Friday, December 27, 2013

A holiday message from the creative class to Richard Florida -- screw you

Last Saturday was the big party of the year for the LA hot jazz/country blues scene. Droves of musicians, actors, writers and directors converge on a small house in Venice Beach, along with a smattering of historians and engineers (sound and software). Every year, numerous people make an allusion to the stateroom scene in Night at the Opera (and with this crowd, everyone gets the reference). There weren't any famous faces (unless you're really into jazz or roots music), but it was an accomplished crowd with Grammys, Broadway credits, glowing NYT, WSJ and NPR reviews and numerous impressive collaborations.

A few hours in, it struck me that almost all of the people at this party fell squarely into Richard Florida's creative class. In fact, most of the people I associate with on a regular basis fall into Florida's rather broad definition. What I heard last night further reinforced some things I've been observing for years now about the disconnect between the picture painted by pundits and social commentators and what it actually means to make a living through creativity in today's economy. It's a complicated situation but I think I can boil the gist down into the following fairly brief statement:

Screw you, Florida.
The super- creative core of this new class includes scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers, and architects, as well as the "thought leadership" of modern society: nonfiction writers, editors, cultural figures, think-tank researchers, analysts, and other opinion-makers.
From "The Rise of the Creative Class" by Richard Florida

Florida paints a bright picture of these people and their future, with rapidly increasing numbers, influence and wealth. He goes so far as to say "Places that succeed in attracting and retaining creative class people prosper; those that fail don't." It wass hard to read something by Florida and not envy that rising class, at least it was until it hit me that he was talking about me and people I knew and our lives weren't going nearly as well as he suggested. As Thomas Frank put it "The creative class has never been more screwed."

Except for a few special cases, this may be the worst time to make a living in the arts since the emergence of modern newspapers and general interest magazines and other mass media a hundred and twenty years ago (even in the depression you had the WPA -- “Artists have to eat too”). Though we now have tools that make creating and disseminating art easier than ever, no one has come up with a viable business model that supports creation in today's economy.

With the exception of a few select areas where you can find lots of wealthy patrons, it's just not a reasonable career path. At the party this weekend, out of dozens of nationally and internationally recognized musicians, perhaps three or four were making a middle-class or better living at their craft; most were either getting by on very modest means and/or had day jobs.   Artistic professions used to have teaching to fall back on but those jobs have been getting crappier and yet harder to find over the past thirty or so years.

The picture is somewhat brighter on the STEM side, but not that much brighter. The collapse of teaching has hit us too. In the private sector, it's hit-or-miss if you're not flavor of the month and even if you are among the lucky few:

Companies (including the hungry ones) have gotten surprisingly picky;

You'll probably need a graduate degree (and the debt that goes with it);

There's little security even while you're hot;

The specialists who get the most money are also the most vulnerable to changes in tech and taste.

In other words, it's a lottery ticket and, considering the odds, the pay-off isn't all that great.

Florida's framework has rather publicly come crashing down lately, but, even at its peak, it never stood up to serious scrutiny. Like most of the utopian urbanists, his collection of anecdotes, cherry-picked statistics and wildly unjustified causal inference was only convincing because people wanted to be convinced.

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