(This post is the second in a new book club, and inspired by reading the introduction of Scott Timberg’s “Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class.” Read all the book club entries)
If there is a crisis in the arts, why do we care?
We live in unsettled times – climate change is throwing the whole planet into environmental chaos; there is a constant buzz of military action in a “war on terror” that shows no sign of ending and theoretically never could; global hotspots between major powers like the U.S., China, and Russia, threaten to erupt; antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are becoming an increasingly common fact of life; government power, especially for surveillance, is running unchecked …
When we say “it’s a problem that artists can’t make a living,” this is the competition. This, and the fact that as a result of automation and corporate policies there may soon simply not be enough jobs to go around for anyone.
So a guy can’t make a living painting paintings? So a woman can’t make a living sculpting sculptures? So I can’t make a living writing little stories? So what? What’s at stake?
It’s not like we’re going to run out of paintings or sculptures or stories. If anything, digital images and 3d printing and the internet make all these things easier to come by than ever.
Scott Timberg opens his book “Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class” by making a case that art itself is in danger.
“If we’re not careful, culture work will become a luxury, like a vacation home,” Timberg writes in his introduction. “The price we ultimately pay is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”
As an artist, I would very much like to think Timberg is right – and that the world will not go on turning in some vital way without me and the work I do. As a human being, however, I think Timberg is very cogent in his analysis of the problem we’re facing, but very wrong in his analysis of what’s at stake.
Art is not in any danger. And I think Burning Man, as an arts and cultural institution, inadvertently demonstrates why.
But we’ve got a ways to go before we start talking about Burning Man.
It would seem facile if I were to say “Art is very chic right now,” in no small part because there has never been a time or culture where this was not true. While no two times and cultures have had the same view of or relationship to art, there has never been a time or place where art was not produced, protected, and even venerated. To the extent that there are exceptions – and the closest I can come up with is Pol Pot’s Cambodia – they prove the rule. Short periods known entirely for intense brutality and madness. Pointing out that they didn’t produce or respect much art would be the equivalent of pointing out that they didn’t produce any medical breakthroughs. All they really produced was corpses.
In times of utter insanity, yes, art tends to fall to the wayside. But otherwise … but otherwise … art is everywhere, in every culture and economic system. Whether it was manuscripts illuminated by monks, statues commissioned by the Roman aristocracy, Amerindian songs and dances, Chinese calligraphy, Zen poetry, Andy Warhol’s factory … even Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia elevated the arts and artists and saw them as basic to culture.
Of course, those last two examples also tried to control the arts with a very heavy hand – which proved impossible. Dissident art flourished in both cases. The very existence of “dissident art,” incidentally, ought to tell us everything that’s wrong with the idea that art requires artists to have a middle-class existence. What if we were to say, as Timberg does about all artists, that dissident artists need to have a middle class lifestyle or else there will be no more dissident art?
That’s obviously absurd. Far from creating their art for the money, dissident artists put their livelihoods at risk – and their lives – to produce their art. The notion that the Chinese government needs to create a ministry for dissident art in order to keep the form healthy is as absurd as the notion that Goldman Sachs needs to create a fund guaranteeing a livelihood to Occupy Wall Street artists in order to preserve Occupy Wall Street art. It would be fascinating if it happened, but it’s as unlikely as the premise is absurd.
Dissident art, like many other kinds, may be impacted by the economic models under which it operates – but it isn’t dependent on them. If art were dependent on artists having a middle class living under capitalism, we never would have had it in the first place.
Art never goes away, nor does its production. I think the ideas of humanistic psychologists are particularly insightful on this front: they maintain that creativity is one of the fundamental aspects of being human, and that creative expression – in whatever form is meaningful to the individual – is an essential component of mental health. The idea that art will be lost, either as a dominant form of cultural discourse or as a thing that individuals without a stable economic base do, goes against everything we know about both art and people.
To borrow a metaphor from Christianity (maybe you’ve heard of it?): It is as though “to be made in God’s image” is to be creative. What else could that mean?
Burning Man is exhibit B: for all the arguments that we have about how much to fund the art, and the artists, at Burning Man, the fact remains that nobody makes money – let alone a living – creating art for the playa. And when you have an inclusive view of “art,” as one should, to include art cars and theme camps and costumes, and some gifts, then in fact just the opposite is occurring: ordinary people are willingly spending an incredible amount of time and money to create art for one another with no thought of remuneration. In fact, they get angry – sometimes furious – when they don’t get a chance to do it.
As I’ve argued before, while Burning Man is often viewed as a celebration of individual liberty, Burning Man can also legitimately be seen as the iron shackle of art and culture that we willingly place upon ourselves in the service of something greater. And “art,” in an increasingly atheistic Western culture, is often our stand-in for “something greater” – the thing that we look to (wisely or not) for transcendent meaning and incorruptible virtue.
Art is not going away, and “Art” writ large is not at risk, regardless of what economic model we turn to. Nor do I see a situation, as Timberg fears, where only the rich will ever make art or have access to their creative prowess.
Indeed, I think it shows just how much we are creatures of consumer-capitalism that we would even consider, for an instant, that art can’t survive without money. Money will always have a connection to art insofar as both art and money are always connected to everything in a culture: there is nothing that escapes their reach. But whatever individual artists may do, neither “art” nor its production is ever reducible to money.
But just because art itself isn’t at risk doesn’t meant that everything’s okay. Timberg is on to something … there’s a reason his book had to be written … and he’s fundamentally right about the fact that a shift in the economic models we now use for art is underway, and that it will have serious consequences. “Art” is not at stake, but the way we access it and the kind of art that gets produced may be.
These will also have implications for Burning Man – though it will generally be one or two steps removed. (I think …)
In my next post, I’ll talk about what I think Timberg reveals is at stake in our current “culture crash.”