I can’t remember being so deeply frustrated by a book that I assumed I would like and find informative. The book is titled Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class and was written by journalist Scott Timberg, who spent many years of his career writing about music and culture for the Los Angeles Times, and now blogs and contributes elsewhere — as he discusses in the book, like many culture reporters, his job at that paper was cut and since then he’s been trying to make his way in the ever-evolving digital and publishing worlds.
This was a book I knew was headed to the presses and was anticipating because, full disclosure, I am briefly quoted in it as a result of a phone interview that Timberg did with me early last year after reading some of my writing for Hyperallergic. But I wasn’t entirely sure what form the book would take or what arguments it would make, so I was eager to read it as the status of artists in the US is of deep interest to me and something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.
Culture Crash is a lament that falls squarely in a genre I can only think to call demise literature. Anyone who reads anything, even the internet, knows this form intimately. The titles pretty much always talk about the end or death of something — from the American Dream and Morality to Adulthood and the Cronut. What they are often actually about is using hyperbole and selected statistics to lament a change in society that is typically generational or cyclical and is being considered outside of the larger scope of history. In other words, writers bemoaning the fact that the way it was when they were younger is no longer the way it is today and ultimately saying that they are having trouble positioning themselves in a new reality. Authors of this genre typically cannot accept change as anything other than completely negative, rather than neutral, inevitable, or bringing about a mix of good and bad consequences. Demise lit has long been an important part of publishing, just as it’s a popular tool for generating clicks and fundamentalist fervor in 2015.
So what are the end times Timberg is describing? As the title indicates, he’s focused on the end of economic opportunity for people seeking to make their livings as artists, as well as those who help disseminate culture, specifically journalists and workers in places like bookstores and record shops.
Let me start off by saying that I totally agree that artists are in a precarious economic position today, like just about every other worker in the US who makes less than a six-figure income. Let me also say that I think the loss of physical gathering spaces like bookstores and record shops, where culture and ideas can be exchanged in real time and where human relationships can be built, is a serious issue.
Another key idea that Timberg mentions a number of times is that a robust arts and culture sector in the US relies almost entirely on a robust middle class with enough time, energy, and money to spare that they can go out and engage in culture. And he’s right. But he barely scratches the surface of talking about that and neglects to discuss in any real depth things like the downward pressure on wages across almost every industry in the US and increasing time demands on all workers. In other words, the bulk of what he’s talking about are labor issues but he never really digs into them as labor issues. Much of what he’s offering instead is personal anecdotes and opinions from artists and cultural workers, including himself.
But what is so intensely frustrating for me about this book is that when Timberg does try to offer some kind of structural analysis of how we got here, he goes off the deep end. This is particularly apparent in the chapter titled “Self-Inflicted Wounds,” where he proposes a slew of half-baked and problematic arguments. One of his core propositions is that cultural studies, feminism, and critical theory, particularly postmodern theory, bear a large share of the responsibility for the economic condition of artists and cultural workers today. “The collapse of the middlebrow consensus, the end of modernism, the demystification of culture, and the changing attitudes of gatekeepers have all had profound and lasting consequences for the creative class,” he writes. And for him, those consequences are resoundingly and completely negative.
Why do I think that’s a problematic argument to make? First, it’s problematic within the context of his book because he spends a lot of time talking about the fact that anti-intellectual attitudes in the US are part of the reason why artists aren’t considered valuable, but then he blames intellectual activity for the demise of the middle-class artist. Second, it’s problematic in practical terms because while I really value critical thinking and have personally gained quite a lot from the work of academics, I think it’s a little far-fetched to assume they have that much direct power and immediate influence on the economic and labor conditions of the massive culture industry. And third, it’s problematic because, it’s offensive. You want to blame people fighting for cultural self-determination, who are pushing back against centuries of colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and homophobia, people who have helped provide frameworks for breaking apart legacies of power and dominance that continue to subjugate and devalue viewpoints that are not those of straight white men of European descent? I was flabbergasted by this argument, to say the least.
Culture Crash is not all bad. There is some good reporting in the book, particularly on the music industry and architecture. And I really appreciate that Timberg writes from a viewpoint is not New York City-centric, with his primary sources almost all hailing from the West Coast, along with some illuminating stories about the development of cultural communities in Austin and Boston. But there are just too many instances of bizarre reasoning, lack of context or analysis, and a kind of tone deaf attitude toward contemporary culture for me to embrace the book.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by tone deafness. At one point he addresses the difference between professional reviewers and consumers, or “amateur reviewers.” This section of the book includes a lengthy quote from an August 2013 item written by Patricia Cohen for New York Times’s ArtsBeat blog about the customer reviews posted on Amazon after the company listed a Claude Monet oil painting in its then-new fine art marketplace. Here is what he quotes:
“Is there a Kindle edition available,” asked one reviewer of Monet’s 1868 portrait of his son Jean. “Pros” include “Looks good above my toilet” and “Fast shipping,” another wrote. “Cons: Frame and painting looked used.”
