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Book Review: Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class by Scott Timberg

March 17, 2015

Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative ClassCulture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class by Scott Timberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jaron Lanier, who has been skeptical about the great freeing benefits of the Internet economy, sees the reporting on the new paradigm driven by unlikely Horatio Alger stories. ‘There are a few success stories,’ he said, ‘that create a false sense of hope.’ Because Radiohead can offer its record free of charge, he argued, doesn’t mean that bands below the superstar level can.  Similarly, the death of Apple visionary Steve Jobs uncorked various rants about the value of mavericks and how you can get it if you try hard enough. Which means everyone who struggles in a post-boom, post-bubble economy must be a loser. (77)

This is the narrative with which my Twitter cyberbullies harass me on a daily basis. They’re too stupid to understand that when Kodak was sold to Instagram, 140,000 people lost their jobs. Where did those middle class jobs and their associated wealth go? Lanier says that we are in an all-or-nothing society. A token number of people succeed from using YouTube and Kickstarter, but the middle-class hump is gone, and we’re told it’s entirely our fault by right-wing nut jobs (77-78). This book offers ample evidence that the fall of the creative class is not our fault, but the fault of society, just as my homelessness is. I unfortunately had to correct author Scott Timberg, via Twitter, that he is mistaken about the creative class not ending up in homeless shelters yet (17). Timberg’s solution is the reinvigoration of middlebrow culture. This is reminiscent of Susan Jacoby’s conclusions in The Age of American Unreason, but Jacoby, I felt (I read the book in September 2012 and did not write a review at the time, although I did write her an unresponded e-mail, unconvinced, citing Oprah’s Book Club as a shining example of the middlebrow), was defending the middlebrow the way Timberg mocks articles like Mike Seeley’s “In Defense of The Eagles,” (the best-selling rock band of the 1970s). Here, Timberg applies a very practical reason: most arts and culture workers are not multimillionaire superstars, but a rapidly dwindling sector of the middle (and also lower) class, and it is the death of middlebrow culture that has caused their demise. For example, an extremely successful indie rock band, Grizzly, in which the members barely eke out a middle class existence: one wonders how less successful bands than Grizzly survive at all. Timberg suggests that we imagine ’60s music with only The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones. It should be obvious that the culture would suffer without these additional bands, just as it suffers from, in his analogy, the loss of all Greek tragedies save for seven each by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides thanks to the burning of the Library at Alexandria. “That’s the way corporate radio typically works. Winner-take-all exerts a relentless logic not just on our creative life, but on our cultural memory (246-7).

The book is simply written, like reading a newspaper, and is a very short read in spite of its page count. It’s neither great nor bad writing, and is distinctly middlebrow itself in tone, probably by design. I do have some issues with the book’s structure. The second chapter is about the almost complete disappearance of video stores and the massive closure of book and music stores. He makes a solid argument why specialized clerks in such stores, particularly independent ones, are a vital part of the creative class, even if they are at the low end of the pay scale, but I really think this argument should have come more toward the end of the book, perhaps between chapters 8 and 9, and start off by discussing the sorts of work the loss of which is far more frightening–freelance writing and copywriting, journalism, music, architecture, and graphic design. Unlike store clerks, people went into higher education to specialize in these fields and got shafted. I encapsulate this despicable argument as, “If you’re not a whiz at math and are in no condition for physical labor, you deserve to die,” and I have in the past posted people from Twitter making arguments that can easily be summed up this way. Chapter six, an argument why creatives are a legitimate part of the workforce erroneously regarded as some sort of Hollywood star system by the anti-intellectual masses might have come earlier, but perhaps, as the heart of the argument, Timberg thought it might be better more toward center. The book has a ridiculously long page count padded out by fairly large type, small pages, and space between lines. Did Yale University Press really need to use all this paper so that its reader imagined they were reading a headier, lengthier text than they were actually reading? Who did they believe was the audience?

