Notes on Kampf

Notes on Kampf

Is the well-being of the cultural middle class the key to American creativity?


The rise of the “new economy” and the 2008 market crash devastated many lives, including those in the world of culture. Over the course of the last two decades, Internet piracy has befuddled the music industry; Amazon discounts have stymied publishers and laid waste to bricks-and-mortar bookstores; the housing bust has thwarted small architecture firms; and online publishing platforms have helped put tens of thousands of newspaper and magazine writers and editors out of work (and lowered the floor on fees and wages for those still employed). At present, many companies and individuals in the business of culture hover perilously close to insolvency. Aside from the prescient, the lucky, and the owners and employees of social-media networks and Internet service providers, few seem to know how to earn their keep from culture anymore.

Scott Timberg, once a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times and now a freelance journalist, pleads the case of those left in the dust. In his first book, Culture Crash, he chronicles the woes of journalists, architects, working artists, and musicians who aren’t famous, and their “often-mocked supporting casts—record store clerks, roadies, critics, publicists, and supposedly exploitative record label folk.” He examines imperiled industries and rounds up practitioners who recount how their fields have changed for the worse and damaged their lives to the point of foreclosure and divorce.

This downward mobility, Timberg argues, stems from bigger societal trouble. “[Two] centuries of Horatio Alger stories have built to a blockbuster culture that venerates celebrity above all else,” he writes. A winner-take-all mentality that parallels Occupy Wall Street’s most successful talking point has made a small battalion of Keshas, Kanyes, and Katy Perrys the only victors in our shattered cultural field—one in which even reasonably accomplished pianists must stoop to sleeping in their cars.

To bolster his argument, Timberg turns to the writings of Richard Florida, the urban-studies theorist and fetishist of the higher bohemian. In several bestselling books, Florida has argued that American industry will be both shaped and ruled by the creative class, a group of specialized knowledge workers whose skill set is perfectly tailored to lead an economy no longer reliant on the manufacture of tangible goods. Florida himself has since acknowledged the flaws in his theory, and Timberg piles on by noting that culture workers—specialists, all—have suffered badly during the Great Recession.

Where Florida heralded the knowledge economy as America’s salvation, Timberg holds the well-being of the cultural middle class as the key to American creativity. Unfortunately, Timberg’s argument is hampered significantly by his account of class. In the introduction, he attempts to make the case that most cultural producers “start in the middle and end up there if they can.” He does allow that there “are plenty of exceptions,” but according to his logic, the Beatles—the sons of laborers—are just as middle-class as Virginia Woolf, friend of the aristocracy and keeper of servants. African-American jazz musicians able to afford college only through the GI Bill, Timberg says, have the same essential advantages as the art students who formed the Rolling Stones.

This definition is just as unwieldy and empty as the middle class idealized by presidential hopefuls, one too vast to bear much meaning. However, it allows Timberg to make the claim that culture “tends to originate in the middle class, depends on a middle-class audience for its dissemination and vitality, and leads most of its practitioners, if they are lucky, to a middle-class existence.” A dissolution of this system, he argues, would threaten the very notion of American meritocracy, making “a life in the world of culture, whether producing it or distributing it or writing about it, something available to only the very lucky or the well born”—in other words, only those fortunate enough not to have been born in the gutter.


* * *

There is something troubling about Timberg’s avowal that most culture begins and ends in one income bracket. The question of whether or not culture truly depends on the middle class (or, as some have argued, that the middle class tries very hard to keep culture to itself) remains unexplored. Either way, it is not very meritocratic to rally for the preservation of a system that disregards the poor or deletes them from the history of art.

Pierre Bourdieu’s landmark work of cultural sociology, Distinction, contains a more nuanced—if equally unflattering—consideration of the difference between the bourgeoisie and the lower orders. Bourdieu wrote that perhaps the “sole function” of the working class in the cultural world “is to serve as a foil, a negative reference point, in relation to which all aesthetics define themselves.” But his was an analysis of class difference born out of years of empirical research, not a blithe endorsement of the way things are.

Timberg’s limited understanding of class dynamics comes into play in his discussion of those “often-mocked supporting casts” of the cultural world. Where Richard Florida would consider store clerks, roadies, et al. as part of the service class—one that’s been increasingly left behind as the knowledge economy booms ever forward—Timberg folds them into the gentle embrace of the broader cultural middle. Taking a page from Bourdieu, he suggests that wages have little to no bearing on cultural capital.

But lumping record-store clerks with acquisition editors works just about as well as putting Ringo Starr and Robert Lowell in the same general demographic. Timberg’s chapter “Disappearing Clerks” first appeared as an essay on Salon a few years ago. When I read it, I was touched that someone was sticking up for those whom Timberg describes as the “bright, hard-working creative types—sometimes, though not always, lacking college degrees or professional connections,” who “filter the flow of culture, one customer at a time,” and are quickly disappearing from the urban landscape. After all, I worked in independent bookstores for about 10 years, admired many of my colleagues, and was sad when, during the great indie die-off, they were forced to move on to other fields.

