Scott Timberg makes a compelling case in this book that the so-called “Creative Class,” as made popular by the sociologist Richard Florida, is, if not a dying breed, currently suffering terribly. At first I thought the book would have a bit of the “preaching-to-the-choir” vibe after his well-written, yet clearly one-sided Introduction, but as the book gained momentum, the statistics he garnered to back his claim were compelling. Work for performing artists, creative writers, journalists, and others, is scarce, and continues to be so. Unless you’re a “trust fund baby” in America, it does seem the “creative class” is still reeling. And dying.
Timberg gives various reasons why this is so. I won’t go into them in-depth, here. However, the thrust of his thesis seems to be this: the fall is a conglomeration of events: the 2008 recession, the ever-endless ubiquitous-ness of the Internet, the consequent exponential amount of choice a consumer has with it, un-mediated, – and, I would add, un-curated – the severance of the creative class from the “bourgeoisie” that happened in France in the middle 19th century with the rise of the “avant-garde” and its disdain for the middle-class, that in fact were the ones BUYING the stuff.
Though Timberg is clearly coming from the left, he intelligently does not let the left off the hook. For example, he argues that the rise of theory – structuralism, post-structuralism, and other movements branching from the late ’60s student rebellion in Paris, created a philosophical, theoretical, and literary circle so in-bred, and so oh-if-you-don’t-get-it-yer-a-square-baby in argument, and so vociferous in the intention of bringing anything remotely like art, off its sacred hobby-horse, with “The Death of the Author,” and so on, that it created an insular community that successfully DID alienate the middle class, and in a way, through theory, made themselves successfully irrelevant: or at least *seem* irrelevant. For Timberg, “art for art’s sake” was a flash in the pan in the history of art. For most of history, argues Timberg, art actually *meant* something. This ideology then put the creative class in a bad bad way.
The dissolution of middle class in general, is where Timberg’s argument is the strongest, in my opinion. His contention that most creatives *come* from the middle class, and most creatives want to *remain* in the middle class – unlike public perception of artists as narcissists shoving irrelevancies down their throat – juxtaposed with the aforementioned alienation of the middle-class, created an insolvency that pushed the “top 1%” of the creative class disproportionately higher than the at-large “1%” we’re used to hearing about in American politics. In other words, creatives who are rich and famous have gotten richer and more famous, and those creatives who are not have gotten poorer and with less opportunity. It’s become harder and harder for those creatives neither wishing fortune, nor a chic kind of poverty, to make a living doing what they feel is worth something. THAT, to me, is what makes this book special.
Coincidentally, I started reading Sarah Thornton’s “33 Artists in 3 Acts” right after “Culture Crash.” Thornton’s first “actor” is Jeff Koons: that aesthetic mogul many Pop fans love – and the rest of the world love to hate. Thornton settles down after some overtly passive-aggressive comments about Koons – his attention to his “market,” (or maybe “brand,” in more contemporary Internet-speak?), for example – but it occurred to me: Thornton is writing about those artists in that top 1% Timberg references, and is, in a way, perpetuating the “Artist-as-God-as-Lazy-as-Unnecessary-etc” that the middle-class now loathes, Timberg is trying to de-mystify. It makes for good companion reading pieces.
To end on a personal note, I consider myself to *be* one of these “creatives,” though in my professional career I’ve hardly created as much as I would have liked to. I’ve done a myriad of things in New York – worked at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art, un-boxed and tagged clothes in the basement of Henri Bendels, catered, temped at hedge funds, done market surveys for $50, even spent two 8-hour days folding and stuffing envelopes. At first, it felt thrilling: I was in “New York”, struggling through like all “great artists”! Then, it got depressing. Then, it became despairing, until now, one year shy of 40, through a divorce, etc., life has gotten really really hard to justify. So I ask, as does Timberg: what’s next? Will there be a creative class in the future that *isn’t* independently wealthy in America that can make a living? I think so. But it’s gonna be really really. Hard.
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