Is The “Creative Class” Dying?

Scott Timberg, an arts reporter for the LA Times who was laid off in 2008, has now written a book, Culture Crash, investigating “the killing of the creative class.” He names anti-intellectualism, celebrity culture, and the decline of print as culprits:

Probably the boldest claim that Timberg advances is his indictment of postmodernism as a destructive attack on culture with broadly deleterious consequences. This attack has emanated from the academy, not our profession—most journalists wouldn’t know postmodernism from a doorpost—but Timberg argues that we are all its victims. He offers a whirlwind tour of various critical schools—structuralism, “deconstruction,” feminist criticism, cultural studies—and says that they have leached the joy out of reading and other cultural pursuits.

Even the avowedly populist Pauline Kael comes in for some bashing, for allegedly “championing the kind of work that did not really need a critic’s advocacy or interpretation.” In fact, Timberg’s crankiness is reminiscent of the reaction by earlier critics of modernism, who also lamented that the cultural world as they knew it was coming to an end. Thanks largely to postmodernism, Timberg writes, we are graduating fewer (novel-reading, theatergoing) humanities majors. One could argue, of course, that practical considerations—including a spate of recessions and the sexiness of high-paying Wall Street, consulting, and tech jobs—have been more decisive in this decline.

Evan Kindley finds that “there is, ultimately, an unnerving sense of entitlement to Culture Crash, well-intentioned as it is, and that entitlement is largely generational”:

The real sting in the tail of Timberg’s polemic is not, as he would have us believe, that things are worse for creative people than they’ve ever been before. It’s that things are considerably worse than they were 20 years ago.

Throughout Culture Crash, the 1990s function as a go-to belle époque: “the peak years of journalistic employment, especially for newspapers,” the height of architectural innovation, the heyday of indie rock. His choice of interview subjects (David Lowery, Dean Wareham, David Byrne) betrays an obvious bias toward aging Gen X icons. Timberg makes clear that he’s “not particularly interested in James Cameron … or Kanye West: Celebrity and corporate entertainment—good and bad—hardly needs defenders.” Yet he’s not very interested in the genuinely marginal, obscure, or underprivileged, either—or in anyone under 40: Timberg’s interviews are all with white men who did extraordinarily well in the 1990s (or occasionally the 1980s or early 2000s), and are doing worse (but still reasonably OK) now.

One can hardly blame folks like Lowery or Byrne for complaining about the relative decline of their industries: They have firsthand experience of an age d’or to share and probably (even correctly) view themselves as spokesmen for the many suffering artists who don’t have a comparable platform. But Timberg certainly could have tried harder to talk to a wider swath of the creative class beyond his personal social circle and those he comes into contact with on his promotional rounds.