Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class
By Scott Timberg
Hardcover, 310 pages. 8 ½ x 6 inches
Scott Timberg has reported for various well-known magazines and newspapers on culture and the arts. His latest, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class explores not only the hollowing out of his own field, but the hollowing out of the artist from a middle class member of society to a lower class one.
It is a lament for the current state of not only the artist, but the middlemen such as record store and bookstore employees who have steadily lost their footing since the rise of the Internet, the crash of 2008 and the loss of a solid middleclass to support the arts.
Timberg examines the plight of dancers, the hardest hit group of artists in his report, to art and culture critics, writers, musicians, architects and journalists of every discipline, putting forth statistical data and citations from some of the greatest cultural minds of our current era to strengthen his thesis; times have never been so hard for the artist to be known, to make a living and to feel as though they are making a meaningful contribution to society.
Timberg is quick to point out that it isn’t just the market crash and the following recession that got us to this state, but rather a series of mishaps, political milieus and a shift in the focus, packing and promotion of major companies as well as the plethora of online sources and even cold, but reasoning algorithms that have brought our culture down to the level of public disinterest and scorn.
Culture Crash begins, after the introduction, by talking about when culture worked for the arts through a strong network of governmental, personal and academic support and he cites heydays of the arts in the America. Timberg highlights the rise of LA and Austin as art capitols (one for visual artists and the other for musicians) and discusses what he sees as crucial for the incubation of a healthy art scene, one that is supported by the excitement of fellow artists, the criticism of good cultural journalists and the market provided not, as we increasingly think of art collectors, by the ultra wealthy, but by a solid middle class able to collect, attend theater and dance; this latter group, Timberg points out, is perhaps most crucial of all for the healthy support of a culture rich in art.
The book tracks this decline through a gutting of record stores, bookstores, music venues and other places that were not only meeting groups for artists crucial to the development of movements and artistic circles, but the loss of the people who work in such places from those who founded them to the lowest level employee dedicated to moving their taste into the hands of the consumer. Record store employees with a passion for classical music, rock underdogs and all the cultural history behind the music they peddle were, as Timberg tells us, an important component of the industry, people who served as a cultural middleman able to inspire customers with their passions and introduce audiences to music they otherwise might not have heard of.
Their loss leaves the consumer at the whim of corporate marketing and paid advertorials to become informed about current trends and ‘what’s hot and what’s not.’ This leaves the consumer of arts with either the corporate crowing over megastars like Jay-Z or Drake or the record label paid articles by freelance reporters who are under more and more pressure to promote artists that hit a celebrity stardom – the faces and poor behaviors of say, Taylor Swift, in order to establish an income for themselves. This formula is also true of the publishing industry where writers like Tom Clancy, Dan Brown and James Patterson are placed before Alice Munro, Jeffrey Eugenidies and the late David Foster Wallace.
Timberg also follows the fall of the journalist, both those in the arts and culture sections of reliable news sources, but also ‘watchdog’ journalism which, as he points out, requires investigation – hard-nosed reporting and an uncovering of the ‘true story’ that requires time and money in a market where the model is to flip a story in a day and to focus on sensationalist events as they occur, rather than uncovering hidden injustices and social inequalities.
Further, Timberg tracks a dumbing down of culture and a loss of enthusiasm among the academics in our current society as milestone in the destruction of the average American’s appreciation of the arts. He claims that as ‘Deconstructionalism’ and other hyper-critical forms of study have dissected the arts as they take up cold and impartial readings of books, views of paintings and photographs and reduces them to little more than formulas that can be examined and emulated. This causes a step back from the more traditional view the novels, poems, sculpture, dance and other art forms have something to do with our lives, with the emotions that we share and experience as a culture and drops them, rather, into a colder realm like science or math. What this does, he argues, is to deny them (the arts) their relevance, and when the arts are stripped of their vibrancy, their long-standing humanitarian substance not even the professors and universities pushing them feel impassioned about what they’re trying to ‘sell’ new generations of students. Therefore students, whether in pursuit of a humanities degree or attending course to fill out a curriculum, don’t develop the appreciation of the arts that keep novels, theaters and art galleries in their lives and interests.
Does Timberg, at the end of all this hold out hope for a return to the arts in American cultural importance and a solid foundation for the future of artists? Yes, but his forecast is dismal and reads as tough he himself is trying to bolster his belief that the arts can maintain a firm foothold in our society – he wants to believe that the middleclass, not just for artists, but for all of us, can return and with that return more jobs for art critics (and not just your rambling Joe on the internet) book reviewers and conviction-driven journalists and news sources can return also. But he sees this as a long road with much to overcome.
It is sadly illuminating that Culture Crash, as filled with useful information and the long accrued insights of a weathered cultural journalist as it is, was published through a terribly academic press, Yale. It is indicative of all that Timberg says – that for the arts, the cultural evaluation of what is historically and socially important and those who worry about it are outside of the mainstream and often thought of as elitists or curmudgeons upset with the current cultural state of things when, even 30 years ago, they were a source of enrichment for members of all social classes that found support from a large and finically secure middleclass whose appreciation for reading, theater going and a deeper more soulful and relevant music was instilled in them from childhood, supported by their education and strengthened by a lifelong commitment to the cultural enrichment of their own lives and the life of their nation.
Without this middleclass, Timberg laments, the future of arts in America seem to be on the same watch list of the Polar Bear and the American Bald Eagle, but the animals endangered here are the architect, the cultural critic and, in the end, us ourselves. Without a strong culture and a commonly, even if disputed, canon in the arts that we support and talk about and allow to enrich us we run the risk of accepting that culture is blockbuster movies, the music of Lady Gaga and the adrenaline fuelled novels of Tom Clancy and the Steven Soderbergs, Brian Enos and David Foster Wallaces of the American cultural scene are dinosaurs of a different era that have little to contribute to the dialog of our lives.
What does all this mean? If we don’t change, if we don’t stand up for the importance of art and its ability to allow us to understand one another and the trials of people from all walks of life and social backgrounds we run the very real risk of becoming a dumbed down culture, homogenous and lacking in original thoughts and proper empathy for one another. In other words, no one yet has been able to say exactly what art does, but one thing it does is keep us thinking, it keeps us original and provided a common nexus our understanding of one another.
Christopher Johnson is CFile’s Book Reviewer
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