In the expanded version of the essay that appears in Culture Crash, Timberg pays homage to those who once spent their days enriching the public with their knowledge of records, movies, and books. He and his subjects wistfully recount tales of the excitable nerd behind the counter who ignited their passions; of the vibrant bricolage of yesterday’s Main Street, now supplanted by faceless chains. He talks to famous artists like the writer Jonathan Lethem, who worked in a bookstore after dropping out of college, continued his literary education there, and went on to make culture himself.

But embedded within this fairy tale are plenty of patronizing, almost fetishistic clichés. These include his description of typical record-store workers as the “alt-country buyer with the Buddy Holly glasses, the skinny indie rocker who could belong to the Decemberists, the goth in her Joy Division T-shirt, and the dreamy, abstract jazzhead—all in service to the music.” Timberg’s recollections of his own stint at Tower Records fare no better. He describes his favorite co-worker as a man with “features so Germanic he seemed better suited for lederhosen,” a man who believed himself to be “a rebel and an idealist, but [was] also someone in humble service to the music.” He describes the archetypal clerk as both a servant and a “figure of fun.”

Timberg’s emphasis on “humble service”—a phrase loaded with overtones of spirituality and enslavement—troubled me more than his character sketches. Retail work is certainly low-wage service work, but it is often as spiritually fulfilling as pumping gas—just with more promos. To ascribe self-effacing nobility to working in a video store, record store, or bookshop is to promote the sentimental idea that mere proximity to culture outweighs the benefits of decent pay. Even before the Internet and the chains began their ascent in the late 1990s, there were few people working in independent bookstores whose salaries put them anywhere near the middle class.

Further, this fantasy buys into small-business worship, a specious, self-satisfied vein of consumer politics that transmogrifies the working poor into beneficent gnomes who exist to enrich—humbly, of course—the inner lives of the hip, special, ethical customers at places like Whole Foods. In reality, it’s the market that benefits, even more than consumers, from smart people willing to make minimum wage in order to gain entrée to the cultural world.

Other, richer members of Timberg’s billowing cultural middle face a starker downward trajectory. In a chapter about independent architects and their trouble finding work after the downturn, he details the trials of Barbara Bestor, “the indie queen” of the cool Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, whom the recession forced to take two full-time jobs, buy a cheaper house, and work much harder. The experience, she told Timberg, made her feel “like an immigrant worker.” The architect Olivier Touraine, a Frenchman working in LA, hasn’t fared much better: His firm now makes “less than a cleaning lady,” he moaned in an interview at a “high-design gastropub.” Oh, dear.

* * *

Timberg and his interview subjects provide a few solutions to the cultural pickle. Grants and government funding, of course, would help artists. Affordable housing would allow badly compensated bookstore clerks to remain in the cities they humbly serve. But artists themselves bear an equal burden to the wealthy and politically powerful. In his epilogue, Timberg calls for the return of middlebrow aesthetics, a “dream of engaging a broad audience with culture of some seriousness.”

An assertion like this begs for an aesthetic argument so that the reader can understand what “culture of some seriousness” might achieve, or even entail. In his first chapter, “When Culture Works,” Timberg valorizes the country-rock scene in Austin, Texas, in the 1970s and the genteel poverty of the postwar poets in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But readers searching for a clear aesthetic argument in this book will be forced to cobble one together from the anecdotal asides and vague pronouncements on “serious” art.

Fortunately, amid his broader structural argument, Timberg’s own aesthetic preferences flare up. He dismisses rap with the same zeal as a grandmother who can’t stand the talking music, allowing a source to make the uncontested claim that in hip-hop—a genre as varied, important, and critically scrutinized as rock ever was—the best music is the most popular. In a chapter on indie rock—a genre he supports for its middle-class ambitions—Timberg makes his most explicit aesthetic statement when describing the circumstances of two LA musicians. The first, the songwriter and producer Dr. Luke, lives in a mansion thanks to songs “synthed-out with gang choruses, or purplish and overwrought over lost love,” an oeuvre that sounds “like the music piped into the waiting room in hell.” The second is Chris Stroffolino, who has “published books of New York School–influenced poetry and a critical study of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, taught at NYU and colleges in the Bay Area, and played piano on records like the Silver Jews’ American Water—one of the highlights of the indie-rock movement.” Timberg doesn’t bother to explain the appeal of the Silver Jews. Instead, he assumes that the audience for a university-press book about culture will catch the reference and share his admiration for hardworking musicians with advanced degrees, as well as his disdain for vulgarly rich songwriters whose music is played in shopping malls. Other endorsements—the films of Noah Baumbach, the novel Infinite Jest, the television show Girls—reveal an unexplored aesthetic bias that favors the sort of art reviewed in the pages of the unrepentantly middle-class New York Times, art that becomes middlebrow through its relative accessibility and popularity. Forget the cynical dross intended for the tasteless masses: It is this kind of middlebrow culture—the kind best known and appreciated by well-rounded liberal-arts grads—of which Timberg wants to see more, even though it abounds right now.

His not-so-tacit endorsement of this kind of culture reveals a class myopia just as strong as the one that puts Lena Dunham in the same cohort as some guy loading amps in a van. The middle class may well be the culture industry’s once and future savior, but Timberg hasn’t made a great case for it.

Ad Policy