Much of the book consists of case studies of people whom Timberg interviewed. For example, Matthew Wake. Wake had experience in all sorts of low-level jobs before turning to music journalism. He was eventually given a staff position at a newspaper that was then bought by Gannett. While a staff employee, he could afford to collect art. When he was part of a layoff of 20,000 Gannett employees, he had to sell not only his art collection, but his house, and move back in with his parents. He hoped he would not have to return to waiting tables (75-77). Alice Woods, the English friend I often reblog, who has had several art gallery shows, told me that she earned the money to visit New York Occupiers, where she met me, waiting tables, and she has an advanced degree in music. (She offered me help on my resume, but she knows the European-style curriculum vitae format that I’ve been told my resume more closely resembles, even including her picture, which Americans are recommended not to do.) Wake hoped he would not have to go back to waiting tables. MIT economist Andrew McAfee recommends waiting tables to aspiring creatives because a computer has yet to be able to replace the job (72). Moe Tkacik left being the the highest paid freelance writer at her firm because waiting tables actually paid more, and saw little hope for work outside the restaurant industry for anybody. She suggested that I work at a French restaurant because I studied French rather than Spanish, but when I informed her of my difficulty standing, she seemed to agree that my situation is a societally-created crisis. While Wake is disheartened, for someone like me, with severe lower back issues and extreme pain in standing, needing a cane to do so for more than 1-2 hours at a time, it is outright devastating. When I came to pack the court for Ramsey Orta’s hearing, when the case was adjourned before most of us could get into a building, it became a rally, and I had not brought my cane, expecting to sit in the courtroom after getting past the security line. After a massive attack of pain in the back of my right knee, I stumbled and nearly fell to the sidewalk just trying to get to the courthouse steps to sit. Dozens of people saw me struggling to walk through the last rows of the crowd to address my ailment, and many expressed concern. Obviously, people who want to support a man being railroaded for filming a murder committed by police are not going to be psychopathic right-wing nut jobs like those that are so easy to be found online. Timberg interviews composer, bassoonist, and educator John Steinmetz: “‘I used to have confidence that there was a path available for people who were willing to work at it,’ he said. ‘But I’m not so sure about that anymore. If everybody’s trying to crowd a deck of the last boat still afloat, there’s not much room there.’ For many creatives seeking freedom, the free-agent economy has turned into another kind of trap.” Chan Marshall of Cat Power, leading female-fronted band in indie rock, went into bankruptcy and foreclosure in 2012, the same year I entered the shelter system (90). Most musicians earn only 6% of their income from recording, and the average gross for self-releasing musicians in that year was $26,518. “If a label deal is a remnant of the old days, like an appendix, and musicians are moving into a deal-free environment, most of them will land squarely in the lower middle class. (A study in 2013 showed that 43 percent of musicians lacked medical insurance, more than double the national average; most of the respondents who lacked insurance said they could not afford it.)” (91-92) One of my cyberbullies gives me a hard time for not self-publishing my fiction and drama. Repeatedly calling him an ignoramus doesn’t help, as he has the Horatio Alger story to cite. The reality is that the vast majority who attempt it will not only not make a living, but put themselves into serious debt in the attempt. The concept of the “winner-take-all economy” was invoked by Alan Krueger, the White House’s chief economist, in a speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 (93).

Jason Shogren, a professor of economics at the University of Wyoming, states that it would take more than four million hits on YouTube to make minimum wage each month, and that’s assuming that your YouTube account is monetized, and I believe it needs a certain number of hits or subscribers (I have 28 of the latter, dislike vlogging, and rarely have videos of myself singing to add) to even qualify to do that. YouTube recently had a subway campaign promoting Michelle Phan, Bethany Mota, and Rosanna Pansino. The first vlogs about makeup, the second, fashion and bullying, and the third, baking. It was interesting to me that the one who does actual work’s numbers were over a million, while the first two, in the multimillions, weren’t really working in the conventional sense, and the fact that the one in the number three slot had substantially fewer followers, and certainly not enough to make minimum wage doing what she does. Again, these are examples of Horatio Alger stories, since they presumably got paid for those advertisements, and Mota got paid to endorse a perfume. Were it not for YouTube’s intervention, these teens would be making as much money from their channels as their burger flipper peers. These are the rare success stories that capitalism uses to claim that those who don’t become newsmakers are simply losers, and the right-wingers are stupid enough to believe it. Further ramming this point is that in 1986, 31 number one songs came from 29 artists. Between 2008 and September 2012, a nearly five year period, there were only sixty-six number one songs, nearly half by only six artists–and now we have the number of the beast–Katy Perry, the Black Eyed Peas, Rhihanna, Flo Rida, Adele, and Lady Gaga. I’ve never bought anything by any of these acts, but “a single Adele record sold more than 70 percent of all the classical albums sold in 2011, and more than 60 percent of all the jazz records. These bestselling artists may be prettier, but it’s the equivalent of Donald Trump, Leona Helmsley, and a few others buying up all America’s real estate” (96), which given where gentrification is going, doesn’t seem too far from the truth. It’s no surprise that a classical artist from whom I own two albums (albeit locked away in storage due to my living situation and her music not well enough remembered by me to hum), Beata Moon, would accept a request to connect from me on LinkedIn, since so few people are buying her music.

