In his New Republic review "Creative Destruction", William Giraldi, novelist, critic, and editor for AGNI literary journal, offers an arresting overview of Scott Timberg's new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.
If you care about art and the humanities in America, brace yourself.
From the 1950s–1970s, there was for artists in America:
institutional support, low rents, a humming population in urban universities, an inviolable sense of a shared culture.... When Robert Lowell was reconfiguring American poetry in 1950s Boston, “a life of genteel poverty was still possible.”
No more. Considering a career related to the arts or humanities? Best to be a trust fund kid or marry rich.
When everyone’s an artist and no one spends money on art, art is stripped of any economic traction and serious artists can’t earn a living. Couple that with a population that overwhelmingly doesn't mind if art and artists go extinct and you have, ladies and gentlemen, what can be fairly called a crisis.
Giraldi notes that "whole throngs of onetime stable middle-class artists have been pummeled into a class where they feel the fangs of hunger."
The concept of the starving artist isn't recent. But that doesn't mean it's not a problem; that doesn't mean it's not a problem that it was less of a problem 30 or 40 years ago—before the decline of the middle class as a whole, before Reaganomics and globalization.
It's not all economics though.
There’s the long-standing and nationwide dedication to anti-intellectualism.... There’s the winner-take-all social credo that kills regard for any place other than first.... (Timberg calls it “blockbuster culture.”) There’s the [pull of] the more practical interests of science, business, and technology. There’s the widespread caricature of artists as eccentric idlers or unstrung cranks, romantic boobs, or sexed-up wastrels we might be better off without.
But, it's probably mostly economics, especially in our Internet age.
There are the Hobbesian market forces, the consumer-propelled capitalism so sweet for behemoth corporations who are its lungs and spleen but not so sweet for those artists who need to maintain their integrity outside the corporate sway.
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.
I used to think we might be entering a new era of art and scholarship patronage.
Given the extraordinary explosion of wealth among the top 1%, especially among the overlord class of the top 1% of the 1%, I used to harbor a feeble phantom hope that maybe America would enjoy a mini-renaissance, a flood of new funds filling the coffers artists, historians, documentarians, and artistic and cultural institutions and projects. After all, Charles and David Koch alone, who are known to give to the arts, are worth more than $100 billion. Just 10% of that is $10 billion for the arts and humanities.
Of course, I knew better. As I said, it was a feeble hope, not an expectation.
Giraldi notes that "at the hub of this mess is how we as a nation perceive our artists and stewards of culture"—specifically our reasoning that the market dictates the worth of all things. Giraldi describes this reasoning as our "bamboozled, depleted mentation", and we permit ourselves to follow it.
If you believe that the life of your mind is inseparable from the health of your life, that serious art and artists are an essential component to human nourishment, then you have an obligation, to yourself and your children and us all, to read Timberg’s book, and the minute you’re finished, to do something about the scourge it sets before you.