In Two New Books, The Arts Apocalypse Now

March 23rd, 2015 § 2 comments

If you happen to know of any young people who you’re trying to dissuade from careers in the creative arts, you might want to casually leave around two new books for them to find. Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash: The Killing Of The Creative Class (Yale University Press, $26) and Michael M. Kaiser’s Curtains?: The Future Of The Arts In America (Brandeis University Press, $26.95) both paint dark pictures of the state of the creative arts and where they’re headed, enough to send one right into investment banking if it remains a choice.

culture crash Timberg, a former arts journalist at the Los Angeles Times who writes the “Culture Crash” blog for ArtsJournal, predominantly focuses on the music industry and the state of legacy media and journalism, with nods to architecture and literature, while Kaiser, former head of the Kennedy Center and now leader of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, concentrates on the world of symphonies, opera and dance. As an avid consumer of music and journalism, my interests run closer to those explored by Timberg; professionally my background comes closer to the disciplines discussed by Kaiser, but (troublingly) neither book spends much time at all on theatre, my actual profession and leisure time avocation as well.

As a result, neither book reveals a great deal to me that I’ve not read about before, or experienced personally in some cases. But while both are published by academic presses (perhaps its own comment on broad-based interest, or lack thereof, in arts and culture), neither seems targeted at industry insiders. Instead, they are surveys of where we are now and how we got here, with a limited amount of prescriptive suggestions for how the tide that favors mass entertainment over the rarified or personal might be turned or at least survived in new forms. Both place a great deal of blame on technology for the woes they recount.

Of the two, I was more drawn to Timberg’s book, which, no doubt due to the author’s experience as a professional writer, is the more elegant, immersive read, peppered throughout with specific stories that support his thesis of cultural decline, a vision notably counterpointed with Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class (with a book cover designed to evoke that oft cited book). Timberg particularly worries about the loss of a wide range of social influencers who could guide existing and potential audiences to works that might interest them, from knowledgeable record store clerks to professional (paid) reporters and critics. While it’s a valid point, Timberg falls prey to making it seem, at times, as if he’s bemoaning his own employment status and that of his many colleagues who have been decimated by the contraction in print journalism, never more so than when he cites the decline in the popular portrayal of critics as having slid from George Sanders as Addison DeWitt in All About Eve in the 1950s to Jon Lovitz as Jay Sherman in the cartoon The Critic in the 1990s. That said, he does make strong points about the fracturing of a common culture even as a blockbuster mentality has overridden many creative industries, a seemingly oxymoronic concept. He also cites a wide array of sources, both from other writing and newly conducted interviews, and his fields of interest are admirably broad.

curtains?Kaiser’s book resembles a series of lectures about the state of the performing arts – a look at a golden era in the latter half of the 20th century, where we are now, where we may be in 20 years time, and how we might make things better. Unfortunately, the lectures seem to spring wholly from Kaiser himself, as he quotes no experts, provides no data, and doesn’t include either an appendix or bibliography. It seems we are to take what Kaiser tells us simply on faith, even such sweeping statements as “While the outlook for the performing arts is dire, museums have better chances for survival” or “Theatre organizations should fare better than symphony orchestras.” In the case of the latter statement, much as I would dearly love it to be true, it flies in the face of recent studies from the National Endowment for the Arts, cited by Timberg but AWOL from Kaiser’s survey. Given how much of his brief book is taken up with prognostication, its unfortunate that Kaiser doesn’t extrapolate from existing data; in imagining 2035, it’s surprising that ongoing demographic shifts, especially in regards to race and ethnicity, in the country play so little role in his thinking. That’s not to say he doesn’t have some interesting observations, among them the thesis that while the end of Metropolitan Opera touring gave rise to more regional opera companies in the 80s, the success of the Met Live cinecasts may now be undermining those very troupes.

Reading the two books back to back, I was struck by the fact that both hit some similar themes (the loss of shared cultural language and experience, the impact of electronic media) yet diverge in their exemplars. While Kaiser’s book also doesn’t include an index, I did a fast pass through to see whether certain areas came up frequently, and found 14 references to The Kennedy Center and eight to the Alvin Ailey Dance Company (both of which Kaiser led) and a whopping 19 mentions of the Metropolitan Opera – all organizations which appear nowhere in Timberg’s index, which lists its greatest citations for areas of discipline rather than particular purveyors (the film industry, the economy, the indie music scene to name three). Both books may focus on the state of culture and its future, but their respective attentions are essentially balkanized.

If I were teaching a survey course in arts leadership, I might well assign both books early in the semester, albeit with a restorative break between them to replenish some sense of optimism. But both are merely starting points for a conversation, each in their own way raising areas of concern, yet stinting on any semblance of how those concerns can be addressed, battled or even embraced. To be fair, Timberg is a reporter, recording and interpreting, but Kaiser is training arts leaders, so its more incumbent upon him to offer something prescriptive. We can bemoan the fact that Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts are a thing of the past, or long for the one on one counsel of record and bookstore employees, but that’s not likely to bring them back. If our cultural appreciation and literacy has fallen, can it get back up – and if so how? That’s the book I need to read. Soon.


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  • Kit

    I find it counterproductive to read books that spend all their time bemoaning the current state of affairs without ever suggesting possible solutions, or even a mention of all the positives of the industry.

    The industry still exists and someone out there is making a living doing it, so it stands to reason that there are ways to make it work. The only question is how to increase the level of success? Or how to increase the chance of success even for small ventures in the arts?

    Thank you for the insightful commentary again.

  • JC Harris

    I dunno about theatre… I’m a musician, though I play in the pit of a lot of established musicals. But the fact is the state of concert music is AWFUL… and by that I mean the -music-… not the finances or the audience… I mean that, unlike 150 years ago, the best brains do not write concert music and it shows. I am as angry as anyone about the reluctance of blue-hairs to pay for any orchestra or opera less than 100 years old, however, they have a valid gripe that ‘art’ these days just isn’t what it used to be.

    My solution is the Euro model: lots of small theatres that run 365 rather than trying to do a few DISNEY size productions in a short season like most opera/ballet/orchestras do. That is a recipe guaranteed to gain an ever-increasing share of an ever-decreasing market of oldsters. It will never rebuild the audience… let alone encourage composers of quality to generate works as good as Bartok/Beethoven/etc.

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