Sunday 15 March 2015

Is culture crashing? Scott Timberg: Part 2 review

I often tell my students that if they enjoy my lessons they should thank the rulers of the former Soviet Union. When they start to laugh I tell them that the story goes that the launch of the first Sputnik rocket in 1957 sent shock waves through the intellectual class of the USA. How could the world´s greatest country have been beaten into space by the USSR? The missing link, it was decided, was original thinking, so a new generation of bright sparks needed to be produced in no time at all. But how?  Creativity was the answer. 

Thanks to those lawmakers in the USA who expanded arts provision, the more genteel but equally ambitious rulers in London followed obediently and introduced music and drama courses at all levels of education  in a way that was unthinkable a short time before.

That generation of creative minds was meant to restore prominence to The West not in the arts themselves but in what really counted: geopolitical dominance. Of course it was not called that then: lots of things changed their names over the years and the decades.

Scott Timberg nails it in his   Culture Crash , The Killing of the creative class. In Chapter 6 he describes how those early days when the creatives were to save The Free World gave way to the view of those same persons as Idle Dreamers: the curse of the creative class. He cites Dan Quayle, intellectual giant as he is, VP that other man renowned for deep thought and er … well, maybe not. Anyway, he cites Quayle as using the expression cultural elite as an insult in a speech in 1992 in California. I am not going to quote the passage, better you buy the book for yourself, it´s worth it just to have yet another laugh at the mighty thinking power of Messrs Q & B.

Mr Timberg details how, while snide comments from people who know nothing like to describe those in the creative industries as cosseted and privileged, the real statistics show that  earnings in this field are lower than average incomes and working conditions are arduous and precarious.

I enjoyed Chapter 7: The end of print. It is a sad story that has been told many times and it has to do not only with the technological revolution. More profoundly it has to do with greed among business leaders and failure of governments to regulate properly.

Yes the digital dawn has played its part. Mr Timberg refers to the Guardian, a British newspaper founded in 1821. Here´s a thing, my beloved father bought it even when it was still called The Manchester Guardian. In 1959 they dropped the local tag as it aspired to be a national newspaper, and so it was and so my father bought it every day probably for 40 years even as the price rose from a shilling to I suppose 60 pence. Now I read the Guardian and I dip into it several times a day and find new stories constantly appearing, excellent graphics and high quality writing and beautiful photographs. Yet not only am I paying less in 2015 than my dear father paid in 1965, I am paying nothing at all. No wonder its owners are losing money daily: as Mr Timberg remarks, the Guardian continues to operate thanks to its almost unique support from the trust which owns it.

Today,  Will Hutton  writes in the Guardian/Observer about  different levels of internet connectivity available in different parts of Britain. What is the good of having all the world´s knowledge at your fingertips if the rate of download is so slow as to be ineffective? How is there a broadening of democracy and an increase of freedom if you access to information depends on the profit your neighbourhood provides to the cable provider? These are big questions and not all newspapers are prepared to ask, much less answer them.  

Mr Timberg makes an insightful comment about the loss of theatre and music critics in many newspapers in recent years. He points out that specialist bloggers may well write about local plays or concerts so apparently the loss of coverage in the press is not significant. Yet, he says, the danger is that the arts “become a tiny subculture, losing their connection to a mass middle-class public, surrendering their ability to be discovered accidentally.”

I agree totally, and I think the “ability to be discovered accidentally” is similar to the effect of large numbers of school students taking musical instruments to and from school daily. When it is seen as a natural thing to do to carry that strange long box  with a trombone, or that short flat almost weightless case holding a violin, other students are much more likely to adopt playing an instrument into their life than if selected students attend  specialist courses out of the normal school routine.

 Mr Timberg concludes that the artist and the journalist, two groups of workers who are suffering, are committed to uncovering the truth, be it of the human condition or of institutions. Truth, no matter what the cost “is something we cannot live without.”

Looking forward to reading the next chapters. Thank you Mr Timberg.  

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