Burning Book Club – The Consequences of Losing our Creative Class

(This is the second post inspired by reading the introduction of Scott Timberg’s Book-Burning-225x300“Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class.” Read all the book club entries)

In between the last post and this one, I’ve been reading a number of articles about how Amazon reviews are gamed – that authors will often purchase hundreds of fake 5-star user reviews to push their books up to the top of the Amazon search engines.

The result is that crappy books by people gaming the system push out legitimately good book – even books with good (real) reviews, just not hundreds of them. For people who want to find and read good books – never mind paying the authors, just finding out about the books in the first place – it is increasingly hard. A system like Amazon’s, that relies largely on the free market, claims to be a neutral arbiter but in fact supports the people who are gaming it rather than the artists struggling to do good work.

I can think of no better example of what Scott Timberg is talking about when he says that the “hollowing out” of the cultural structures has serious consequences.

Timberg isn’t referring specifically to artists here, though he includes them of course. When he refers to the “creative class,” he’s talking about people who support art and culture by serving as gatekeepers: people who help the “good” art distinguish itself from the bad. He’s talking about video clerks, radio DJs who do their own programming, arts journalists, and of course critics – among many others.

The idea of having “gatekeepers” has gotten a lot of bad press in the digital revolution, but the degree to which we need people to separate the wheat from the chafe has never been more clear: without gatekeepers who are not in it for the money, only the art with a publicity budget will ever be found amid the mass production that the digital revolution has unleashed. Sure we can all “vote” with our “likes” and our “tweets” – but these systems are not only easy to game, they exist specifically to be gamed. They drag all art appreciation down to the level of “American Idol,” which is great on its own terms but not really – not really – a serious way to evaluate music. As a result, the good work gets drowned out.

And let me be clear about this: a system that is agnostic about quality is actively against it. To say “our system of publicity shouldn’t care whether art is good or bad” is to dig good art’s grave.

The marketplace is agnostic about quality: our hedge against that has been the existence of video store clerks who could push high quality film to searching customers, independent book store owners who could feature the works of small presses, DJs who could program to their passions, and critics who were paid whether they liked something or not (and whose reputations depended on the quality of their insights) … it wasn’t a perfect system, by any means, but people who were on the side of quality could put themselves in a position to support it, and their existence provided a critical space that money couldn’t buy.

There is no such mechanism now, not so much because these people can’t make a living at it, but because outside of precisely the kind of archaic structures that are now dying (newspapers and literary magazines and record stores) any approaches these people develop (blogs, newsletters, a Twitter feed) are subject to the same digital democratization that is already the cause of the problem. The greatest book blog in the world may be out there. Who’s going to point you to it? Will it even pop up on your feed? How many competing voices are already drowning it out? Remember that in our new system, a Tweet by the greatest critic in the world counts for no more than the Tweet of a record company executive – and both have to be 140 characters or less. And only one will get promoted heavily.

The greatest critic in the world still might not have gotten a job at The New Yorker in the old system, but if she was a record store clerk she was still going to be there to talk to you, and had an influence that belied her paycheck.  It wasn’t one person who was our hedge for quality against consumer capitalism, but the existence of institutions in a position to push back.

Ironically, democratization of the artistic means of production demands a greater hierarchy of criticism. The two need each other: without “outsiders” having the chance to make art, it becomes sclerotic and tame; without a strong critical aristocracy, the bad art will always drown out the good.

Timberg suggests that we have entered such a state, and that it has consequences for our body politic and our civic health. “Just as a democratic nation benefits rom a large, secure, and informed middle class, so too w need a robust creative class,” he writes. “Painting a landscape or playing a jazz solo does not guarantee that an individual will become more virtuous. But a broad-based class making its living in culture ensures a better society.”

He’s probably right.

The other consequence of a reduction of the “Creative Class’” ability to make a living as cultural creatives, one which Timberg does not touch on (so far … remember, I’ve only read the introduction at this point), is the loss of technical prowess. Not of “art” but of “artisanship.”

While art will go on without a professional class of artists, the professional class of artists has one big advantage that their amateur colleagues (“amateur” meant in the best sense) don’t have: practice, practice, practice.

