Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class
Yale University Press, 2015
320 pp., 0.96
Walking through a woods near my mother's place lately, I noticed that on some slopes tiny saplings were growing an inch or two apart. Elsewhere, young trees were competing with each other, and elsewhere still, nothing new had come up through the dead leaves between giant hardwoods.
A biologist could note differences in soil chemistry, sunlight penetration, and drainage, as well as the preferences and strengths of various species; but I bet nobody could predict exactly where, how, and why an immense, valuable white oak would grow. Even its deliberate cultivation would be uncertain: a varmint might snack, a hunter or hiker might stomp, or some other disaster or stress might prevail.
Luckily, in the game lands of northwestern Pennsylvania, a cheerful Darwinism scorns the gloom of chance and the rarity of topnotch inclusive fitness. Like the ladies of Boston who say, "We do not buy hats—we have hats," my mother and her neighbors feel they'll always have trees, by insouciant natural right.
I had two family dogs walking with me. We love them, but if either got cancer, we might not "have" money for a complicated operation. And a new heart or dialysis for a dog—there may not even be such a thing. The baby born with a deadly genetic defect, however, whom I heard about through her grandparents, was in another category: her family would have done anything, given anything for her life.
Try to put art and culture on this same continuum of survival value, and the muddle looks immense. The Parable of the Sower becomes Infinite Jest. Truly, the people cultivating their own talents are as numerous, and as statistically disadvantaged, as young trees, but they are people, making it cold-hearted to insist on a sharp separation between the value of their lives in themselves—a value on which the Judeo-Christian tradition is shy about setting any limits—and the objective economic or social value of what they "create"; many of them, after all, claim that "creative" activities alone give their lives meaning.
On the other hand, that basic vocabulary—"create," "creativity," "creative," "creator" (especially this last)—needs some skeptical examination. Popularly, "creative" describes almost any three-year-old with trendy and pushy parents; the part of an ad agency that cranks out the words and images; an urge to share thoughts and emotions—and a lot else. "Content creator," as the person whose words, music, or images fuel a Web enterprise, prompting monetizable click-throughs, is a disturbing job title. Is God, in parallel, merely the "creator" of the world's "content"?
And how are we supposed to hash this all out at a time of amazing opportunities yet unprecedented hardships for "creatives"? Today, practically anybody can have an instant audience, but never has such a huge proportion of the earnings from music bypassed the composers and performers, and never was it harder for the average writer to make enough from one book to fund work on the next. What—logically, practically, conceivably—can develop as a new system for promoting—or should that in part be repressing?—the arts and culture?
We don't even agree on what the words "arts and culture" mean, and in the Eastern academy where I'm at home, many people would cringe at my late father's and my own enjoyment of hymns and Civil War music, or at my mother's and my own delight in Alexander McCall Smith's #1 Ladies Detective Agency series. And speaking of trees, and literal "culture" (the most basic meaning of the word being "cultivation"), what about my family's efforts for the American Chestnut Foundation, preserving and propagating living things of aesthetic, historical, and natural importance?
Most Americans are pretty fierce defenders of culture as they see it, but there's probably never been a time of greater alienation from Mark Twain, from the Bible—from anyone and anything that used to unify. The recasting of more and more that we have (and might have) as commercial products and services, directed to generate larger and larger short-term returns, hasn't been kind to us.
In Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, Scott Timberg deplores the growing shallowness and hollowness of our national life in this regard, and he dips into two of the most important stories. One is about the breakdown of newspapers. He tells of losing his own strenuous middle-class job as a Los Angeles Times arts reporter, resulting in foreclosure on his young family's modest home. Everywhere nowadays, he sees former colleagues and the people they've reported on suffering in similar ways.
He is certainly right about the weird spell the Internet cast on news management. To me in hindsight, the reasoning looks like "That puppy is irresistible, without having any expenses or professional or civic responsibilities to speak of; if we just get rid of ours, we'll be as wildly successful as the puppy."
Since Timberg's interests center on popular music, he's also upset about the—certainly lamentable—weakening of the American music industry through free or low-cost downloading (some outright illegal, some legal but on terms that gouge musicians and composers pitilessly). But it's here that the book's own weaknesses are clearest. The author is far too apt to characterize the alleged demise of American culture as a doom-laden failure to appreciate his personal idols. About taste, he can be straightforwardly snotty:
All kinds of outlets, including ones that saw themselves as part of rock's rebel spirit, fell into a contrarian vogue for championing discredited musicians from the past—no matter how shallow. Instead of coverage of, say, the lost recordings of pioneering bebop guitarist Charlie Christian, or a tribute to Appalachian string bands that laid the groundwork for country music, we read pieces "in defense of" blockbuster acts like the Eagles (the bestselling rock band in history), Billy Joel, Rush—groups whose songs, thanks to the iron lock big corporate labels and programmers had on radio in the '70s and '80s, it was once impossible to get away from. Some of these bands recovered from the critical dumpster are setting records for high-priced concert tickets on their inevitable reunion tours. Between irony, nostalgia, and critical reclamation projects, you could walk into an upscale coffee shop or expensive sporting event and hear the once compulsory AOR playlist as if it were still 1984, and the whole rebellion of punk, college radio, and indie rock never happened. It's as if citizens of the former Soviet Union pined for Siberian exile and endless queues for toilet paper.
