They’ll Miss Us When We’re Gone

I read this today and it resonated with me:

http://mic.com/articles/108570/how-the-rise-of-the-creative-class-is-actually-screwing-creative-americans

The article argues that the creative classes are crashing (or have already crashed) and it attempts to point the finger of blame, to explain why.  I think the analysis is largely correct, actually.  More depressingly and unfortunately, the prognosis for creatives is not bright.  We, as artists and creatives, are under unprecedented economic, ideological and cultural pressures, and it is leading to our widespread extinction.  Artists and creatives are leaving the field in droves, globally.  They are left with no other viable choice, in a neoliberal economy and a culture that doesn’t value humanities, creativity or the arts.  Some creatives are actually dying prematurely, under the strain.

The creative class was defined by author and researcher Richard Florida, in his 2002 book, as, “anyone who works with their mind at a high level.”  By this definition, it encompassed not only artists, but engineers, software designers and research scientists.  Also included were architects, photographers, musicians, graphic designers, animators, film makers, editors, writers, painters, and poets – those people we more traditionally associated with creativity.  Controversially, though, it pulled in other educated people, like lawyers, quantity surveyors, auditors, actuaries and accountants, many of whom one wouldn’t ordinarily call creative, since their work often revolves around the reapplication of routine and codified practices, in the main.

The article posits that a broader, arguably more useful, definition of the creative class as, “anyone who helps create or disseminate culture”.  While the author says that this excludes engineers, programmers and researchers, I claim that engineering, software creation and research does help to disseminate and create culture.  Little matter, though.  In this broader definition, we include record store clerks, librarians, video rental store clerks and anybody else that plays a curatorial role in culture, even if at a minor level.  We include them, because they are usually the day jobs of creatives, there is value in a broad and deep knowledge of what culture exists and they were often the glue that held together many creative communities.

So why has the creative class crashed and burnt?  Income inequality is killing the creative class, predominantly.  Money and investment is moving away from creation and making things and into speculative, rentier sectors of the economy, at a staggering and unprecedented rate.  This is painfully evident, if you know any of these creatives.  They’re doing worse, relative to their former standards of living.  This is mostly the type of people I know; the makers and creators.

Why does this matter?  The knock-on consequences of the loss of the creative class are manifold and severe.  Under threat is nothing less than healthy urban growth.  Gentrification replaces vitality.  Our human creative potential is also being severely compromised.  If nobody practices it, then nobody remains any good at it.  We’re losing our culture and the very engines of cultural creation and renewal.  The loss of the creative class implies the consequent loss of entire productive industries, not to mention the happiness, fulfilment and security of those individuals unfortunately hard-wired to be creative.  Precarity is what they have instead.

The lack of financial security, to weather human inevitabilities like the birth of children, ill health, age and the loss of a partner, impacts on the general health and wellbeing of all creative people.  They have to eat, stay warm and have a roof over their heads like all human beings, yet are increasingly unable to fund these things, from their art alone, in an economy that insists that everybody pay their way, just to exist and in markets where only the winner takes all the money.  The creative classes are, in short, burning out.

Things have become so profit and greed driven, that risk and diversity have more or less disappeared, when it comes to the creation of cultural artefacts.  Media publishers and distributors can no longer afford to take chances and so don’t.  They only want sure things.  That usually means a sequel or more of the same.  We’re getting homogenised cultural artefacts.  The surprise and delight factor is much more rare, these days.  Our culture is becoming background wallpaper – consumable and disposable.  Nobody supports an artist, over the course of an entire career.  Nobody even buys a whole album, anymore.  They barely listen all the way through a single.  Millisecond attention spans create a cultural void.  We become rampant consumers, but vacuous, distracted, vapid, uninformed, ultimately bored ones.  Celebrity gossip has replaced deep introspection and reflection.

It’s true that we have a burgeoning freelance, creative sector and politicians are fond of pointing to this as their antidote to unemployment, but it’s an increasingly impoverished one, with rates under relentless pressure, in the winner-takes-all marketplace.  “Freelance” has, regrettably, become a synonym for “unemployed”.  Indeed, “self-employed” is somewhat of a subtle oxymoron.  There are too many people with the skills to create the products and cultural artefacts that insufficient numbers of people have the money to buy, anymore.  In short, there are more creatives chasing fewer opportunities, as firms disinvest in production.  There just isn’t the demand, with debt spiralling and real wages having been stagnant or falling, for decades.  As creatives, serving the 1% is just not a viable business model, either, because it just doesn’t generate enough work for every creative person that there is.