Former quantitative analyst David Lowery

writes, “Of the 75,000 albums released in 2010 only . . . 1,000 sold more than 10,000 copies . . . the point where independent artists begin to go into the black on professional album production, marketing and promotion.” That means the other 74,000 either broke even or lost money. It’s the kind of thing you don’t hear from Internet utopians who crow about the “democratization” the Web encourages and the way digital technology keeps us all “connected.”

Here’s what this kind of democratization actually means: “According to Neilsen, wrote Eduardo Porter of the New York Times, “75,300 albums were released in 2010, 25 percent more than in 2005. But new releases that sold more than 1,000 copies fell to about 4,700 from 8,000 during that time.” That’s selling more than just 1,000 copies. If, continued Porter, “professional musicians, movie directors and writers can’t make money from their art, they will probably make less of it. [I don’t think they will stop entirely, but it will degenerate to hobby status, which means far longer completion times.–Scott] Independent producers say piracy is already making it harder to raise money for small and mid-budget movies. Stopping piracy is about protecting creativity–and the many occupations it supports (think pop band or sound mixer). If we value what creative industries produce as much as we say we do, Congress will have to find a way to protect it without limiting speech.” (107-108)

Here’s Timberg’s summary of Internet utopians advice in order to “adjust” to current working conditions, including removal of the middleman (disintermediation):

“Sure, musicians aren’t earning anything from selling records anymore, but they can tour! People are still going to concerts, the famous bands are earning fortunes on the road, and even smaller bands can sell T-shirts and stuff. So get going! Many of these advocates of endless touring also argue that musicians should have day jobs, never explaining how people can work full time and then take months off to pile into a van and drive from city to city. Fans look around a crowded club or concert hall and think, These guys must be raking it in!”

Most of the musicians who are going it alone developed reputations during the label era and don’t need the same kind of publicity support and investment labels used to offer. (111-112)

Jack White of The White Stripes and Dean Wareham of Luna are quoted. The latter says, “Those at the top are making good money, but this has never been particularly profitable for most bands” (112), and he doesn’t lament labels, still owing hundreds of thousands to Elektra even though his band has been defunct for a decade. John McCrea of Cake details how costly touring actually is and how one is lucky to break even, let alone make a profit. “And for musicians who are not natural live performers, that revenue doesn’t exist at all” (113). Cake had a number one record, but McCrea is far from rich, and his job really interfered with his family life.

David Lowery adds, “If you hang out outside of a casino, the people you’re gonna hear about are the winners. You’re not gonna hear from the vast number of people who are the losers…it’s not a business model.” Timberg adds, “It hardly suggests a prudent path for the rest of us.” When told this, right-wing nut job cyberbullies like @maxnrgmax and @2015Outlaw put their virtual fingers in their ears and start blathering dogmatic aphorisms and Horatio Alger stories. “You see a whole lot of talented people not getting jobs” says architect Marcelo Spina (122). Graphic designer Eric Almendral says, “People are confusing tools with the work. That drives down prices and rates, and brings a lot of hucksters and phonies into the profession because they work cheap. The technology has demystified the trade. Once you’re sitting down in front of the same instrument that everyone else has, the impression is that you are a software jockey–people don’t see how that’s different from doing an Excel spreadsheet” (128-129). This has been a major problem for me. When you graduate with a film degree, you’re not issued equipment, and at many schools, your access to equipment is cut off. (This was the case for me with graduate school, although not with undergrad, but I no longer live in proximity to my undergrad school.) If you don’t have the wealth for the latest equipment, you lose to the people who do, who probably don’t have the theoretical background to do a better job than you. One of the aforementioned cyberbullies used the aphorism, “Only a bad carpenter blames his tools,” which may be applicable in some cases, but when I said I don’t use my tablet to write because of difficulties with on-screen keyboard, this demonstrates a total lack of understanding. I would like to see him type anything when the keyboard keeps being randomly yanked away, causing him to hit a random link that happens to be under where the keyboard just was a split second earlier, often resulting in the loss of everything typed. Imagine if someone did this with a hardware keyboard, perhaps even smacked him on the head with it as well, and told him “Just find a way to do it… Don’t leave the room to find another keyboard. Just start typing” (when the keyboard is not even in front of him).

