(This is the second post inspired by reading the introduction of Scott Timberg’s “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.