An undercurrent of insidious anti-intellectualism, which has characterised political rhetoric in recent decades, has also served to further degrade and denigrate the value of arts and culture.  Creatives are seen as elitist, whereas the real elites, the wealthiest in society, are perversely seen as “one of the boys”.  It’s an unsustainable, mass delusion, but a damaging one, nonetheless.  Middle-brow art has become a casualty, swept away, baby-with-bathwater style, along with the assault on high art.

Artists already work very hard, uncompensated, producing music, reviews, videos, e-books and all manner of user-generated content, which always seems to enrich the hosts and distributors of that content, rather than the authors and originators.  Even our likes, preferences, follows, tweets, status updates and blog posts are, in reality, unpaid work that handsomely benefits other people, financially.

Artists aren’t going to subsidise culture forever, by taking steady day jobs, unrelated to the arts and then spending the rest of their waking hours pursuing their art.  They can’t give up sleep and an actual, normal human life forever.  They’re not creativity machines.  At some point, their physical stamina and energy simply runs out.  If they find the frustration of not doing art as their occupation too intense, they’ll simply perish as living organisms.  That’s what happens.  They’ll just die.  It will be disguised as strokes, suicides, depression and heart disease, but it will be the frustration of having to be a permanent fish out of water that actually kills them.  Even if they try to moonlight, to scratch their creative itches, the toll on their health, long term, will kill them anyway.

What will happen when all the artists are gone or working exclusively in anything other than art?  There will be no art.  There will be no culture.  You’re left only with back catalogue.  That’s what culture will become – nostalgia.  There will be nothing newly created and every old creation endlessly regurgitated and recycled.  Eventually, people will tire of the endless re-runs and re-releases, however well digitally re-mastered.  Then there will be a cultural desert.  We will have killed novelty and innovation completely.  There will be no new art, or when there is, it will be by amazing, unlikely, infrequent accident.

The ability to make common cultural references, in art, once widely understood by audiences, will disappear too, because newer artists just won’t have the knowledge or context to draw upon.  If there are no opportunities to become steeped in culture, because you’re spending your working hours doing something not related to art instead, then the artists won’t have the grist for their mills and audiences won’t “get it”, even if they did.

A world without culture, contemporary design, aesthetic delights, and intellectual stimulation, filled only with financial statements, market indices, share portfolios and investment derivatives will be barbaric and sterile in the extreme.  For people with any semblance of sensibility, it will be intolerable.

No longer will the elite 1% be able to buy finely designed and crafted cars, boats, furnishings, clothes, living spaces or fripperies.  Artisans and craftspeople will go when the artists go.  Everything the 1% buys will have already been designed and their physical surroundings will begin to resemble either Stalinist Russia or Cuba under the blockade, with every single item and necessity of life being dated, obsolete, sub-optimal and designed for the conditions that pertain to another era entirely.

There just won’t be design and aesthetic responses to modernity, changing living environments or a shifting intellectual foment.  Without writers, there are no books, so new ideas to create new intellectual foments.  We’ll think the same ideas we think now, however unsuitable they are for the future.  It won’t matter if they’re wrong-headed; there will be nothing to challenge them and nobody to articulate the alternatives.

There will be no coffee shops in which to calmly muse and work, because there will be no authors writing their novel or some poetry.  Instead, there will be market traders and fund managers hunched over their lattes and laptops – a very different and less relaxed vibe.  The creative atmosphere that many cities have strived to create will simply disappear, seemingly overnight, replaced by sheer real estate values and globalised chain stores, selling homogenised products, designed long ago and made as cheaply as possible, in offshore sweatshops.

There will be endless tracts of nearly identical condominiums.  The skylines of cities will come to resemble expensive shanty towns, just as Monte Carlo does today.  Soulless, lifeless apartments, filled with hedge fund managers, or bought as “investments”, but unoccupied due to spiralling rents, will fill every available piece of land and block every view.  Funky, cheap workspaces, suitable for artists to work in, will have been knocked down and demolished long ago.  There will be no workspaces for artists built to replace them.  The return on investment is too low, compared to high-density housing estates.

The only artists left will be the unpaid, intern children of wealthy parents, who can afford to subsidise their dalliance with creativity.  The social safety nets will have long since been dismantled by ideologues in government, hell bent on “profitisation”.  Nobody will be able to afford to risk it all and fail, as a creative, because failure could be literally fatal.  Only trust fund kiddies will.