Architecture has a particular problem. More than the other creative fields, it has coalesced around the top 1%, a process called “skyboxing” by economist Michael J. Sandel:

Most architects in the ’50s were building private houses–like the Case Study House project,” [Olivier] Touraine said of the effort by Arts & Architecture magazine to design stylish, modest homes for the middle class. Even the ornery, individualistic California architect John Lautner, who designed extravagant homes, worked primarily for the middle class. (Even Lautner’s signature flying saucer-like Chemosphere House in the Hollywood hills,” which has since become a showplace for wealthy owners, was done for a middle-class client, an aerospace engineer.) “But the idolatry of the starchitects makes it seem like architecture is only for exceptional buildings. Architecture is perceived as a luxury good. It can be–but it’s not only that,” Touraine said. His original ambition–to design stylish, sustainable homes for middle-class clients like himself–did not survive the move into a post-recession world where the middle class has lost ground. (135)

“When times are bad,” says architect Guy Horton, “it’s about business skills, BS, self-promotion,” (136) not one’s ability to do the job they set out to do. The assumption now is that if you’re not good at sales, you’re not good at anything else either, which is patently absurd.

The mainstream media has shown how far to the right it is by ignoring the massive job losses in the creative sector in a way they never failed the automotive, banking, or agriculture industries. Timberg cites a National Endowment for the Arts study in 2008 showing that the average creative professional with a college degree was $34,800, more than a quarter of whom live in the most expensive states. Some of the most physical of these laborers, the dancers, average only $15,000. Art journalist Alexis Clements notes that the visual art sales that get the most press are secondary sales, in which the artist sees none of that money (139-140). For a country that produces and exports more creativity and cultural work around the world than any other country, to lampoon those who are suffering is unbelievably harsh.

Employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show just how badly the press and media have missed the story. For some fields, the damage tracks, in an extreme way, with the Great Recession. Jobs in graphic design, photographic services, and architectural services all peaked before the market crashed, falling 19.8 percent over the next four years for graphic design, 25.6 percent over seven years for photography, and a brutal 29.8 percent in just three years for architecture. (The bureau’s categories count all of the jobs in a given field, including the people who, say, answer the phone at a design studio.) The category of “theater, dance, and other performing arts companies,” which includes everything from Celine Dion’s shows in Vegas to small groups that put on Pinter plays in boxy rooms, were down 21 percent between 2006 and 2011. these numbers tell an even harsher tale when we consider that the U.S. population grew by 26.5 million people between 2000 and 2010: these fields would have to increase by a percentage point or two just to keep up with the added supply to the job market.

Other fields show how the recession aggravated existing trends, but reveal that an implosion arrived before the market crash and has continued through our supposed recovery. “Musical groups and artists” plummeted by 45.3 percent between August 2002 and August 2011. “Newspaper, book, and directory publishers” are down 35.9 percent between January 2002 and a decade later; jobs among “periodical publishers” fell by 31.6 percent during the same period. So why hasn’t this predicament gotten more attention?