Most of the culture industry, let’s admit it, produces mediocre crap. But the act of producing so much mediocre crap is still vital practice for the journeyman artist. I would not actually recommend that anyone go read the articles I was banging out in my 20s – but the practice I got writing article after article, some good, some bad, and some absolutely pointless, made me a significantly better writer over time. It didn’t help me be any more inspired – but when I got inspired, it significantly enhanced my ability to act on it.

Just so with musicians, videographers, painters, sculptors – the more work they are able to do the better they will become at the technical aspects of their crafts. And you simply don’t get as much practice opportunities if you’re working a day job.

Technical proficiency is not the same as good art – indeed, “slick and soulless” may be the worst art of all. But it still counts for a lot. If we want our art to have sophisticated, strong, production values in every field, we can’t hollow our creative classes out.

Burning Man has made the decision – and I think the right one – to emphasize inspiration over professional skill. Yes, the temple builders are often professional artists (one wonders if David Best could design a temple in his sleep at this point – or if he has) – but Burning Man’s emphasis is on individual people, from out of left field, trying something they’ve never done before. It’s about experimentation. About new horizons. Technical prowess – which is about doing what you already know how to do, to spec – is only important to the extent that your project doesn’t collapse on itself and the fire shoots in the right direction.

Burning Man wouldn’t be Burning Man if it went the other way.

But is that the right decision for HBO? For Hollywood? For the publishing industry? For local art galleries?

We have entered into our much vaunted “Golden Age of Television” in no small part because the field has now been picked up by the children of the children of the people who worked in the medium: technical skills and know-how have benefitted our small screens tremendously.

There will always be great art. But we can’t take great entertainment for granted.   If we’re going to have a massive industrial-entertainment complex anyway, wouldn’t we rather it produce the highest quality schlock possible?

I say that as though it were a joke, but, seriously: consumer capitalism is going to constantly bombard us with media of all kinds. As someone who has to live through that, I would desperately like it to be as good as it can be. Maybe even great.

To get there, ordinary artists need to be able to make a living.

And should such highly proficient artisans ever get inspired, their ability to act on that inspiration will be far superior if they’ve already been paid to invent the wheel.

That counts.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

11 Comments on “Burning Book Club – The Consequences of Losing our Creative Class

  • Dom aka "Dom" says:

    Here is the only thing I would quibble with here… but I feel like it is a big one: , who get’s to determine the people who are the the Cultural Class and the arbiters of what is “good”? It seems like half the issue is that modern communications made a lot of the gatekeeper people (publishing houses, the video store clerk, the music label, etc) obsolete. Is there a way you can put that back into the bottle? And how do we avoid some of the pitfalls that the previous system had built in?

    I keep coming back to this example considering the amount of their paintings that wound up in large museums, I would say the Impressionists did mighty well for themselves, yet the biggest impediment they faced was from the Academy in Paris who did not feel like their work was “good art”. What about the old large publishing houses where a new writer would essentially lose the ability to distribute their work because of their book deal? This does not absolve the current system, but it does make me worry.

    Who gets to be the ones who decide?

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Hi Dom:

      Not only is that an excellent question, it’s fundamentally the question around this issue.

      Not only do I not think you can put the genie back in the bottle, but I wouldn’t want to: the democratization of the artistic means of production means more people get to make more art. There’s no part of that that I don’t like, nor would I ever endorse the idea that someone can’t make art for the good of society.

      The problem is that our critical establishment has crumbled at just the time when it is needed to ride herd on this output.

      Now, the essence of your question “who makes them the deciders and why do they get to decide?” is at some level unanswerable. I think it is the nature of human beings to make flawed institutions, and this will be no different.

      I suppose my contention, then, rests on this assertion: that in a time when more art than ever is being produced, we have a corresponding need for more people to be thinking seriously and deeply about art. That even if the institutions that feed them are fallible (as are they themselves) that it is better to have more people devoting themselves to thinking seriously about art than it is to not have them. That there is a level of deep thought and engagement that is not replaceable by a billion customers leaving a billion quick reviews – even if the former is sometimes wrong and the latter is sometimes right.


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      • Dom aka "Dom" says:

        I think that sounds about right, and would agree, I am curious what the end result would be if the goal were achieved though or what the extent of the impact of a new group of people thinking seriously and deeply about art would be.

