Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Culture Crash and the Creative Class

Read this book. It leaves me so filled with ideas, rage and hope that I'm  having difficulty articulating. Just read it.

Thirty five years ago I worked as a record store clerk at a Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue. I don't remember the pay. Certainly it was less $5/hr. We had to wear silly blue smocks that stank. The record department was on a mezzanine right at Rockefeller Center. That as the apex of the world in 1980. Barnes and Noble sold "only" (!) classical records, and it was records. Compact discs were being talked about, but it wasn't until two years later the stores saw its first CD.

I thought nothing of telling the customer who wanted Zubin Mehta's  recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, "No, you don't." When the Met revived Berlioz Les troyens we were sent a ship load of the five record Colin Davis set that retailed for a hefty $30. It weighted thirty pounds too. People tried to buy it because someone gave them tickets to the opera. I slapped their hands. Don't pay thirty bucks for an opera you don't know. Here's a highlight recording for five dollars.
In short, I was mouthy and opinionated,. I wanted the very best for the customer. I was passionate about the music we were selling.  The clientele included Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman to Franco Corelli DAvid Stivender, the Met Opera Chorus director who gave us tickets. Vladimir Horowitz himself came in one day. He wanted recordings by the Italian baritone Mattita Battistini. He seemed delighted I knew about Battistini.

There was nothing different about me from any of my similarly impoverished colleagues who loved music. This windy autobiography is by way of discussing a new book by Scott Timberg, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class"

Timberg lionizes record store clerks, video store proprietors and funky writers on the arts. All of us greasy and broke people who lived for the art we loved. Today that sounds like a crock of self indulgent nonsense. It sounded wonderful in 1980. We were complimented and respected.
Scott Timberg
We lived on spaghetti and free opera tickets from customers, but we felt the love. Today, record stores, video emporiums and the small magazines and presses that gave us professional meaning are long gone.

Culture Crash argues that the Internet has so democratized the arts that "everyone is doing it", thus de valuing a degree of passion and expertise.  The era of the opinionated sales maven is gone.  Remember Helga, the attractive German woman at the Harvard Coop ?  Who could forget Kenn from J and R records, who was dirty and mean and knew his opera?? Tower records on Broadway at 68th St. was a meeting place after a Lincoln Center performance-that most of us crashed. A community exists only when it can be together. Where would they meet today?

Okay, so we live in a Kardashian worshipping society that offers celebrity to nothing and no one. What do to? That's the problem with books like these. Timberg makes a very convincing case for the decline of taste makers, creators, artist, writers, painters and store clerks. (And stores!). The Internet has over accelerated thought making it to easy to like what an algorithm tells us to like. BUT WHAT DO WE DO? CAN WE EVER GO BACK? Name me a big city where the creative class can afford to thrive? New  York? Boston? San Francisco? Los Angeles? Austin? New Orleans? Chicago? Today the dives and faulty plumbing afforded forty years ago are grabbed by hedge funds. It's no longer chic to pee in the streets. And yet creators do move to Columbus, Minneapolis, Charlotte and Wapakaneta.

Scott Timberg writes, Restore the cultural minute men. Bookstore workers, newspaper arts critics, radio deejays, librarians. Make opinions count. It is not the middle that was elitist, but the very rich and often the very poor artists. (What's wrong with being elitist and why is that a bad word is another blog post)

Could Michelangelo get hired today?
Remember  that the model of most of the arts depended on patronage from the nobility. No Pope no money no Michelangelo. Subsidy creates jobs. You may resent paying more taxes for that  painter upstairs who should get a real job. But what about when the art creates a gallery hat needs workers that opens in a crummy neighborhood bringing with it restaurants and small businesses where your kid can get a part time job.

Timberg goes on to argue the decline of the middle brow. You are either widely avant garde or reactionary. I remember not so long ago a politician was asked if ever went to a play or a concert. He let slip that he and his wife had seen and loved La boheme, but then back tracked, "I wouldn't want this to get out." The homogenization of the arts has made for a prissy land of blah.
"Today if you are bot a superstar a millionaire, you're a loser. A culture of arrogance, hubris and winner take all as established. It wasn't cool to be poor and struggling. The bully was celebrated and cheered. "There are NFL Wives who get more mainstream media coverage than every living jazz artist put together."

One problem is that the arts take time. They don't respond well to a sped up  society. They do not offer instant gratification. Good art makes you want to keep looking and keep listening and keep reading. Repeated use brings new insights. There's always a different perspective. There's always something new to love or infuriate in a painting or a book read over and over. We're wired today to demand instant gratification. Beethoven can offer an instant wow. But often music is heard out of context. You gotta know where you are wow-ing from and to where the wow is leading you.

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