Paul Lafargue has M. Gabarit, the notary, say, “the engineer is the brain which calculates, which arranges plans,” making it sound like a job much more easily replaced by a computer than a creative. This was a big buzz in the 1990s, when I was an undergraduate student, that creative jobs would not be replaceable by computers, which made it sound like a passion worth pursuing. David C. Compton’s novel, The Unsleeping Eye, which was filmed by Bertrand Tavernier in 1981 as Death Watch starring Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, and Harry Dean Stanton, was centered around the psychosomatic illness of Katherine Mortenhoe, the publisher of “Compute-a-books,” critically panned romance novels created by algorithms, which had a reasonable share of the market but had extremely low cultural prestige, even among romance novel readers. I don’t think we’re even at this point yet, but I am certain that Amazon is trying. Timberg cites the examples of Patti Smith’s Just Kids and the film and stage musical Once romanticize the struggling artist. Timberg notes that Smith’s career in music was able to blossom because of an infrastructure of clubs, music labels, and publishers, while Guy in Once, played by Glen Hansard in the film, who performed at the funeral of Ezra Caldwell, late husband of Hillary Caldwell, one of our advisors on Community Land Trusts at Picture the Homeless, can’t have a lifetime career as a busker. Timberg notes that Kickstarter accepts only 60% of proposals, and only 43% of those actually get crowdfunded (143). He also sees faux-populism, technological rewiring, corporatist media, and anti-intellectualism as major factors. Nixon and Agnew and George Wallace are cited as major culprits, as is Dan Quayle, who professed to be “the rest of us” in spite of being several generations wealthy, for stigmatizing the term “elite,” which had had many positive connotations (146). Robert Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre says that it simply means leadership, something creatives are often attacked for not having. “There is a pampered class of artists in the United States,” conceded [poet and critic Dana] Gioia. “But it’s tiny. And they make insignificant money compared to sports people.” Gioia cites American Puritanism, which would give to the poor, but not the idle. Artists are often seen as idle, which is hardly the case. He cites composer Morton Lauridsen, citing him as one of today’s most performed living composers (I am not aware of him, but I am aware of John Adams) and Kay Ryan, who became U.S. poet laureate in 2008, made her living teaching remedial reading at a community college. Timberg interviews a conservatory-trained clarinetist and saxophonist Kelli O’Connor, who performs in a regional orchestra, gives private lessons (down more than half because the economy sucks), and freelances. Hollywood studios have outsorced to Eastern Europe for scoring so many of their movies, hurting the local economy. He notes part of the mythmaking is about artsy types pursuing a “Plan B” such as “running a groovy ice cream truck.” Chrissy Michaels, a church friend, was one of these that Timberg describes as “deeply unrepresentative of the reality that is gripping an entire class.” My mother used Chrissy’s story, published during my pre-eviction job hunt (which I didn’t count in my Excel spreadsheet), as this sort of fodder, and still at that time totally neglecting that my physical challenges are a reality. Chrissy was sometimes better to talk to than she was, whether I bought ice cream from her or not, and my challenges standing often abbreviated that, since she was more than happy to talk to me when I found her so long as I stepped aside for the next customer.

More representative–and harder to to find–is the kind of thing veteran food writer Amanda Hesser conceded on the blog Food52: that she can no longer advise even talented and diligent young journalists to follow her path. “Except for a very small group of people (some of whom are clinging to jobs at magazines that pay more than the magazines’ business models can actually afford), it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a food writer,” she wrote, “and I think it’s only going to get worse.” (150)

I previously wrote on this blog about how Frank Bruni smugly advised STEM majors without the sort of overt honesty that the industry is eliminating people like him and how lucky he is to have his position.

The prejudice against the creative class is part of a larger revolt against experts and expertise. When was the last time we saw an artist or an intellectual in a mainstream film, set in the present rather than a romanticized past, who was not evil or pretentious? Look even at B movies from the 1950s and you see another world. The writer Philip Lopate called intellectual seriousness “the last taboo” in an essay that looked at how filmmakers and studio bosses who had come from Broadway or German-speaking Europe gave way to a movie landscape in which mature intelligence exists only to be undercut…”Why is ‘dumb’ such a powerful metaphor for the American mood? Conversely, why has it become so rare nowadays to see onscreen a lively, functioning intelligence–an articulate, educated, self-aware character with an inner life? . . . The struggle to lead an unillusioned life is nowhere visible on our screens” (152)

, probably because screenwriters like me who write them are shut out of the industry.

