here anymore. Not that the general public seems interested in and kind of Art-with-a-capital-A much, when they can be entertained by Dancing With The Stars on television.
Yes, and I’m a member of the middle class, or was, and find myself living below the poverty level after being laid off from a teaching job. And I don’t feel I’m alone in this situation, that while the media still continues to talk about an economic recovery, everyone I know, friends and former students, are at best making less than their parents and at worst losing houses and jobs. But few seem to be talking about this, at least not in a clear and thorough way, and not in the MSM, until now, with Culture Crash.
Most readers know who Timberg’s ‘creative class’ might include: writers, musicians, artists, of course. He spends a chapter trying to convince us that journalists also fall into this category, something I would have accepted easily, but he wants to show how journalists, and print journalism, have been just as decimated as other types of writers or artists, the only difference being that journalists used to at least have steady good-paying day jobs, whereas many of the ‘core’ creative class, I would argue, has always kind of been on the edge of uncertainty about steady income.
Another section of the creative class Timberg includes is critics, both the journalistic kind, and academics. He re-makes the argument, made elsewhere, that critics are necessary to the art world (and here I mean all arts) in that they (help) create a sense of ‘worth,’ i.e. they argue what is good and what is not, forcing us viewers/readers/listeners to wonder and question what we ourselves think is good or not. Without critics, everything starts to seem ‘good enough,’ and art loses out to entertainment.
One group Timberg definitely does NOT include in his creative class, and which I’ve seen included in other types of classifications like this, are the tech folks, including but not limited to all the code writers and internet start-uppers. In fact, as we infer later on, they are part of the problem. Timberg doesn’t spend a lot of time on any particular indictment, but does take a swipe at some of the new non-fiction books that have come out in the last decade touting the creativity of inventors such as (but not limited to) Steve Jobs.
The most interesting inclusion Timberg makes in the creative class are retail workers, like those who work(ed) at record and bookstores. They are the unsung heroes of the creative process for Timberg, the disseminators of the actual creative product, the priests who help guide consumers to new and deserving works of art. And, like the artists themselves, their ranks have been decimated—record shops hardly exist anymore, nor do bookstores. And if you believe the argument that the internet now makes all kinds of choices and discoveries possible in the privacy of your own home, Timberg argues that the opposite is true, that the internet tends to favor and re-favor the already big and already popular (that’s what search engines do after all), leading any potential curiosities back to mainstream mediocrity.
The reasons for the ‘killing’ of the creative class are many, sometimes building and feeding off each other, some of which come as no surprise, like the advent of the internet, and the widespread availability of music, movies, and books (but especially music) for free. Timberg spends a little time showing how the music companies messed up in their non-response to the first big music-sharing phenomenon, Napster, though assumes, with this and with many other historical facts, that readers of Culture Crash know a bit about all this already. I think that assumption is true, though he keeps the summaries of info interesting and well written (above all, Culture Crash is well written in accessible fast-read language).
Timberg spends a chapter on music and musicians, and Culture Crash is kind of the rebuttal to another book I’ve recently reviewed: Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free by Cory Doctorow. In that book, Doctorow, an author, and someone for whom the new system has worked alright, embraces the freedom and, though not a musician, gives ways that musicians can earn a living around giving away their music for free, including touring and selling swag. But Timberg gives a thorough description, in the chapter “Indie Rock’s Endless Road,” from actual musicians trying to ‘make it’ (i.e. just survive making art) of just how much work that entails, and the cost, especially in having to be on tour all the time, to health and families. ‘Branding’ oneself, and being a salesperson for oneself just is not that viable for anyone (certainly not everyone) wanting a basic middle-class existence of a house to raise children in, and being there to do the raising.
More reasons for the ‘killing’ of the creative class include the rise of corporations, with both their need to please shareholders and the just bone-headed decisions their CEOs make, including those CEOs ‘running’ big newspapers (into the ground). In fact, though Timberg seems to think the era of big, good newspapers is over, to me he makes a convincing case that newspapers could still be more than viable if only not publicly owned, and if only they’d not post their content online for free.
The economy is also a villain in this story, though for various reasons. The ‘Great Crash’ of 2008 is a factor, but things were going bad for artists before then. No, one big reason, strangely, is that despite most of us feeling like we’re still in a depression, there are some people, somewhere, somehow, who are making very good money, and, Timberg shows, they’re moving into all the cool cities like Portland and driving up the rents. The single most important factor for the creative class being able to survive or not, according to Timberg (and who could disagree?) is rent. And if artists can’t afford to live somewhere, they lose easy access to places to show their art (like clubs and galleries) and access to their fellow artists, to a creative community.
The last big nefarious villain killing the creative class is, Timberg argues, academia, in the sense that academics, starting in the second half of the 20th century, retreated into the gated communities of universities and took their critiques of culture with them, publishing in journals only they read, using an academic language (I call it ‘academicese’) inaccessible to the general public (or even, I suspect, to themselves).
Also, the rise of Theory-with-a-capital-T, and all its -isms, made possible the idea that no work of art was sacred, everything could be deconstructed and broken down and divorced from its creator, and with that came the rise of Cultural Theory and the idea that anything can be studied just as validly, so that a Feminist-Marxist critique of Madonna is just as important as one on Milton. You may or may not agree with that (I actually kind of do) but it certainly signals to students, and the public, when they can actually understand the academicese, that Art-with-a-capital-A is no better than entertainment.
And that’s how Timberg eases into the end of Culture Crash, with a good old fashioned claim that there is a difference between Art and entertainment. Again, I actually agree with him here too, though the claim isn’t really substantiated, and after showing us the killing off of the creative class in the previous chapter, it hardly comes off as strong, or even defiant but rather, well, kind of pitiful.
Because yes, as I feared at the outset, Timberg doesn’t present us with any real solutions to the killing of the creative class. He’s made the case that it’s kind of a done deal, but then in the Epilogue (which is telling: he can’t even justify a full-on chapter?!) gives us this: “Many of the challenges of the twenty-first century may be unsolvable.” Can he give us anything? Any kind of suggestion? Nope: “Seismic technological and economic trends work against the creative class and much of what I value,” Timberg writes, “but some things are within our control. The details are complicated, and because conditions are changing so fast it’s probably pointless to provide specific details here.”
I can only hope that that’s his way of saying he’s working on a follow-up book, one with specifics. And if I’m a little exasperated with the way Timberg ends Culture Crash, it’s not so much aimed at him as at the situation. I understand. He’s made his point and doesn’t like where he’s ended up. I don’t either. The few viable, though barely plausible, paths towards any kind of change involve more and greater subsidies to the arts, and of course the usual unrealistic suggestions like greater funding for the arts in schools, or at this point just for schools, period. In the meantime, and I’m not making this up, the only practical suggestion Timberg offers to artists is to find a server (read: servant) position at a restaurant.
Gloomy news, and it gets worse, because the larger argument that Timberg is making is that, ‘as goes the creative class, so goes the middle class.’ In fact, parts of the Culture Crash are about how the creative class comes from the middle class, is the middle class, and aspires to be middle class. That is, nobody’s trying to be Shakira or Stephen King here, we just want to make enough through our art to live, and raise a family.
Not gonna happen, and if it does, it’s going to take a whole lot of work, and a whole lot of selling ourselves, neither of which is conducive to creating art. What art that does survive may or may not be that good, but there may not be a middle class to appreciate (or buy) it. Nor, apparently, will anyone care, unless conversations like the one Timberg is attempting to make us have start to happen more. They may, though I feel like the people who will read Culture Crash may be the choir, and the ones who should read it are posting videos on Facebook of kittens playing with iguanas.