This is the end of meritocracy, or of what little meritocracy we, in reality, had.  The arts will no longer be open to anybody talented and hard-working.  Working in culture will become an exclusive, lifestyle luxury of only the very rich.

If you require artists to be full-time salesman of their own work, you’re going to lose a lot of work from talented people.  There just won’t be the time to do both.  You’ll just get celebrities, big movies, and people with big budgets making very safe, predictable art.

Ultimately, even the wealthiest are going to miss the artists, when they’re gone.  Culture is a thing that requires continuity and for artists to be marinated in it, over a long period of time, before they can produce new cultural artefacts of any value and worth (not just market value, but value to humanity).  If you lose the entire creative class, you can’t just restart it by throwing money at it.  There are no significant artists, designers or cultural icons in the former Soviet Russia, to this day.  Many are trying, but not making a splash on the global stage.  It’s just not that easy to restart a culture, once lost.

The loss of a whole creative class represents nothing less than the loss of our ability, as a species, to solve problems in unorthodox, ingenious or novel ways.  This actually imperils the survival prospects for all of humanity, the wealthiest included.  Jonas Salk said, “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare make dreams into reality.”  Lose that human capacity and we perish.

We’re creating a cultural wasteland, while the wealthiest plunder and line their pockets.  In the end, though, even their wealth will be worthless, when there are no products or cultural works to spend it on.  What will they buy?  More stock?  More bonds?  More complex derivatives and exotic financial instruments?  What will sustain the value of these financial investments, if nobody makes or creates anything new, anymore, to underpin them?

Will they take their piles of money and buy another apartment, for cash, in a formerly Bohemian district of a now denuded, lifeless, sterile city?  How will they enjoy their wealth, with nothing created to spend it on?  Their wealth will become a mountain of dead cash or securities that you can’t do anything with.

The price we ultimately pay, by eliminating the creative class, is in the decline of art itself, and a diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.  So, nothing much, in other words, right?  Who needs artists anyway, eh?

They’re going to miss us when we’re gone.  Screw ‘em!

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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4 Responses to They’ll Miss Us When We’re Gone

  1. Wow, and I thought *I* was pessimistic about these things!

    I read this, the linked article, and a few of the articles linked off of those articles. This is an interesting topic, and one that hits home. I have a day job, and I’m trying to figure out how to make a name for myself in music. I’m also trading sleep for time to work on it. So I feel these issues very keenly.

    But I don’t really buy all this “culture drain” stuff. There will always be people who feel compelled to create, even if no one is paying attention. Sometimes the best art is created under such conditions, precisely because the artist stops paying attention to what other people think. As you’ve commented before, there is already an undigestible amount of mediocre music out there to wade through. Maybe this is simply the new way that the wheat gets separated from the chaff. In the olden days (pre-internet ;)) the gatekeepers were identifiable: publishing houses, editors, record companies, art show promoters, concert promoters, museum curators et al. Now the gatekeepers are the nameless, faceless horde aka consensus popular opinion. And their fancy is just as fickle. Hell, maybe even more so! At least a record company has a vested interest in an act after they sink some money into it. The Horde has no such loyalty.

    I think all this hand-wringing about “culture” vanishing (as if that’s even possible) in a lot of ways is just modern artists coming up against the same reality that was always there: when it comes to art, there will always be more supply than demand. The internet, and all the avenues for self-promotion that it opens up, have fooled people into thinking that it’s actually easier now to “make it” than it was before. In some ways it is, especially if you’re offering a product that would have been stopped by the Old Gatekeepers, but which is also something that the New Gatekeepers appreciate. As much as I’d like to think that a lot of art fits that description, I’m starting to think that the OGs were right far more often than they were wrong. Not for my taste, personally, but for “mass opinion.” That was their job. Now their job involves a lot more of just paying attention to what is “making it” without their initial stamp of approval, and then signing those acts, or creating copycats to emulate that sound. So there is probably more room for innovation in that sense, but then that is immediately followed by co-opting and bleeding that new thing dry.

