How the Rise of the "Creative Class" Is Actually Screwing Creative Americans


The so-called "creative class" didn't quite pan out as people thought it would.

The term, coined by economist and social scientist Richard Florida in his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class (HarperBusiness), was meant to encompass a whole range of "thought" workers, not only artists but engineers, software designer and research scientists; loosely defined, the creative class could be "anyone who works with their mind at a high level."

Florida theorized the creative class would be the engine to power economic growth in the post-industrial 21st century "knowledge economy." But the 2008 recession didn't just diminish the wealth the creative class was supposed to inspire — it laid bare the inequalities at its core and the elitism that has furthered the divide between the classes amidst economic upheaval and challenge. 

While locales like Silicon Valley, Boston, Dallas and New York worked to attract so-called "creatives" to boost economic growth, the theory of creative class has fueled rapid gentrification and inequality, and created a widening chasm between the worlds of the so-called "creative class" and that of the service sector. Rather than the two worlds being intertwined and fuellng one another, there now exists a tremendous gulf between the two, one that threatens healthy urban growth as well as creative potential.

Ironically, one sector that's been particularly hard hit has been the actual cultural sector itself. In his new book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (Yale Press), arts writer Scott Timberg dissects  the inadequacies of the creative class theory and the fatal flaws in Florida's vision of burgeoning metropolises powered by artists, designers and other "creatives."

Timberg's book, which incorporates a series of Salon essays from 2011 along with articles and essays by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and tech writer Jaron Lanier, examines various facets of modern cultural life that have been irrevocably altered, from the loss of clerks in bookstores and record shops to the changing landscapes in publishing and higher education. But far from the book being a nostalgia-ridden polemic decrying technology and contemporary life, it's a call for a greater respect for culture and its place in society. It asks hard questions around the so-called "elitism" of the arts and ties the changing political landscape with ever-harshening conditions for artists.

Timberg identifies the key factors that lead to the upheavals happening throughout the arts world, from music to film to writing, pinpointing what Julia M. Klein names in her Columbia Journal Review piece as "the rise of postmodernism, the (possibly related) devaluing of the arts and humanities, and an unforgiving winner-take-all marketplace." The idea that artists have to do other things in order to supplement their incomes isn't a new one, but it's telling of our era that artists have to work full-time jobs that frequently aren't connected to the arts in order to survive. The devaluing of culture runs in tandem with the denigration of the middle class, in Timberg's view.

Timberg, laid off by the Los Angeles Times in 2008, offered his thoughts on millennials entering the creative field, the changing nature of art and if "creative class" really has any meaning in 2015.

Your book really takes issues with Florida's theories around the creative class, starting with the way that term is defined.

Yes, I guess where I part ways with Florida is, first of all, he defines the creative class in a way that is not very useful, at least not what I'm looking at. Basically, for him, it's anybody who uses their brain in their work: pharmaceutical engineers, lawyers, accountants, people like that. And it doesn't seem to me to tell you much. You're talking about the educated side of the work force...

...Who also happen to be overwhelmingly white and male.

That's right. And if you're as interested as I am in arts and culture and in all the people who brush up against it — record store clerks, music critics — he defines it in a way that isn't that useful. There's also his idea that if you have enough bike lanes and there are liberal laws about homosexuals, it will flip your city, no matter what it's like where artists want to live, well, it doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes the gentrification happens too rapidly, as we've talked about in New York and the Bay Area. It happens so rapidly, and it pushes out the sweet spot where the artists can actually live and walk the streets. I'm not against gentrification on principle, but the process, because of the rise of the 1% and other factors, has become really rapid and relentless; the artists come in and before you know it they're going out.

What effects have you seen from the rapid corporatization that goes along with gentrification?

The fact people like me can't afford to live in Hoboken, New Jersey, anymore is nuts — it wasn't all that long ago it was affordable; now you have hedge fund guys buying it. The disappearance of the local coffee shop is a metaphor for what's happened to the Internet too. That don't mean everything on it is bad, but the degree to which the Internet has been corporatized matches the way cities have been through gentrification.

You have a chapter on the loss of clerks. Why is that important to the discussion around culture in the 21st century?