Timberg interviews John Carroll about the problems newspapers face when gobbled up by corporations such as Gannett. The days of the newspaper being a public service being driven by a publisher’s ego were now over. “Being a publisher made you a big wheel in your community. When you had local owners, part of it was about what it could do for society. Also in the way it could help friends and punish enemies.” Echoing Perelman and Piketty (cited by Timberg on page 225 for saying that inequality worldwide is only just getting started), Carroll says “it was about this quarter. The long term didn’t exist” (173).

David Simon, formerly of The Baltimore Sun said,

[W]hen newspaper chains began cutting personnel and content, the industry was one of the most profitable yet discovered on Wall Street. We know now, because bankruptcy has opened the books, that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating the afternoon edition and trimming nearly a hundred reporters and editors in an era when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits.

In short, my industry butchered itself, and we did so at the behest of some unfettered free market logic that has proven so disastrous for so many American industries. Indeed, the original sin of American newspapering lies in going to Wall Street in the first place. (179)

The newspaper industry thought it might do better for itself by going onto the internet. Timberg quotes Robert Levine’s Free Ride

According to statistics from the Newspaper Association of America, a print reader is worth an average of about $539 in advertising alone, while an average online reader is worth $26. The money saved on printing and distribution doesn’t come close to covering the difference.

“Logically, then, the dumbest move for newspapers would have been to convince their readers to abandon the print edition in favor of their Web site, where they’re worth between a tenth and a twentieth as much. Yet this is exactly what most of them have done. They’ve poured resources into free sites full of extra blogs, video reporting, and data-driven presentations. By improving their online offerings–and often raising the price of the print edition to fund them–newspapers essentially encouraged readers to stop buying physical copies. (176)

@2015outlaw is convinced that such a move would have expanded the readership of the newspaper, but this is unlikely, particularly with the industry still struggling to survive. With the possible exception of The Guardian, a UK journal that has been discovered to report on American news from a perspective quite different from that of American papers, very few local papers are becoming a go-to unless an event is occurring in that area, such as St. Louis. It’s the same crapshoot as the YouTube and self-publishing scenarios reported above. The highest number of hits for the vast majority of stories will be the top newspapers and reporting outlets. Sometimes a local paper gets the most hits–I’ve seen it happen–but it is not in any-way the norm. It is yet another example of the winner-take-all economy that @2015outlaw does not seem to see as a problem. As Michael Perelman tells us, “Even if economists could perfectly measure the nation’s GDP, welfare would depend on its distribution. If the bulk of the economy belonged to a single individual and the rest of society lived in misery, an increasing GDP might simply improve the welfare for that one fortunate individual” (Perelman, 205-6). This is exactly what the winner-take-all economy does, and it has run rampant in all fields, with too little concern for culture workers. I recall an episode of NPR’s Fron the Top in which the host asks the director of the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia, one of the most prestigious private music schools in the world (some of its best known alumni include conductors Alan Gilbert and Thomas Schippers, violinists Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, and Jaime Laredo, composers Jennifer Higdon, Leonard Kastle, Gian Carlo Menotti, Ned Rorem, Nino Rota, pianist Lang Lang, and singer Anna Moffo) what do graduates end up doing when they don’t fulfill their parents’ dream of performing before the greatest orchestras in the world, and he said that the others mostly perform in the greatest orchestras in the world, which he described as “not a bad life.” That was long before I became homeless and probably before the Great Recession. Curtis graduates may not have trouble, but one wonders about other schools, such as Indiana University, widely regarded as the best public music school in the world, which graduates many more students per year than Curtis. Where do all of them end up, as we’ve seen from interviews quoted above and elsewhere in the book? Waiting tables, as Andrew McAfee suggests (Bloomington and Carmel, Indiana have locations of a restaurant called L’Opéra, which has opera singing waiters, mostly from IU), on which it is often difficult, if not impossible, to support oneself, let alone a family?