“I think I’m going to touch this up a bit with some water colors I have laying around,” the reviewer added. “Make the colors pop more.” …
Or one on a Warhol screen print of a Campbell’s Golden Mushroom Soup can for just under $25,000, that directed other customers to the grocery section and noted: “This version is a much better price, and is delicious.”
Now, anyone who reads the internet at all, or has a bit of a sense of humor, will recognize those as parody reviews, a well-known form of humor that I would venture often contains some clever critiques of capitalism, the relentless commodification of everything, and also things like patriarchy. Many people will remember the infamous BIC pens “for Her” incident, and one user has even compiled a list on Amazon highlighting what she considers to be the funniest reviews on the site. Those reviews have nothing to do with the loss of cultural reporting jobs or the demise of the arts, they are a ribald form of public humor that offers critique in unexpected places. They are actually the opposite of the kind of vindictive trolling and pablum to which many internet comment sections amount. The fact that Timberg would quote parody reviews as an example of how stupid and inept non-professional reviewers are is more than a little foolish.
So Timberg doesn’t get parody reviews. In the grand scheme of things, this is not such an egregious offense, just an indication that he’s a little out of touch. But it feels more troubling when he misses the mark on history. This passage really stuck out to me:
Traditionally, American society has included forces that balance winner-take-all effects. Some are very old (monogamy and a sense of public good or shared sacrifice that predate the republic), while others go back approximately a century or more: progressive taxation, union protections for workers, restrictions on child labor, the trust-busting laws advocated by Theodore Roosevelt.
Maybe to some that seems like a benign statement, and I gather it’s meant to be taken as such. What troubles me is that in a book focused on imbalances of power and labor issues, he makes a completely unsupported assertion that America has been anything but a winner-take-all society since its founding.
It seems both careless and problematic that Timberg doesn’t stop for a second to acknowledge that everything mentioned in the second sentence of the quote above, except for progressive taxation, is something that people fought and died for — literally people had to lose their lives before unions, child labor reforms, and measured regulations on monopolization were introduced in this country. It’s the word “traditionally” that irks me there because it promotes a myth of equality and general goodness in a country that was founded under the opposite circumstances — from indigenous genocide, to rule by and for the white landed gentry (our Founding Fathers), to the spoils of slavery that still pad the bank accounts of many blue-blooded families and august corporations. My point is that if you actually take a minute to look at the history, the real tradition in this country is that people have always been fighting and continue to fight for equality and fair treatment, and labor issues continue to be central to those fights.
Perhaps this is why the book feels so frustrating to me. Through a combination of liberal complacency and decades of deliberate conservative strategy, we are now in a place in the US where those winner-take-all dynamics are as rampant as they have ever been. The response this situation demands, if history is any indication, is not to point fingers at or scapegoat others who are disadvantaged, but instead to look for points of leverage and organize for change. This book offers nothing in that realm. It doesn’t delve at any length into a single past or present effort by artists to advocate for change. It is purely a lament that often feels myopic. And it is one in which Timberg sees nothing at all positive in the present situation. He does pause to point out that television is better than it has ever been, but beyond that I couldn’t find much that he thinks is positive in today’s cultural world. He doesn’t mention changes in cultural production by and recognition of artists of color, women, and other under-resourced groups, or the ways in which the internet has provided a means to highlight, organize around, and in some cases stop racist and sexist exclusion. He doesn’t highlight even one example from the recent uptick in labor organizing within the arts and solidarity actions between artists and other workers. Instead, the lament just goes on.
We don’t live in a perfect world, by any means. Artists and cultural workers are facing some serious challenges right now, as is society at large. And the ways in which the arts and the so-called creative class are positioned in our society are problematic in many ways. But instead of offering new perspectives on these issues, this book feels muddy and fruitless.
Oddly, the epilogue may be the most cogent and considered part of Culture Crash. It seems as though Timberg took a deep breath and a step back and was like, OK, all I really want to say is that we need a middle class. It’s also the chapter in which he briefly offers some evidence toward a potentially provocative insight — that many artists who achieved reasonable economic success in the late 20th century came from the middle class and gained an appreciation for the arts in places like public libraries and small town museums or theaters where the arts programming was hardly adventurous or avant-garde. So, if you decide to read the book, I encourage you to start with the epilogue as it provides some grounding and defining of terms that might prove useful for the preceding material. But in general, the arguments Timberg makes feel culturally conservative, unclear, and lacking any recognition of ongoing efforts to alter the realities he seeks to describe.