No, the Internet Is Not Killing Culture

It’s always been hard to make a living in the arts. It still is.

Illustration by Jon Chadurjian.

Illustration by Jon Chadurjian

Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash begins with a harrowing and by now familiar personal narrative of the Great Recession. In 2008, Timberg, an arts reporter for the Los Angeles Times, was laid off, a casualty of the infamous Sam Zell regime; soon after, the bank foreclosed on his family’s house. These back-to-back misfortunes made Timberg worry about more than making ends meet: They shook his faith in the entire enterprise of American creativity. “I saw myself in the third generation of people who had worked in culture without either striking it rich or going broke,” he writes, but such a career path no longer seemed available in the 21st century, and he wanted to understand why. Though there was a temptation to blame the awesome leveling power of the Internet, he concluded that “this was about more than just technology. … Some of the causes were as new as file sharing; others were older than the nation. Some were cyclical, and would pass in a few years; others were structural and would get worse with time.”

The causes of what Timberg terms “the killing of the creative class”—the murder suspects, if you will—include a long tradition of American “anti-aestheticism” going back to the Puritans; cuts to public funding for the arts beginning in Reagan’s 1980s; rising rents and vanishing public space in urban centers; the weakening of the church-state wall between editorial and advertising in journalism; theory-besotted academic “intellectuals … speaking in tongues”; the decline of mainstream respect for “middlebrow” culture; the pernicious critical influence of Pauline Kael; capitalism (specifically, the contemporary variant diagnosed by Thomas Frank as “market fundamentalism” and by the economists Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook as “the winner-take-all society”); and, yes, “the Internet” (particularly file sharing and the attendant collapse of the music industry). As this list suggests, Culture Crash is an ambitious but unfocused book. The villains proliferate, the time scale expands and contracts—in a couple of places, Timberg goes as far back as the cave paintings at Lascaux—but the message remains consistent: People who want to make a living from art and culture now are screwed.

What Timberg values, and wants to preserve, is in fact a pretty unusual state of affairs that arguably held for a few decades in the 20th century, one in which active participation in artistic, creative, or bohemian culture could semi-reliably provide the material basis for a stable middle-class life. “What I’ve found is that despite romantic myth, most artists and others who work in the world of culture come from the middle class and hope, after a few years of scrambling and bare-bones living, to return to it,” he writes. The best and most substantial sections of Culture Crash are the ones adapted from Timberg’s previously published profiles of such scramblers in Salon and elsewhere, pieces in which grand explanatory theories recede into the background and Timberg becomes a sort of Studs Terkel for Freelance Nation. The second chapter, “Disappearing Clerks and the Lost Sense of Place,” is one of the best-reported of these—though it is also the one I found myself least convinced by. It’s devoted to unsung heroes of the independent retail trade, like Jeff Miller of the now-shuttered Rocket Video and Hammurabi Kabbabe of the also-shuttered Dutton’s Brentwood Books. “The loss of the people who labor to put books and music and movies into our hands is bad enough, but their departure doesn’t just cut into the number of people who can make a living from working in culture,” Timberg writes. “Every time a shop selling books or records, or renting movies, closes, we lose the kind of gathering places that allow people oriented to culture to meet and connect; we lose our context, and the urban fabric frays.”

This Jane Jacobs-ish defense of the Comic Book Guys of the world is passionate but unconvincing: Are we really losing something essential with these “gathering places” that isn’t made up for by Wi-Fi-enabled coffee shops (frequently havens of creative production, not just consumption) on the one hand, and online forums for critical discussion on the other? Does the labor of culture have to happen in a store? Not to mention that such places are often, as a friend who worked in record and video stores in her youth put it, “fortresses of male aesthetic precision.” “I don’t let anyone leave without giving them a barrage of my words, of the history,” Timberg quotes Kabbabe as saying. Call me a traitor to the cause of art, but I would personally rather access my Hammurabi Kabbabes via the Internet, where I can escape from their word barrages by discreetly closing a tab.