As stated above, Timberg blames the problem on the loss of the middlebrow. He has major blame for one of my personal heroes, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, as well as composer John Cage, visual artist Andy Warhol, and architect Robert Venturi for destroying the middlebrow consensus by smashing together elements of things considered high and low culture. Since one can’t have fringe without a middle, the defunding of PBS and the removal of arts from schools makes anything other than the crassest commercial art of Lady Gaga and Michael Bay out of reach for the majority of society. Clearly, I am among the last of a breed, when a kid from a middle-class background in Indianapolis can aspire to make films citing such influences as Jean-Luc Godard, Godfrey Reggio, Robert Altman, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Julie Taymor, Werner Herzog, Dario Argento, the Coen Brothers, Guy Maddin, John Paizs, Joe Dante, and Sam Raimi–certainly a mix of high and low, rather than the typical Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard. I never expected to be a millionaire with off-beat art, but I did expect to make a living if I could just get in, even as a film editor (either journalist with my writing background and English degree, or doing the actual film editing). When I was tested by the Back to Work Program in 2012, I was told that the best career fit for me was a philologist. I had to look up on Wikipedia what that meant, but Timberg cites it, along with rhetoric, as one of the two bases of the study of English literature (189).

Timberg describes a “church-state wall” being crossed when reviews of the most popular acts have become mere press releases in the shift to online. Press integrity is gone (183). The arts press no longer tells readers why we should like something–they’re simply paid to promote the artists backed by the most money, another example of the winner-take-all economy. It’s especially harsh on people who are sufficient in the ascending reticular activating system who don’t need much socializing to feel comfortable, because so little of their time can be devoted to what matters to them. Perelman heavily criticizes Frederick Winslow Taylor for treating humans as machines. Timberg says that the abandonment of philology brought on by the postmodern critics has more in common with Taylor than with Marx, basing all value in what can be measured rather than human judgement, being unnecessarily complex (I am paraphrasing a quote by Neil Postman on page 192). This does not surprise me in the slightest, as capitalists such as the above tweeters equate the quality of a film with the box office take, no matter how insipid, for appealing to the tastes of an audience sector that will allow them to make a bundle. The desire to do something truly great and memorable never enters into the picture.

Middlebrow said that culture was accessible to a wide strata of society, that people needed some but not much training to appreciate it, that there was a canon worth knowing, that art was not the same as entertainment, that the study of the liberal arts deepens you, and that those who make, assess, and disseminate the arts were somehow valuable for our society regardless of GDP. Today, every one of those sentiments goes against our post-industrial, technocratic grain. (260-261)

Even though my mother worried about my desire to become a writer from the time I was in second grade–it was the only thing I wanted to do with my life whenever anyone asked a question I now find infuriating when I hear it addressed to children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” since so few choices seem to have any economic value anymore, I was certainly brought up with the values of the middlebrow enough that such a career could not be anathema–until I found out what a director did was something I had wanted to do since first grade.

Timberg believes that the creative class will either fall or resurge together with the middle class, that both are dependent upon one another (261). He cites the importance of gatekeepers–usually spoken of by me on this blog with contempt, as those who decline to read my material based on one-page query letters because they don’t read anything not submitted by a crony–they are the clerks of chapter two along with the critics, deejays, and librarians who curate what they think is the best creatives have to offer. As with Argento and Godard, I wanted to start as a critic, but the Internet democratized film criticism so much that I got attacked for my IMDb review of Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers as a “dissertation”, even though it is quite brief. The angry e-mail told be that a review should be a brief synopsis with a few comments. I fired back saying that IMDb’s sections for “plot summary” and “plot synopsis” mean that even including those in an IMDb review is redundant, and asked why such redundancies would be desirable. My critic’s only response was “see above,” which hardly answered my question. Clearly, my critic does not have any connection to the middlebrow.

