Sunday, April 05, 2015

Scott Timberg on Amanda Palmer's Horatio Alger myth, and a comment from a reader that you can basically have the sex/family thing or the art but not both unless you're born into money


Now let me make clear that I have nothing against Ms. Palmer — she is smart, hard-working, inventive, an alum of my alma mater and married to a writer (Neil Gaiman) whose novels I greatly admire. But her I-did-it-myself-and-if-you-can’t-you-are-lame point of view is so contradictory and tied up in personal privilege I don’t even know where to start. She often discusses — or writes about, or TED talks about — the years of struggling and “asking” it took her to become financially successful. But like many “winners” in today’s new economy, she talks less about the fact that she grew up in a wealthy town (the median home price in Lexington, Mass. is about $1.4 million) and had a serious safety net to fall back on. I have a feeling she graduated Wesleyan with far fewer student loans than  (or many of us who go to fancy schools) left with.

Timberg has been sounding off on his skepticism about the entrepreneurial model for the arts for a while.  He later in the page mentions a quote about George W Bush being born on third base but thinking he hit a triple.  But there's a Ted Mills comment that's sort of interesting
Ted Mills says
March 20, 2015 at 6:05 pm

This is similar to the leaders of the life hacking, entrepreneur-podcast broadcasting school, who sell this Neo-Algerism. Tons of white- and class-privilege at hand, and who also happen (often) to be childless and single.
So the idea proposed here in contrast to what is presented as the Amanda Palmer Horatio Alger myth is that if you're born below a certain socio-economic threshold, whatever that strata may be, then the life-hack ethos is the domain of those unattached enough to have that luxury.  But beyond the white uppercrusty lament is the childless and single part.
So this seems to be asserting that unless you're born with the right money already behind you then you could either choose sex and eventual family OR you could choose the arts but what you're NOT going to be able to practically do in economic and social terms is have both, not unless you were already born into the kind of money where arts patronage of whatever you do won't be an issue.
As noted before, Timberg's been on this case about the decline of the creative class for a while.
... “If we’re not careful, culture work will become a luxury, like a vacation home,” Timberg writes. It’s a good line, and one that anyone who values a diverse cultural ecology would want to affirm. What he doesn’t want to admit is that, absent direct patronage, professional culture workers have often depended on outside sources of income. For some it was the second job (in the post-war period, that job was primarily teaching, a job indirectly subsidized by the government in the form of the G.I. Bill fostering a new population of students). For others, it was something unrelated (meet pediatrician William Carlos Williams). For many (more than we have usually acknowledged and certainly more than today’s BFA and MFA students are aware) it was a trust fund, family member, or a spouse of means. That cushion made it possible for a talented person work on a novel or a painting until the work could earn respect, if not a proportionate wage for the work the artist put into it. Maybe the market would respond, and maybe it wouldn’t, but at least the creative person had a chance to find out.

 That’s one of the reasons that pop culture exhortations to follow one’s bliss are so maddening. They imply a kind of privilege at the very heart of the class structures Americans are eager to say don’t exist. The fraying of the middle class is not just something that has happened to creatives. It’s just that Timberg never thought that what had happened to unionized manufacturing workers could happen to the educated type of knowledge workers who worked at the LA Times.
But as the reviewer discussing Culture Crash (the book) pointed out at ArtsFuse last year, the shortcoming in Timberg's lament is that he seems to have kept forgetting that the arts were always a luxury, an activity of leisure and one that was often funded by a patron of some kind.
The Medieval church. The 18th-century court. The 20th-century university.
Artists have to eat, and the ways they have found to put food on the table throughout the ages have provided equivalent fodder for their inspirations. Whether their goal is to elevate a divine entity, a royal personage or scientific inquiry, these arts patrons have dictated, either directly or through habituation, the artistic emphases of their eras.

The word on the street now is that the 21st century is the age of entrepreneurship. It’s too soon to say whether entrepreneurship is a destination or a pathway (nobody foresaw the impact university arts departments would have on the 20th century a hundred years ago), but we’ve definitely moved beyond the heyday of the academy as the primary funder and defender of the arts.
We've quoted that one before, but what's interesting is to cross reference it to a more general worry about the academic scene as a place not just for the arts but for the kind of stability of place that anyone could aspire to in academia.
I.e. even if you're not hoping to land a teaching career as something to do that's thematically related to the art you want to make, the likelihood of landing a steady and maybe even lucrative financial spot in academia is decreasingly likely.

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