“The artist in America is being starved, systemically and without shame,” William Giraldi declared in The New Republic in February, echoing the theme of Scott Timberg’s recent similarly apocalyptic book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. “In this land of untold bounty…whole throngs of onetime stable middle-class artists have been pummeled into a class where they feel the fangs of hunger.” (Click here.)
Giraldi supports his thesis with frightening factoids: Between 1982 and 2002, the number of Americans reading fiction declined by nearly 30 percent. Over the past two decades, the number of English majors graduating from Yale University plummeted by 60 percent. Since the turn of the 21st century, some 80 percent of cultural critics writing for U.S. newspapers have lost their jobs. Only two full-time dance critics remain in the entire country. A not untypical yearly salary in 2008 for a professional dancer was $15,000.
Charlotte Ford’s quandary
It’s scary stuff, all right. And when it comes to cultural horror tales, I can match Giraldi story for story. This summer, I ran into jazz critic Michael Ullman, whose popular “Ullman on Jazz” column in The New Republic fetched him all of $150 per piece. In June I sat on a Franklin Inn Club panel with Charlotte Ford, an accomplished Philadelphia actress — she conceived of and costarred in BANG, the 2012 Fringe Festival hit, won Philadelphia Magazine’s 2012 Best of Philly award for Theater Talent, and in 2013 won the F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist — who mentioned that she’s going into speech therapy because she can’t make a living on the stage. But Giraldi’s complaint raises a few questions:
- In this land of “untold bounty,” are the creative classes suffering uniquely? Didn’t we experience a global recession just a few years back that devastated factory and service workers even more than artists and writers?
- Since when is money — or a middle-class lifestyle — an appropriate measure of a society’s cultural vitality?
- For that matter, is sheer quantity — of writers, critics, artists, performers— necessarily a measure of cultural health either?
- What else is new? Haven’t right-brained people always had trouble making ends meet? Haven’t they always passed up financial rewards for the priceless and immortal joys of creative rewards?
From painting to politics
Charlotte Ford is hardly the first talented artist forced to compromise her passion in order to survive. Prior to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, William Faulkner had never written a novel that sold more than 6,000 copies; he supported himself first by working in a post office and later by writing Hollywood screenplays for forgettable Howard Hawks films like The Road to Glory (1936), Air Force (1943), and Land of the Pharaohs (1955). Wallace Stevens made his living not as a poet but as an insurance agent. Music lovers may know Charles Ives as one of America’s greatest 20th century composers, but in the insurance industry — his day job — Ives is remembered as the father of modern estate planning.
So it goes. Jan Paderewski — pianist and composer, also prime minister and foreign minister of Poland — shuttled back and forth between music and politics throughout his career. George Caleb Bingham, known for his atmospheric images of boatmen on the Missouri River in the 1840s, gave up painting altogether to become a congressman, Missouri state treasurer, and later Kansas City’s police commissioner. Arthur Sullivan yearned to create serious oratorios and cantatas, but the light operettas he wrote with W.S. Gilbert put food on his table. John Philip Sousa wanted to write church hymns rather than the band marches that made him rich and famous.
For that matter, even dramatic icons like Orson Welles and Marlon Brando each played fewer than half a dozen great roles in their lives; both men spent the rest of their careers taking whatever parts they could find in order to maintain their lifestyles.
Mark Twain in Paris
Like Giraldi, the late novelist Saul Bellow also fretted — needlessly, to my mind — about the demise of the creative classes. But Bellow’s concern was at least artistic, not economic: “For a very long time the world found the wonderful in tales and poems, in painting and in musical performances,” Bellow observed in a 1975 essay. “Now the wonderful is found in miraculous technology, in modern surgery, in jet propulsion, in computers, in television and in lunar expeditions. Literature cannot compete with wonderful technology.”
Maybe so. But would it surprise you to learn that Mark Twain expressed much the same lament more than a century earlier? In The Innocents Abroad, Twain remarked that when visitors left the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867, “the image graven on their minds was more likely to be of machines in the Palace of Industry than of Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe in Manet’s little pavilion.”
So what were Saul Bellow and Mark Twain really deploring? Every era brings new creative and artistic media that displace older ones. As the 20th-century novelist and opera singer Marcia Davenport once observed, the novel and the opera hit their peak in the 19th century. Photography succeeded portrait painting. Radio and movies challenged theater and novels. Television challenged radio and movies. Computers challenged TV.
In a truly creative environment, new forms of expression are always evolving. To me, the remarkable thing about theater today is not that actors are struggling but that audiences still attend live theater to the extent that they do. In an age when the Internet is replacing print media as an information tool, what’s astonishing is not that full-time arts critics are losing their jobs — their papers are folding, for goodness’ sake— but that new arts critics are popping up on the web in such abundance. And Charlotte Ford's creative development, I wager, will ultimately benefit from her struggles in the real world offstage. (If you disagree, let's compare notes 20 years hence.)
Where Giraldi and Timberg see the destruction of the cultural classes by boorish Philistines, I see natural creative evolution, and not just in the arts. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton started as divinity schools. DuPont started as a gunpowder plant. Wells Fargo started as an express company. Motorola started as TV maker. The New Yorker began as a humor magazine.
Giraldi and Timberg imply that artistic creativity would flourish if society were more supportive — and, yes, the golden ages of ancient Athens under Pericles or England under Elizabeth I do indeed seem to demonstrate the cultural benefits of freedom under enlightened leadership. But on the other hand, the examples of Spain under Philip II (which produced Cervantes, El Greco, and Velazquez while Philip was busy torturing heretics) and Russia under the tsars (which gave us Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, and Chekhov) demonstrate the persistence of creativity under tyrannical adversity.
My fellow optimist
The Renaissance of the 16th century, I would argue, was driven neither by government nor by artists, but by non-artistic actors: Columbus and Luther. As Stefan Zweig noted in his biography of Desiderius Erasmus, the discovery of the New World revolutionized the way Europeans thought of their Old World: Suddenly Europe became a place of infinite possibilities where people might dare to think outside their old confining boxes.
Something similar is happening today. While we sleep, unseen forces are gathering that will vastly enhance creativity in ways we can barely conceive. Technology is one such force. The population explosion is another.
The late Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer was once asked if he was concerned because, in the future, his novels would be read only in translation. Not at all, Singer replied: A century from now, there will be 150 billion people in the world, and in order to survive they’ll have to specialize. And perhaps, my fellow optimist Singer added, a few million will specialize in Yiddish.