Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class by Scott Timberg. Yale University Press, 320 pages.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” such is Scott Timberg’s diagnosis of the creative professions in the twenty-first century. A variety of social and cultural forces–from industry consolidation to the Internet–have decimated both the diversity and depth of the art produced by the American system of cultural production. For Timberg, cultural progress has led cultural middlemen to disappear almost completely, from booksellers (63-69) to art critics (159). These jobs were more than inefficient purveyors of post-Fordist service goods; for Timberg, these middlemen also serve as a cultural repository, or “infrastructure,” (12) that informs American cultural life and encourages collaboration and the creation of new works. Their disappearance will accordingly retard the growth and quality of American art as a whole for years to come.
Timberg’s definition of the “creative class” improves upon the work of Atlantic editor Richard Florida, whose “creative class” includes 40 million American “knowledge workers” involved in everything from “engineering to theater, biotech to education, [and] architecture to small business.” This overly diffuse definition is certainly stellar for the self-conception of the one in three American workers that can now be labeled “creative.” However, such an inchoate group of workers cannot be said to share many qualities beyond the fact that they avoid manual and clerical labor.
Timberg’s definition, in contrast, focuses on the product rather than the process. “A more useful understanding of the creative class would include anyone who helps create or disseminate culture. So along with sculptors and architects, I mean deejays, bookstore clerks, theater set designers, people who edit books in publishing houses and so on.” (10) This creative class is an ecosystem where artists create and market their works. But recent trends have placed this fragile ecosystem in jeopardy. Timberg argues that the highest echelons of artistic production are somewhat insulated from cultural restructuring (with higher wealth inequality, paradoxically, comes a greater ability to patronize high art; see 224). Truly ‘autonomous’ art made without expectation of commercial gain, too, is insulated from the market through a greater unwillingness to submit to its demands. This leaves the vast middle ground of art that has become ever more commercialized, even as ubiquitous unpaid accessibility to this art means that the benefits of the market accrue to these artists less and less.*
Timberg’s book proceeds through the post-recession economy by profession. We begin with store clerks, freelancers and indie rockers and end with architects, journalists and academics, all workers united by cuts and restructuring that they’ve endured in the past few decades. Timberg’s journalistic style relies on anecdotes, articles, and interviews from industry insiders in what can be thought of as a compilation and extension of his own work as an arts reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Indeed, Timberg’s personal experiences with home foreclosure after 2008’s market crash inspired this book-length investigation (introduction, p. 1-6), the afterlife of a party when the punch runs out.
Even when Timberg moves outside of his own experience, the book’s temporal focus on the 1960s and ’70s make it an intensely personal book, where the author’s own youth serves as the halycon “Silver Age” when media and culture faced (or are least remembered by) widespread ideological and social support. The historical juxtaposition of Timberg’s childhood with the present offers the reader another perspective from which to witness the contemporary decline of the cultural world.
Timberg’s journalistic and intensely personal approach is not without its critics. These critics posit that Timberg values anecdotes over analysis and that the very style of impressionistic reports makes the book ambitious but unfocused. This criticism is somewhat unfair; Timberg’s book is not meant to provide a comprehensive analysis of the structural causes of this “culture crash,” and this journalistic approach adequately enumerates these causes before it examines and describes the effects of these changes.
Culture Crash does overreach, though, when the analysis extends from structural factors to the cultural origins of the crash in the eighth chapter. Timberg blames a deconstructionist-spirited “loss of mission” for the decline in the public-spirited artistic work of the postwar era (207-217). University humanities professors (as Timberg alleges) have lost faith in the restorative power of art; the “middlebrow consensus” that produced, for example, Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts or the edifice (Lincoln Center) in which he played has now given way to pervasive doubt that the humanities hold any internal meaning or value. Examining the cultural origins rather then the structural origins of today’s “culture crash” requires a somewhat distinct set of analytical tools, and it’s unclear here if Timberg’s leitmotif of the “middlebrow” successfully transposes onto the cultural middle class as well as the socioeconomic middle class.
If one takes Timberg’s economics of the music industry as an example, what thrives is the “high” arena-busting corporate acts like Lady Gaga or Billy Joel, along with the “low” indie music that exists, l’art pour l’art, to express a creative need. The alternative artist who doesn’t ascribe to corporate values but still wants to make art for a living is left out in the cold. According to Timberg’s cultural narrative, though, high art relies on university or foundation sponsorship while low art funds itself through the vagaries of the market, leaving semi-autonomous art without a place at the post-2008 table. What Timberg calls “lowbrow” market-based art, then, is actually high corporate art, and “highbrow” foundation-sponsored art, confusingly, is only semi-autonomous from commercial or social pressures. When these competing structures of “middle class” art collide, Timberg’s entire conception of the “middlebrow consensus” loses its precision–we really can’t be sure who these consumers are or what they really think. While American anti-intellectualism is certainly a pervasive force in present-day society, we also can’t be sure exactly how it has intersected with the economic factors that Timberg explains in earlier chapters.
Timberg’s anecdotes communicate a number of interrelated trends, from industry consolidation to rising rents, that bode ill for the culture industry as a whole. These economic and cultural forces pared down the very ecosystem on which the entire culture industry could once depend. And it is the middle that has suffered, “like a garden starved for rain” (262). It’s both a memento to the pre-Internet, pre-2008 structure of America’s creative class and a stark vision of the present and near future of American creativity.
*Timberg mentions the indie artist Zoë Keating, whose two million Youtube views and 400,000 Spotify streams have only led to $3000 in royalties (94-95). The price one pays for “exposure” these days…