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Monday, December 09, 2019

Review: ‘Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class’

Two years ago, Campbell Soup Co. announced it was closing its Sacramento plant near my home. Seven hundred people would lose their jobs — good, middle-class jobs, as the politicians like to call them, the kind that let you cover the mortgage and the car payments and maybe set a bit aside for the kids’ college. The TV news trucks clumped around the plant gate and the story went national. Local leaders, who were so keen to hold on to the jobs that they’d previously ladled out tax breaks to Campbell, wrung their hands. The media calculated the fallout on families, nearby businesses, and the neighborhood. The community mourned. We were losing something important, and the story needed to be told.

What’s gone under-told is a similar story of loss, equally big and arguably even more damaging, that has unfolded a few miles north of the now-empty Campbell plant. In the decade since I left the Sacramento Bee, my former employer has shed just as many jobs as Campbell axed at the tomato soup plant. These too were  good middle-class jobs. And my former colleagues — editors, reporters, critics, photographers, printers, designers — are not the only culture workers put out on the street.

The local arts and lecture group that showcased writers folded. The symphony and opera canceled their seasons. Tower Records, founded in Sacramento, went bankrupt and was liquidated. Locally, this put hundreds of people out of work, many of them artists and musicians who used their Tower paychecks to keep their creative careers alive. Largely out of sight of the TV cameras and out of the notice of most of us, a region’s creative class is being hollowed out.

In his deeply reported and passionately argued new book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, Scott Timberg shows that the cultural hollowing of my town is not unique. Everywhere, musicians, painters, architects, designers, actors, reporters, and writers are struggling, as are many of the institutions and people upon whom creators have long relied to cultivate, curate, publicize, support, and sell their work. They have been hit, each cultural discipline in its own way, by broad changes — iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Craigslist, dwindling public support of colleges, globalization, outsourcing, income inequality. These changes “have undermined the way culture has been created for the past two centuries…,” he writes, “and nothing yet has taken its place.”

The great strength of Timberg’s book is his telling of the creative class’s hidden stories of personal struggle and institutional decay in the midst of what, to the casual eye, looks like cultural plenty. Their plight does not scar cityscapes with the boarded-up buildings and abandoned neighborhoods that mark the loss of middle-class manufacturing jobs in places like Flint or Detroit. There are no Comic Relief shows for them or iconic laments like Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown.” Theirs is more like a farm crisis of the Great Depression: Bumper crops grew fence line to fence line, food prices were low, but farmers could not make the mortgage.

In Culture Crash we meet people like Andrew Wake, who worked his way up the ladder, first playing music, then writing about it as a freelancer, and finally landing a staff writer job on a South Carolina paper owned by the Gannett chain. In 2011 Gannett fired the paper’s whole arts and entertainment section and Wake found himself on the ladder again, this time headed down. Writing jobs in his field were disappearing — nearly 80 percent of arts reporters and critics for print publications have lost their jobs since 2000, Timberg reports — and freelance budgets had been eviscerated. His savings gone, Wake moved home to live in his boyhood bedroom, where he pieces together a living from occasional articles and the pay he gets for caring for his grandmother.

And we meet members of the indie-rock band Grizzly Bear. The band stands high, Timberg tells us, on popular music’s pyramid: Top-10 records, songs in popular movies and a Super Bowl ad, performances on TV and at Radio City Music Hall. Nonetheless, the band’s members share apartments and some have no health insurance. Except at the very pinnacle of popular music, enthusiastic fans and critical esteem do not yield economic security for the musician, only a life of constant self-promotion on social media, endless touring, and little time for creation.

Perhaps these stories resonate so well in Timberg’s telling because he has lived a similar one himself. After two decades writing about culture, the last six years for the Los Angeles Times, he was axed from his job when the Times was looted and driven into bankruptcy by its new owner, a billionaire Chicago real-estate barbarian. He soon lost his home in foreclosure.

What ties Timberg’s experience to those of the creators in his book is a pragmatic understanding that American culture thrived in the last century because it was thoroughly middle class:

We’ve become accustomed to seeing creative beings as either soaring deities or accursed gutter-dwellers. Certainly, some were, and some are. But these two associations have obscured the fact that culture, as we understand the term, tends to originate in the middle class, depends on a middle-class audience for its dissemination and vitality, and leads most of its practitioners, if they are lucky, to a middle-class existence.

The mutual dependence of creator, curator, critic, and consumer met in what Timberg calls the “middlebrow consensus.” Middlebrow was a term of contempt in the mouths of 20th century critics like Dwight Macdonald. But to Timberg the middlebrow consensus — “the sense that there was a shared body of artistic and intellectual touchstones that educated middle-class people should know about” — is what put John Cheever and George Balanchine and Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein on the covers of popular magazines and network television shows. The alternative to the middlebrow consensus turned out not to be a wider embrace of the high seriousness of modernism. Instead we saw the triumph of focus-grouped entertainment and celebrity worship. Macdonald and his fellow highbrows “did not realize how good we had it.”

Should we care if the creative middle class falters? To Timberg, the answer is self-evident. Culture makes for a better society: “more alert, more alive, more compassionate, more connected to both past and present.” A culture made only by artists with trust funds or wealthy patrons, one that dances only to investor demands for blockbusters, would not speak truth to power or rock any boats. Democracy would be diminished.

But as Timberg himself repeatedly details, his faith in the uplift of serious art and the canons of quality is no longer widely shared. Older American traditions like anti-intellectualism and the Puritan rejection of art have now been wedded to a market fundamentalism that measures the worth of art only by what consumers will pay for it. And they have found a new ally in the brain-dead critical studies academicism that regards the very notion of quality and worth as a species of oppression. Culture Crash asks us to extend our sympathy and our hands to the creative class. In many quarters the reply will instead be shrugs and sneers.

And this hostility makes it even harder to answer the question of what is to be done. “What we need most decisively is to reconnect culture to the burghers and rebuild the institutions that made the connection work the last time around,” Timberg writes. “It also means acknowledging that the creative class needs certain middle-class protections.” Those protections, in his telling, sound a lot like those that have just been lost: things like a return of subscription and bundling, so that publishers, recording companies, and movie studios can cultivate serious artists and distribute their work using the profits of mass culture blockbusters. And he would add a big dose of public funding for culture and journalism.

Unrealistic? In this moment, yes. But it’s the writer’s job to lay out the scope of a needed solution even — especially — when it swims against the tide.

Culture Crash is something more important than a work of wonkery. It is a confession of faith in the enduring value of America’s democratic culture. It is a jeremiad about the fate of the men and women who devote their energy, intelligence, and imagination to the work of making that culture — not in the expectation of riches, but for the pride in their craft and the hunger to help their communities and nation understand themselves. Culture Crash is a statement of solidarity with them.

It belongs on the short shelf of books, among them Daniel Rodger’s Age of Fracture and George Packer’s The Unwinding, that explain how an older America of common culture, shared risks, and national purpose has crumbled, leaving each of us, soup maker or musician or critic, to make our way, unsheltered and on our own, through the gales of the market.

Mark Paul, co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It, is a former deputy treasurer of California and former deputy editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.


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