        I would also love to hear ideas about what the new institutions would look like… though I have a hunch we will be reading more about that as you continue these posts…

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    • The gatekeepers, from the point of view of an editor or photo editor (or art buyer, whatever) are equally flawed and useless as they are spot-on and extremely important.

      Or maybe it’s the other way around; the idea is we really need humans who have developed senses of good and bad, and other humans with differently-developed senses of good and bad to keep the first ones in balance. Perhaps a community of said people.

      In the publishing world, the idea of paid editors is going the way of paying for good content and I think the great unwashed general public doesn’t know any better.

      What if no one ever looked at the negatives that didn’t get published or the songs that didn’t make the big album or the paragraphs that didn’t quite fit into the book?

      We need humans to keep an eye on the gates and to keep an eye on the old stuff.

      Somehow along the way, Western culture (just the USA? I’m not sure) began judging how “good” an artist (photographer, musician, writer, sculptor) on how much money they make with complete disregard on what they produce. Often one is judged by how trendy they are in addition to the money.

      I’d love to see programs like the New Deal’s WPA or something similar to employ creatives and artsy types, and I wish we took art and the art world much more and much less seriously.

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  • Some Seeing Eye says:

    We are in a transition from creative quality determined by hierarchical systems, many formerly constructed as marketing channels for consumer products, to tribal systems of creative quality.

    For instance, Billboard Magazine and payola once defined pop music quality. Rolling Stone Magazine emerged. What advertisers paid supported writers who influenced the perception of quality. Later Pitchfork became influential. By then, readers expected to read free. Related is the emergence of the Music Genome Project and Hit Science which determine quality by machine learning and pattern matching. Today what one likes in music is likely to be determined by friends. Within our groups of friends, the music explorer role will emerge, an individual who sits on the edges of social networks and spends time to construct quality. Long term, it will be machines. But quality will be increasingly tribal, different groups will select different artists and genres into what they believe to be good or bad.

    If we are talking art sold from the maker to the appreciator, it becomes clear that prices tend toward zero as the tribes become smaller. They should teach this in art and music schools.

    There is also a generation pattern at work. If you are 15, you are likely searching for what is new, breaks from the past and irritates your parents. If you are old, you are comparing the aesthetics of each new thing against a lifetime of previous experience. Aesthetic tribes are unlikely to span generations, but will have the same internal processes for determining quality.

    Expectations for aesthetic experience also change. Solo experience, or group experience, like a festival. A Vice article or a New Yorker article. A short YouTube or a three hour film.

    TL:DR Change is constant.

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  • Lentil says:

    Have you read any of Jaron Lanier’s recent work? “Who Own’s the Future” is super relevant to these issues and I personally found his arguments compelling. He connects the collapse of the culture industries to broader trends of super computers and automation that he argues will ultimately shrink our economy because we are demonetizing information. Ultimately he suggests the best solution is to redesign our information technology so that people can be paid for their cultural impact.

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Hi Lentil:

      I think Lanier’s recent work – particularly “You Are Not a Gadget” – is terrific, and indeed very relevant to these issues.

      I find myself somewhat torn about the question of the monetization of information because in many ways I think the historical record is clear: shared information allows civilization to advance. So in many respects I want information to continue to be free.

      And yet, to the extent that ours is a culture which does not value anything provided for free this means precisely that some of the most important functions in our culture have become devalued.



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      • Lentil says:

        Yeah, I share your concern about information monetization. One of my favorite things about that Lanier book is that even he doesn’t seem overly convinced by his own suggestions for fixing things, but he totally sold me on his diagnosis of the problem. So we better start experimenting with new models as soon as possible, but I can’t see where the ability to take such collective action will come from (at least until Burning Man takes over the world :P).

        What you say about our culture not valuing the free reminds me of the last book club and this book about moral psychology I just read, Jonathan’s Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”. His big message is that “morality binds and blinds”. Modern, western, educated, secular folk have dramatically narrowed the realm of the moral, which is fabulous for liberty but makes it much harder to act collectively. As a society, how can we support culture work in the name of the public good if we are so culturally diverse? To liberal relativists like me, it feels wrong for a government to fund a particular artist because of their reputation. But I’m not at all convinced that’s good for human psychology.

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