In this day and age, it’s difficult to make a living in America as an artist of any kind — or even if you want to write about it. Scott Timberg’s new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (Yale University Press) looks deeply into the state of the culture sphere, and how it’s squeezing out both the middlebrow and the middle class.
Timberg, a former arts reporter for the LA Times, has reported on this phenomenon for years at Salon. He’s also experienced it firsthand: he lost his job as a culture reporter, then he lost his house. He’s still writing, but for less and less money.
But Culture Clash isn’t Timberg’s story; rather, it’s a thorough look at the way that the Digital Age has run roughshod over multiple industries — including publishing, journalism, music, and film — and the trickle-down effect that it’s had on our formerly local gatekeepers, from the record store employee to the bookseller. It’s a big, broad topic, and where Timber excels is in indicating just how local scenes lose their energy in a world where we’re all hyper-connected on the Internet.
There are chapters devoted to the loss of the record store and what comes with it; the shifting economics of indie rock, and how nobody makes money from music anymore, despite the empty promise of supporting oneself by touring; and the death of print journalism, and how arts critics are the first to go. Culture Crash paints a grim picture of American culture now, and an effective summation of a past that included “Silver Ages” where John Cheever was on the cover of TIME twice, and someone who wasn’t nearly as successful could still make a small, good living off a life in culture, whether writing about dance or selling books or playing in a workaday indie band.
In short, as Timberg explains, the value of arts and culture workers’ labor has been grotesquely devalued in the last 20 years. This is sad because it’s different from the world so many of us grew up in; however, it’s also a very familiar story that has recurred throughout history. Today, what once could’ve been a career is now a hobby. But despite that, people keep creating, writing poems and songs and books.
Without a middle class of people doing the mid-level jobs in culture, what we produce is either blockbusters (think of superhero films made largely for a Chinese audience) or tiny shoestring films that appeal to an audience of three. It’s a world where the only people who can afford an uncompromising life in the arts are sons and daughters of those who’ve already made it, and that’s a loss.
Timberg’s analysis of the past is spot on, and the breadth and depth of his work is admirable. Culture Crash is a book that does a good job of explaining why and how the cultural economy of 20 years ago just doesn’t exist anymore. The author is also quite aware that his argument for a world where the comic book guy survives isn’t the sexiest one, drenched as it is in nostalgia for the past.
Where his book falls short is in its lack of insight into the future. Timberg talks about the Internet, and how big companies like Apple, Amazon, and Facebook have taken our culture and sold it back to us. He’s right, and it’s a dire state to be in — but how do we survive in this new world? Timberg seems more interested in writing a lament about the way things were, about a lucky blip in time when a creative class could survive and thrive, than in answering that necessary question.
He shows his hand when he dismisses concepts like “poptimism” as being simply handmaidens of Big Culture, rather than (in its ideal form) a critical stance that doesn’t automatically elevate the male-oriented rockist canon above all other music. He’s not wrong about the critical pile-on regarding Rick Moody’s Taylor Swift takedown, but he’s also not interested in valid arguments against the sexism laced into Moody’s condescension. This, too, says something about Timberg’s lack of engagement with the present.
Sideswipes like these, a focus on people who had jobs in the arts and are scrambling in the current age, as opposed to considering the generation that graduated to no options — and numerous mentions of Richard Florida’s work that give it far too much weight — keep Culture Crash firmly rooted in the past. The book is, mostly, an epitaph for an era that’s gone, when what aspiring artists (and artist-adjacent workers) really need now is some insight for the future.