    For my money, I think the best commentary is what you said about listener attention spans. We can blame market forces, hedge funds, record companies et al all we want, but here’s the thing: people have unprecedented exposure to new types of music, yet most willingly choose to stick to pop pablum (not that there’s anything wrong with pop music per se). Most people don’t even actively seek out new music. They just wait for it to come to them passively, just like we used to do in the age of radio and MTV. They’ll enjoy it here and there for a while, and then it’s on to the next thing. Why is that? I think that is what starving artists have to come to terms with. But they may not want to try, because the conclusion might lead to despair. I guess maybe it’s easier to blame market forces or gentrification or hedge funds. But what if the truth really is that most people don’t really care enough about art to take it seriously, explore new things, and actually shell out money for it? What if the truth is that people do not value (literally, value) art (especially out-of-the-ordinary art) enough to support all the people that want to make it? When I look at the non-artists in my life (the majority), this certainly seems to be true. Maybe some artists just hang out with too many other artists to see this reality that I’m seeing. Being insulated in a creative world can be good for art, but maybe it’s not so good when it comes to really assessing the economic viability of a given hobby/career path. So we get this scapegoating.

    Anyway, even though my take on this might seem even more pessimistic (and misanthropic) in a way, I still don’t think the situation is so dire. At least not any more so than it was 20 years ago. I certainly don’t think we’re going to “lose our culture.” Is it actually possible that the increased competition for listener attention will push artists to try harder to innovate? Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe the majority of the lost “slots” for artists to support themselves through art were previously filled with pretty mediocre stuff (most live local music I see is mediocre at best). Maybe all of this tumult will actually serve to raise the bar. It’s probably true that fewer and fewer artists will get to survive by their craft. But it might also mean that, on the whole, the bar for excellence will be raised for decades to come. Personally, I think there is a ton of great art still being produced. And I know that I’m going to keep plugging away to try to do something worthwhile, even if no one gives two $hit$.

    I’m not saying I have the answers. I’m just saying that a lot of these articles on this topic give off a very alarmist vibe. Alarmists are rarely right. The truth usually ends up being more temperate than what they predict.

    • Thank you for your extensive and very carefully considered comments. They make excellent reading. However, my suggestion to you is that if a majority of people don’t really care enough about art to support it, then this is prima facie evidence of the loss of culture. Culture is disappearing before our very eyes, evidenced by the behaviour of the masses. That’s the proof.

      You’re right to say that artists always strive to make art, even if nobody is watching or listening, but there comes a point where it is literally impossible for them to continue. At some point, I regret to say, your corner cutting on your sleep will have an impact on your health and you will be forced to stop eating into your sleep to make art. How will you make art then? That’s not to single you out. I mean this in the generic case.

      I don’t mean to be pessimistic. I actually think I am being coldly rational about it. From where I am sitting, we’re watching art in retreat. It’s taking culture with it. What’s left is not something you could reasonably call “culture”, as we know it. It’s something far more intellectually and aesthetically impoverished. That’s just how I see it.

      • Trust me, I’m aware I can’t keep this up the way I have been! I’m seeing double some days.

        Well, maybe we just won’t agree about what defines “culture,” and therefore the loss of it.

        My larger point was about taking issue with the theories of causation being proffered, not the existence of the phenomenon itself. Maybe I’m incurably high-brow, but I think that “good” art has always been lost on the masses. Maybe some of them will get it years down the line once it’s “rediscovered” by some tastemaker that they care about. I feel like (but have no evidence to back it up) that the masses have always been out of touch with the truly cool things that are happening in the arts. And outside of my niche interest areas, I include myself in that assessment. We’re all utter noobs and dilettantes when it comes to most things. We lament the lack of sophisticated taste in others, but we find ways to excuse it in ourselves, usually by telling ourselves that the thing we’re into is inherently more important than those things we don’t know much about. But that can only ever by subjectively true, of course.

        I guess I just don’t see it as an entirely new thing, and therefore not a reason for alarm. People do this all the time with language. Every generation thinks that the generation that comes after it is inflicting insufferable harm onto the language. The opinion is rarely shared by members of that younger generation. Until they get older, and the cycle begins anew. Maybe not a perfect analogy to this topic, but I think it’s interesting to consider that what causes alarm and disgust in one generation just becomes the new normal for the next. If I could throw out some crazy lingo that the kids these days are using to sound cool, I would do that right now, but I am so very unhip in that way, yo.

      • For all I know, you may be right. Time will tell, as it always does.

        The one thing that I think makes things different is the level of economic inequality that exists today and how that bends everything. That’s no small effect.

        Anyway, we’ll have to wait and see.

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