Monday, February 9, 2015

What happened to the middle-class artists and writers?

William Girardi reviews Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, by Scott Timberg, in The New Republic. The set-up:
Here’s a paragraph grim enough to wreck your week, a sortie of distressing numbers about the arbiters, facilitators, and creators of culture: Between 2008 and September 2012, there were 66 No. 1 songs, almost half of which were performed by only six artists (Katy Perry, Rihanna, Flo Rida, The Black Eyed Peas, Adele, and Lady Gaga); in 2011, Adele’s debut album sold more than 70 percent of all classical albums combined, and more than 60 percent of all jazz albums. Between 1982 and 2002, the number of Americans reading fiction withered by nearly 30 percent. In a 1966 UCLA study, 86 percent of students across the country declared that they intended to have a “meaningful philosophy of life”; by 2013, that percentage was amputated by half, “meaningful” no doubt replaced by “moneyful.” Over the past two decades, the number of English majors graduating from Yale University has plummeted by 60 percent; at Stanford University in 2013, only 15 percent of students majored in the humanities. In American universities, more than 50 percent of faculty is adjuncts, pittance-paid laborers with no medical insurance and barely a prayer to bolster them. In the publishing and journalism trades, 260,000 jobs were nixed between 2007 and 2009. Since the turn of the century, around 80 percent of cultural critics writing for newspapers have lost their jobs. There are only two remaining full-time dance critics in the entire United States of America. A not untypical yearly salary in 2008 for a professional dancer was $15,000.
And then there's this:
But there remains this egregiously democratizing effect of the Internet: We believe that most online content is ours for the taking. The model of the online marketplace might be the chief obstacle preventing most middle-class writers and musicians from earning a living with their work, but it’s about time we, the users, come around to the moral side of the argument: We should purchase what we read and hear on our computers. “The human cost of ‘free’ becomes clear,” writes Timberg, “every day a publisher lays off staff … or a documentarian finds her film uploaded to YouTube without her permission.” If you care about the increasingly dejected plight of the creative class, there’s nothing stopping you from subscribing to a newspaper or magazine, or from paying for your music and movies online, just as there’s nothing stopping you from snapping shut your laptop and reaching for a hardback of Homer.
And so:
Of all the realities chronicled in Culture Crash, what would the worst manifestation of the worst realities look like? No new art but corporate-driven celebrity kitsch, essayistic advertisements tapped out by algorithms, the annihilation of independent ideas and the thriving of ideological groupthink, an aesthetical tundra everywhere, a society of philistines that “tranquilizes itself in the trivial,” in Kierkegaard’s phrase. And what is the most we can hope for, what would the best manifestation look like? If worse comes to worst is only slightly more exasperating than if better comes to best and the best is far from good enough. Artists of independence and seriousness must not be debased into having to choose between nothing and nothing much.

1 comment:

  1. Grim, yes. I've been watching Youtube clips of Groucho Marx in "You Bet Your Life," Steve Allen,and "What's My Line?" from the 50's and 60's. The celebrity cachet was tempered with wit, graciousness and intelligence obviously shared with the live audience. Whatever differences a contemporary audience might have with past race and gender expectations and roles, there was a different appreciation of artists' vital contribution in the day to day workings of life we all meet. (Indirectly, the self-help movement has contributed to this dwindling of
    imagination, attention, and passion. "Idealogical groupthink.")