I read this today and it resonated with me:
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!