The Destruction of the Creative Class

There is a talent in this world which, although hard to describe and harder to learn, has touched all of us in different ways. It is the talent to start off with nothing- a blank slate, with few, if any, constraints- and create something wonderful and beautiful. It is the talent employed by painters, when they start off with a blank canvas and draw a beautiful composition. It is the talent employed by composers, when they are given blank staff paper, and make music out of it. It is also the talent used by sculptors, whose job is to find the work of art lying hidden within the hunk of marble. This talent has many names, but I shall refer to it as artistic creativity.

Several hundred years ago, this talent was one of the most valuable skills within our society. People who had it had praise heaped upon them, grew very wealthy, and were often the close friends of kings and emperors. People who had it also became immortal, a part of history. All children today learn about the great composers like Mozart, the great painters like Monet, the great poets like Frost, the great sculptors like Michelangelo, the great playwrights like Shakespeare, and the great novelists like Austen.

Nowadays, however, the work of such people is seen as much less important, and many of these fields have fallen into decline. The details of the story are, as always, complex, but by far the largest cause is the increased importance of marketing, which has lead to an emphasis on social skills in art and entertainment- both in the work itself, and in the production of the work (larger budgets mean more investors need to be schmoozed). A friend of mine once remarked that, in Ben Franklin’s day, three men could keep a secret if two of them were dead. Nowadays, however, three thousand can keep a secret if they lack a seven-figure media budget and a marketing director. Advertising has thoroughly saturated our daily lives- the average American or European now sees literally hundreds of ads every single day. In such a climate, a work needs to be advertised well in order to succeed. And the works that are most amenable to advertising are those where the “star”- the key figure, the famous person- is personally involved in the work to as high of an extent as possible.

This need to be personally involved, created by marketers, means that the earlier division of labor between those with creative skill, and those with social skill (including acting, singing, and dancing), has largely collapsed. Mozart, for instance, could not possibly have performed his own symphonies, since each composition required dozens of different instruments. Nowadays, however, famous musicians like Elvis Presley, Britney Spears and John Lennon all perform the music that they write themselves. And, can you name a single person who acted in one of Shakespeare’s plays, back when they were released in Elizabethan England? I sure can’t. Yet modern actors like Harrison Ford are, if anything, even more famous than film-makers like George Lucas.

In addition to marketing to the masses, marketing to the wealthy has also become increasingly important. A painting, for instance, cannot effectively be marketed and sold to millions of people, and so the way painters make money is by selling their paintings to individual rich people. Back during the 15th and 16th centuries, the time of great painters and sculptors like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bellini, Donatello and Raphael, these rich people were generally part of a hereditary nobility, one that received a different education from the masses. Freed from the need to work for a living, the education of the elite tended to focus on matters of culture, allowing these rich men to more easily judge the quality of the works artists sold to them. Nowadays, however, the elite upper class is mostly composed of rich entrepreneurs and financiers, people who received the same education as everyone else. And so, the market for painting and sculpture has largely been taken over by people with no talent, but who are great at schmoozing those with money.

Of all the old art forms, the only one left substantially intact is novel writing. The novel has largely been supplaned by television- the average American spends four hours a day watching television, more time than he spends working- but writers like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling still do pretty well. The reason, I suspect, is that it is still much harder to get a TV show produced than to write a novel, and the huge number of novels written ensures that the best novels are better than the best TV shows. However, with the rise of the Internet, this is rapidly changing. People are now starting to realize that, with nothing more than a few hundred dollars’ worth of stuff and a few friends, they can make their own show and put it on the Internet, to be seen by anyone. Hence, over the next fifty years, I predict that the book will fall further and further into decline, supplanted by a combination of TV, the Internet, and collaborative quality filters like Reddit and Digg.

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