Our politicians hate culture; our media have given up serious reporting; our tech firms have stolen our content; our citizens are in hock to celebrity; our creators cannot make ends meet. To read Scott Timberg’s lament about the creative class is to despair about the state of American society.
Change is no stranger to us in the twenty-first century. We must constantly adjust to an evolving world, to transformation and innovation. But for many thousands of creative artists, a torrent of recent changes has made it all but impossible to earn a living. A persistent economic recession, social shifts, and technological change have combined to put our artists—from graphic designers to indie-rock musicians, from architects to booksellers—out of work. This important book looks deeply and broadly into the roots of the crisis of the creative class in America and tells us why it matters.
The author – one of an army of journalists and creatives who have been shunted out of good jobs and into the badlands of freelance – manages to be very right and very wrong at the same time. He bemoans the demise of a golden era, the late 60s to early 90s, when the public arts were celebrated as never before. Independent bookshops flourished; artists could sell their wares and enjoy a decent life; musicians did not have to reckon with illegal downloads and the scraps off the table from iTunes. He notes that when Kodak was sold to Instagram, an established company with 140,000 employees succumbed to an upstart with 13.
His part-history, part-analysis provides absorbing detail of the demise of the mid list – the authors, painters, designers, architects and actors who did not become famous but whose contribution to the greater good should be celebrated rather than relegated to average annual earnings of under $20,000.
As a result of the denigration of cultural education and disinvestment in the public arts, the author correctly points to the narrowing of access and opportunity: “What’s changed is the ability for people who didn’t have the foresight to be born into wealthy families to earn a middle-class living in creative fields.” Note the American obsession of the oft forgotten “middle class”; the debate over ethnicity and working-class participation.
Art as “elitist” is a tag that resonates on both sides of the pond. Timberg recalls that when the Louisville Orchestra went under, the response of some readers in the local Kentucky paper was contemptuous. One wrote: “Pack up your fiddles and go home, boys and girls. Maybe find real jobs.”
Issues such as these are finally moving up the political agenda. While the commercial creative sector grows at three times the rate of the rest of the economy, Burberry sells more handbags than ever and ITV exports more Downton Abbey than ever, the public organizations that produced the talent over the last 30 years are being starved of funds. Meanwhile, our system (as currently designed- by removing all arts funding) tells young people not to bother studying the arts if they want to have prospects in life.
For all the technology-economic problems facing the “creative class” (how I dislike that term), there is no shortage of entrepreneurial talent. And entrepreneurialism and culture are not antipathetic. As the author points out, throughout history they have more often than not worked in harmony. The older order, whether he likes it or not, will not return. The challenge is to find a new and sustainable settlement – for the good of society.
Scott Timberg considers the human cost as well as the unintended consequences of shuttered record stores, decimated newspapers, music piracy, and a general attitude of indifference. He identifies social tensions and contradictions—most concerning the artist’s place in society—that have plunged the creative class into a fight for survival. Timberg shows how America’s now-collapsing middlebrow culture—a culture once derided by intellectuals like Dwight Macdonald—appears, from today’s vantage point, to have been at least a Silver Age. Timberg’s reporting is essential reading for anyone who works in the world of culture, knows someone who does, or cares about the work creative artists produce.
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