I learned a lot from this book, both of the philosophical nature upon which I have focused and factual information, particularly in regard to various art scenes in Los Angeles. I had no idea that Willie Nelson was an “alternative” figure in country, or that famed jazz musicians such as Wes Montgomery were part of the jazz scene in Indianapolis, which dried up because of the city’s lack of an infrastructure to support them once they were discovered. The concept of a Winner-Take-All Society is derived here from Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook, and one example Timberg cites from it of how society intervenes with Winner-Take-All is the regulation of monogamy, my personal compulsion for which I contrasted with Linda Tirado’s assessment of the average poor person. David Simon is the only one here to criticize the market’s ability to regulate such things so that we have a workable society. The CIA World Fact Book describes Denmark as a modern, high tech, free market industrial country, but unlike the United States and its third world level Gini index, has decided that not only should the government pay for its citizens’ education, leaving them unburdened with student loan debt as they pursue higher education, but its citizenry has decided that no one should fall into poverty. People don’t become homeless, and if their field dries up, they retrain in another at government expense. Burger-flippers make $21 an hour so they can support themselves and families should they choose to have them. I, on the other hand, was promised an Individual Training Grant for developing my primitive, self-taught web design skills in 2011, only to be told partway through the program that the grant had been frozen, and I would not be receiving it, although I was the first in the class to become Adobe certified in all three programs, Dreamweaver, Photoshop, and Flash. I interviewed for a couple of web design jobs, but without experience and a professional portfolio, I was told another candidate was selected by the two firms that interviewed me for such a position, and a recruiter contacted me but refused to submit me for such a position on the portfolio and experience grounds. Right-wing nut jobs tell me to move to Denmark, and when I tell them that the safety net doesn’t go to non-citizens to prevent an influx, they forward my comments to their stupid little friends who tell me that I am an illegal alien in the United States, when my ancestors settled in Springfield, Massachusetts more than a century before the U.S. was founded. My grandfather owned a diner, my father became a biochemist on the G.I. bill with no student loan debt, my older brother graduated with a degree in computer science in 1994 and was hired before that contingent on finishing, but refuses to acknowledge that he was in the right place at the right time when computer science majors were struggling by the time I graduated in 1999. I have $65,000 in student loan debt and have nothing to show for it due to extraordinary changes in the zeitgeist and economy, and a physical body that is unable to adapt to the most easily available (supposedly–Jan Weinberg and others disagree, especially given my lack of experience) work.

Timberg’s book, in spite its flaws, is an essential exposé of where our society is failing itself due to its worship of capitalistic imperatives.

View all my reviews

  1. The New York Times review of this book, by Ben Yagoda, is truly insipid. At no point does he address the winner-take-all economy or the argument in favor of the restoration of middlebrow culture. It’s not really an honest review of the book.

    He concludes with his own Horatio Alger story, falling into the logical fallacy of placing anecdotal evidence above factual data:

    I have a friend in his 20s who has a day job doing data entry and wants to be a comedy writer. He and his partner are creating a six-part comedy web series about two guys in a low-level band who, as he told me, “take the wrong gig bag home after a show and get wrapped up in the drug-running underworld of the Brooklyn scene.” They play the two musicians themselves and have persuaded actor friends to take on the other roles for free. They pay the camera and sound men about $200 an episode and have shot six episodes so far. I saw a rough edit of the second one. It’s hilarious. If all goes well, within a couple of months, the series will be viewable by anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

    Lucky for him. I haven’t updated my Excel file since December 18, but between April 2012 and December 18, 2015, I applied for 33 jobs with “data entry” somewhere in the title, out of a grand total of 2,918 applied to over that period of time. I interviewed for a grand total of zero of them. I believe most of the postings were dummy listings from staffing services. I interviewed for a “data entry clerk” job today, sent by a temporary service, which turned out to really be a customer service job, a bait and switch, not that I object to doing customer service. I believe it’s interview number 26 since April 2012. I have been with this staffing service for 2010, and they’ve been calling me a lot recently. They’ve been practically dead for four years in terms of new openings.

  2. Shmuly Finklestein permalink

    The lack of self-awareness displayed by proglodytes like you is astronomical.

    • The lack of awareness of systemic problems by crapitalists like you is astronomical. Thanks for a moronic and meaningless ad hominem attack.You’re obviously too lazy and/or stupid to discuss the issue raised.

  3. I just published a post on your friends. Also gave this blog a shout out. Yeah…

  4. The scam is that people are all supposed to have a kind mother, brother, friend, etc that let’s them live in the kind person’s home for free or low cost. Then you are supposed to dutifully do low pay cyber-slave work to try to “make it.” Or something like that… Of course if you don’t have a “fairy godmother” you are in big trouble.

  5. Yesterday I was at Westsider Books and saw in the kids’ section a contemporary edition of Alger’s Ragged Dick and Struggling Upward. The back cover noted that Alger’s books were seen as silly and unrealistic by critics of the time (1850s-90s), but that they were hugely popular nonetheless. Alger fooled the masses, but not the intelligentsia.

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