I learned a lot not just working at these places but as a kid hanging out, getting to know people who wanted to be surrounded by culture, people who were so passionate about records, books, movies, they wanted to be swimming in it, with it every day, surrounded by it. In frequenting shops and working in them, I know something about the hidden corners of movies and books and music and so on. There's still a few good bookstores in L.A., and people who are deeply invested in this stuff and opinionated and happy to engage in discussing new and old works, and in record stores too. But to see that culture start to slip away is painful. Many members of the New York punk scene worked in record stores or book stores — people like Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith — and others too. Some of these people didn't go to college at all but they were in the trenches and the front lines of the ways culture was shaped and disseminated.

The degree to which the internet has been corporatized matches the way cities have been through gentrification..

How do you think the loss of clerk culture affects millennials?

It's a generational experience that won't exist for them in the same way and in the same sort of proportion and depth. The one thing people who don't agree with my argument says is, "But we still have this and that," and it's not that this stuff is gone completely — there are a lot of vinyl shops in various cities run by dedicated people — it's that it's fading and harder to come by. If they're becoming a musician or writer, millennials are not going to have that experience of being marinated in that world in the same way. There will be a few who can work at the hipster record stores in these places that still exist here and there, but as a mass bohemian experience of how it was for my generation and the punk generation, it's fading fast.

A recent piece in the New York Times seemed to take issue with those who question its art scene. What did you make of it?

It was funny to see a piece, especially in the New York Times, being so naive about the way this stuff really works. There's this kind of magical thinking or something, I mean, why would a good paper run a story about how the arts are thriving in New York and not make any mention of how people support themselves? Can you imagine writing about any other topic and not mentioning how they're making money? I think it's insane we're still getting pieces like that, especially when it's trying to rebut an argument people like David Byrne have made. 

I think it's important we not reduce art to just its market value — there is something truly indescribable and natural about it — but when you look at the way people's lives are led, especially in a country like the U.S., where you've had the safety net largely eroded, the class relations, earnings, the protections like health care and so on, this stuff is no less crucial to an artist than it is to a logger or a secretary. A disease of neoliberalism is people saying everything is inevitable: "Income inequality is so stark but oh well, globalization!" There's this idea that artists are magicians and don't need things like medical support. We think of these people as being above mortal needs, but if they get leukemia and they don't have medical insurance, they're screwed.

How does gentrification and class relate to culture?

In New York, artists are getting pushed further and further into the river — that's why David Byrne's ideas speak to me, and it's why Richard Florida's work seems incomplete. You get all this optimistic bullshit it'll somehow work out. I've seen a lot of people where it hasn't worked out. And in my book I make an argument that as a society we've misunderstood elitism and kind of dissed it for the wrong reasons, like, the old conservative cultural elite, which is sort of the right wing's way of saying, "If you're into culture, you're not like us, you're aristocratic and snobbish." Meanwhile, someone like Donald Trump and other plutocrats don't get called elitist, George Bush has an old-boy Texas swagger so he doesn't get pulled into that, while somebody like me, an arts writer, does. "Elite" is a loaded term for me.

"I think it's important we not reduce art to just its market value."

What do you make of the idea of figures like musician Amanda Palmer and writer Cory Doctorow who proclaim the Internet is the answer for all artist woes?

What frustrates me is that people who tell you they have this all figured out will then tell you artists have to become full-time self-promoters and full-time pitchmen for themselves. I'll leave aside the fact I don't find relentless self-promotion attractive, it's an old-fashioned thing, but more broadly what I don't like about it is that the people who aren't self-promoters get lost. When I think about the people in history I really like, it's not always the people who walk around with bullhorns. 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. You'll just get celebrities, big movies, people with big budgets.

Where does the middle class fit in?

We're losing the ability of middle-class people, people who aren't celebrities and don't have trust funds, to enter into the world of culture. I don't mean becoming classical composers, but there were structures, including these stores and publications, that allowed people to get a hand in this and be involved at some level, even running a register telling people about a Coltrane record. We're into a system now dominated by high-tech corporations and rich people, it's what's happening to the whole Anglo-American world, but it's hit the world of culture harder, a world which was more vulnerable to this stuff. The problem goes back several years, through these technological/economic/social forces that worked together to grind the middle class into the dust.

So what do you see as a possible solution?

I don't have a 12-step solution to restoring it, but I think the people who figure this out will be millennials who are more suited to the world we're in now. At 45, I'm a transition figure, I've lived through the old world, the new world knocked me on my ass, and I'm trying to figure out what's going on and figure out the causes of the shift. The people 10 or 20 years younger than me have lived these changes as intensely as I have but from a different angle. I think, and it's my real hope, that they'll read a book like mine and help us plot a way out of it.