Ahem. Eagles albums aren't queues for toilet paper, endured under the boot of overweening power: people bought so many albums because they enjoyed them; and they didn't care, any more than they do now, whether professional critics thought Appalachian string bands were better.
And nostalgic though people may be, it's in some measure not for the music per se but for the waves of popularity that were in essence a broad populism—rock's real "rebel spirit." Here, of course, neither corporations nor critics were decisively influential; expensive movie flops from that era show that Americans don't buy whatever they're told to—and their independence is more robust, not more feeble, today. At the grassroots, there seems to be equal contempt for sell-out pop songs used in car commercials and for the American Public Radio host fawning over a composer for toy pianos.
So far from lauding this attitude, Timberg disapproves even of the escape into traditional high culture, in effect demanding that, as a sort of employment program for the creative class, hard-up orchestras, art museums, and theaters feature experimental and avant-garde works without followings or the capacity to generate them, and abandon The Messiah, the Impressionists, and the Thornton Wilder people crave.
His contempt for the mainstream a major new cultural movement would have to please reaches a crescendo in his disquisitions on modern architecture and modern art. Among "wisdom-of-the-crowd comments by amateur reviewers" of paintings on sale online, he cites "one on a Warhol screen print of a Campbell's Golden Mushroom Soup can for just under $25,000, that directed other customers to the grocery section and noted: 'This version is a much better price, and is delicious.' "
To prevent any suspicion that he's at all charmed by this sally, Timberg immediately adds:
And if individual discernment, whether from an art critic in your newspaper or an obsessive clerk at your record store or your college English professor, is not important—if human judgment no longer matters—the replacement of people by computers becomes a lot less consequential. The decades-long assault on liberal humanism was a perfect sequel [sic] to the age of the algorithm.
Hmm—then a person posting a comment online (ipso facto?) doesn't have "individual discernment" or "human judgment"? The mocking voice from the crowd is an enemy of, not a natural concomitant to, liberal humanism?—in which the assignment of value should remain under expert, official custody? That sounds more like the country where you queued endlessly for toilet paper and were exiled to the steppes for expressing yourself honestly.
What Timberg seems on balance to expose is not philistinism or corporate depredations as much as an élite cultural bubble that inflated alongside the Wall Street financial one. A bubble isn't based as much on a fantasy about commodities— tulips, housing, art, or whatever—as a fantasy about the self: I have figured out the route and am busing the masses to prosperity and bliss; I do not need to read the road signs, look in the rearview mirror, or listen to the story of what's over that hill. Timberg hasn't been alone in his underlying logic that cultural arbiters can and should and must take Americans on to paradise.
But all bubbles burst sooner or later. For arts and sciences graduate students at Harvard, the only on-campus housing provided is the Walter Gropius dorms, which regularly appear in architecture textbooks as jewels of the Bauhaus movement. Up close, they look and feel like miniature penitentiaries. One side of Child Hall, where I lived for a few months in the mid-'80s, was freezing all winter, while the other necessitated constantly opened windows and still gave me a gory heat rash. My parents' sneers at the "concrete slabs" of the modern landscape were more than confirmed.
One day, a wad of jagged black metal was installed on a concrete base beside the dorm. The next day, the artist showed up, furious: the art was backwards. The base was duly excavated and the art turned around. Sardonic talk of the art's cost and the cost of correcting its display flew among us graduate students: the aspiring scientists and engineers, who over their careers would have to raise most of their research money from outside sources, yet turn over giant percentages of "overhead" for their universities to spend with little restriction; and those of us in the humanities, whose tiny stipends and thin frozen pizzas were a prelude to a lifetime of quite modest living at centers of culture profligate for the sake of "challenging" (=weird) new stuff, and obliviously neglectful of traditional disiplines. Bubbles sometimes burst from the jab of a crisis, but at other times from the steady, irritating friction on those outside them.
But the élite American cultural bubble may only be hissing slowly flat. There's no general, open revolt of critics, patrons, or consumers. People have, after all, made big investments of one kind or another, and are afraid to be called rubes, or to risk denouncing outright what will actually last. Literally, God alone knows that.
And besides—for me, anyway—there's the dread that what comes next might not be even as good as what's here now. Maybe we've already had our best experiences of the arts. That may be the message of my distress when the independent cinema shuts down; the message of my grief for the absurdly talented writer who can't find anyone to pay for her work; the message of two young women fresh from break-ups, who, in my memory, are lying on the floor of a Quaker meetinghouse at midnight after a party in the early '90s and singing a Roxette song at the tops of their voices:
It must have been love but it's over now,
it was all that I wanted, now I'm living without.
It must have been love but it's over now,
it's where the water flows, it's where the wind blows,
it's where the wind blows
A pop song had stuck in their minds and they needed to sing it themselves, together. Sweet, quaint—like a Victorian mother reading aloud by lamplight.
Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Brown University. She recently finished translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for the Modern Library series with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. The Harp, the Voice, the Book: A Translator on the Beauty and Meaning of the Bible is forthcoming from Knopf.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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