Works in Progress - Spring 2015

Whither American Culture?

By Scott Timberg | March 4, 2015


Freelance journalist Scott Timberg lives in Los Angeles and blogs about art, music, and literature. His new book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, prompted us to urge him to pose questions, based on his research, about the future of American culture.

1. In the three decades after World War II, we saw a movement to elevate culture for the masses. The middlebrow consensus, we could say, tracked with the upheaval of the modern movement in art, architecture, literature, and music. It meant publication of paperbacks of classic novels, the Great Books push, Leonard Bernstein on television, Thelonious Monk on the cover of Time, an expanding English major in colleges and universities, and so on. These days, it all seems like ancient history. Do we have a new, fruitful way to think about culture that goes beyond midcentury middlebrow?

2. If, as children, people don’t learn to love fiction, music of a reasonably complex nature, theater and film that require attention spans, and visual art that involves ambiguity, they typically never do. Many such children become adults who ignore everything but mass-marketed corporate entertainment; a few grow up to be politicians who ignore culture and perhaps use artists as punching bags. How do we persuade children to take an interest in the arts and culture, so that when they become adults, they (including politicians) appreciate the arts and perhaps even fight for them?

3. One of the crucial issues that became clear to me while researching Culture Crash is that the fate of the creative class—the group that produces, disseminates, and assesses culture—is intimately bound up with the fate of the middle class. That is (mostly) where the creative class comes from and still lives, and upon which it depends. Politicians of the left and right are now speaking about the middle class, which has foundered or at least languished since the late ’70s. How do we restore the beleaguered middle?

4. Participation in cultural life predates, by many thousands of years, the coming of the market economy to 18th-century England. The market economy, or capitalism, has done many things well, and it has allowed pop culture to thrive, but it has never quite synced with many forms of the arts. Symphonic and chamber music, opera, poetry, dance, serious theater, and even visual art still reside heavily in the nonprofit, academic, or state-funded sectors. Public support for the arts and humanities has flatlined for decades. Some disagree, but I have little faith in the magic of the marketplace to fix this crisis, at least not on its own. So if money were no object and our only goal was to properly support culture of all kinds—and those who produce it—by what factor would we multiply the national endowments for the arts and humanities?

5. Perhaps the most exciting literary movement of recent years has come from my generation—I was born in 1969, so count me a proud Gen Xer. American writers Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, and Junot Díaz (the novelist David Mitchell is a kind of English cousin) splice elements of detective stories, science fiction, horror, fantasy, and so forth onto traditionally serious “literary” fiction. In other fields, there has been a parallel movement growing out of the high-low breakdown that began in the ’60s: Quentin Tarantino tries to make something resembling art film out of Hong Kong action movies; the musician Beck is a collagist who cuts and mixes fragments from all over the place. It takes us far beyond the old modernist division between high art on the one hand and everyday life (or the marketplace) on the other. As we contemplate the culture of the future and how to nurture it, I wonder: Is there a difference between art and entertainment? (Or “literary” and genre writing?) If so, does it matter?

6. Traditionally, bookstores were where aspiring writers earned a living, and where readers went for sustenance and community. Yet in the two decades since the mid-1990s, during which the U.S. population has grown by 60 million—we’ve lost half of our independent bookstores, and record shops have virtually disappeared. The causes are mostly technological and involve online outlets like Amazon. Meanwhile, in parts of Europe, especially the German-speaking world and France, independent culture merchants are at least surviving rough times, and some are thriving. Are Americans hopelessly mired in neoliberal economics, technology worship, and the logic of winner-take-all, or is there something we can do to save these places and the people who work in them?

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