Here and elsewhere, Timberg falls prey to the professional Jeremiah’s tendency to focus only on what has disappeared—without attending to what has risen up in its place. Timberg is right to blanch at the astonishing number of jobs in publishing and journalism that have been lost since 2008 (about 260,000, according to a figure he cites from U.S. News & World Report). This has, indeed, been a disaster for the creative class. But he fails to note that there are signs of life as well. In the past year, new media companies like BuzzFeed and Vox Media have raised millions of dollars’ worth of venture capital ($50 and $46.5 million, respectively), a portion of which is going to hire critics and culture writers. And while the pay and benefits of many new media jobs may not keep up with the standards of a couple of decades ago, that’s a problem typical of American employment across the spectrum, not an issue specific to the creative class.

Whether or not you join Timberg in ruing the demise of the record store clerk or local arts beat reporter—or the alternative weekly or the record label or postmodernist middle-class architecture, other cherished institutions whose loss Timberg mourns—it is a strength of Culture Crash that it addresses not just “creators of culture” but “their often-mocked supporting casts.” I just kept hoping Timberg would bring up previous studies of these figures, some of which might have added depth and nuance to his arguments and put our contemporary American moment in wider perspective. Howard S. Becker’s Art Worlds, for instance, first published in 1982, is still the deepest and best discussion of how “support personnel” such as sound mixers, art handlers, printers, gallery employees, roadies, and the like function in a larger ecology of creativity. Timberg might have lined up today’s “winner-take-all” dynamics next to those at work in Paris in the 19th century, as charted by Pierre Bourdieu in The Rules of Art, or compared the employment situation of today’s culture creators with what the economist Hans Abbing studied in his rigorous, data-rich analysis Why Are Artists Poor? But he never cites any of those thinkers.

Author Scott Timberg.
Author Scott Timberg.

Photo by Steven Dewall

Timberg is right, of course, that this is a scary and confusing time to be a creative professional. But ’twas ever thus, pretty much, as even a quick glance at intellectual history suggests. George Gissing’s New Grub Street, published in 1891, laid out the plight of writers whose lives were upended by a previous wave of creative destruction and technological innovation—in his case, the decline of the lending library and the rise of the mass-market press, which utterly transformed the market for popular fiction. “You can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living,” the playwright Robert Anderson is reported to have said in the mid-1950s—at the height, in other words, of government intervention and middlebrow respect for art. Look a little harder at the problem and you’ll find that things are tough all over, chronologically as well as geographically.

In some ways, creative people, broadly defined, are better off in the U.S. today than they have been throughout much of human history. The fact that commentators can now refer to a “creative class,” as Timberg does in his subtitle (borrowing a now popular phrase coined by Richard Florida), reflects a world in which politicians and city planners recognize the economic value of bohemian life. There are, of course, downsides to this mindset, in which creativity is mostly a harbinger of gentrification—Thomas Frank has dubbed it “a sort of prosperity gospel for Ivy League art students.” Still, this contemporary outlook would have astonished the struggling writers of Gissing’s day, and reflects, in part, the spread of creative work in the current economy.

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.

As a precariously perched culture worker myself—and one just five years shy of 40—I don’t want to pretend that there’s nothing at stake here, or that Timberg’s concerns are completely overblown. He argues sensibly for more “middle-class protections” for the creative class (though the policy details of this are left sketchy—one suspects he just means protections for the middle class generally), and worries that the “only people who will be able to work in culture will be those who don’t need to be compensated—celebrities, the very rich, and tenured academics.” This is a reasonable thing to worry about. But it’s not a new thing to worry about, and despite the dewy nostalgia on almost every page of Culture Crash I’m not convinced that we have ever had a society that did very much better on this score. If you want a world where creativity is a viable life pursuit, the way is forward, not back. The dream of the ’90s is not enough.

Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, by Scott Timberg. Yale University Press.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.