Is the decades-long economic crisis for working people leading to less relevant art?
Among other hats I wear at DigBoston, I function as the arts editor. So it’s my job to pay attention to developments in that area of human endeavor. And I’ve got to be honest, most contemporary visual and performance art—including music—doesn’t excite me. For any number of reasons. Some empirical, some subjective.
Mainly, though, more work than I’d normally care to admit fails to catch my fancy because it seems to be rehashing the work of artists past. Not as homages (ironic or otherwise), but as direct imitations. Made by people essentially performing characters like punk rockers (from the 1970s and 1980s), neo-conceptual artists (1980s and 1990s), and photorealist (film) photographers (1960s and 1970s). Concomitantly, I don’t see major movements involving large numbers of artists making the scene as they once did. Which I find worrisome because it’s those movements—built as they are on the ferment of constant dialogue and debate between large numbers of participants and observers—that helped make art relevant in their times.
So the fewer artistic movements, the less interesting new art gets produced for news outlets like this one to cover, as far as I’m concerned. And that’s a problem for readers, arts reporters, and editors alike.
I can’t speak to every area of the arts, of course. I know very little about dance, for example. And while I used to be a very serious actor a very long time ago, I haven’t kept up with the theater scene. Still, I know a couple of things about visual art, music, film, and general intellectual trends among the chattering classes. Especially as they relate to political and social life in the 21st century.
I’ve observed that in the 30-year period immediately before people my age (53) became adults, there was a massive explosion of new artistic movements—telegraphed to a massive global audience by then-new communications technologies like television and FM stereo radio. And augmented by the arrival of advanced printing, photographic, and filmic techniques.
By the time I was 18 in 1984, everything seemed somewhat less exciting in comparison. Communications technology (particularly satellite broadcast, cable TV, and groundbreaking home video and audio options) continued to develop, however, and big new cultural movements continued to flower. Postmodernism swept through the visual arts like a confused and confusing blowtorch. Hip-hop fundamentally transformed the world’s music, dance, and arts scenes. And many other creative explosions happened besides.
Some of those traditions, like hip-hop, continued to evolve and go from strength to strength through the 1990s and beyond. Others, like relational aesthetics—a depoliticizing movement in the “fine arts” crystallized by Nicolas Bourriaud—had their day between the late 1990s and the 2000s before petering out.
But in the past decade, I’ve noted that I’m not seeing big new movements in the arts the way I used to. Which can’t be due to the overall level of human creativity dropping (it’s innate in our species)… and it’s definitely not happening because “everything’s been done” (which is not possible in this corner of space-time). Or “because of the internet”—although the information revolution it precipitated has certainly played a role in siloing and balkanizing audiences and therefore limiting the prospects of too many rising artistic currents. Perhaps making smaller arts movements more common.
This leads me to think that one significant reason for the downturn in artistic creativity is the downturn in the economic fortunes of working people since the mid-1970s. Because that was the time of what social scientists call “The Great U-Turn” when the post-WWII tendency of many advanced industrial economies to be run by pro-labor social democratic governments (imagine politicians like Bernie Sanders running Europe, Australia, and the United States) abruptly ended. Replaced by partisans of neoliberal governance in the service of multinational corporations.
Just prior to roughly 1975, one working person of modest means in the US could support a family and own or rent a decent place to live almost anywhere in the country. Higher education was free or almost free. Health care was cheaper (if problematic for many in other ways)… even in the US. Unemployment benefits were more generous and could keep money in people’s pockets even when they couldn’t find any work. These and many other publicly funded programs were paid for by high taxes on the rich and big business.
So, young people with fewer responsibilities could work part-time gigs, share a house or apartment with friends, and have plenty of leisure time to explore the world. And then reflect on their explorations artistically.
Look at the biographies of most of the stars of the various arts in that postwar period, and you’ll see story after story of young people from working-class families able to go to college, pursue their avocations, and move to big cities like New York, LA, San Francisco, and Chicago where they got the breaks that made them famous. When those people were coming up they had the free time to do heavy networking with other artists like them—leading to artistic movements of the type I’m referring to.
It was also possible for people of fairly modest means to start arts venues in popular neighborhoods in those big cities that acted as incubators for all that networked talent—theaters, galleries, clubs, bookstores, cafes, and bars.
Even as corporations and the rich gradually eliminated the social programs that helped support past arts movements, enough of a safety net survived between the mid-1970s and the 2000s to allow new movements to take root and flourish. Then came the 2008 financial collapse, the public bailout of very private corporate scofflaws, and latest drive to privatize literally everything.
In the US of 2019 it’s no longer possible for most artists to afford rents and housing prices that have been skyrocketing over decades of relentless real estate speculation in places like Boston. Forcing them to move further out of city centers, and lose easy access to the arts networks they would have once taken advantage of. College is becoming unaffordable for many, and those who do go now suffer under the burden of a lifetime of heavy debt for the “privilege” of having no real advantage in the job market over people who don’t get post-secondary degrees.
Health care is outrageously expensive, and millions of Americans don’t have consistent access to it. Most jobs in this era are low-paying gigs, purposely constructed by companies to eliminate the archetypal postwar “good jobs with benefits” and maximize profits—making it very hard for artists to make enough money to survive (let alone pay off their student debt), and seriously limiting the amount of free time they have to spend on artistic pursuits.
Commercial leases are crazy overpriced, too, and governments have been getting out of the “business” of supporting cultural venues. So there are fewer and fewer places for artists to hone their skills.
Such developments may go part of the way toward explaining why I’m seeing rehashes of older cultural movements that don’t bring enough fresh takes to the proverbial party of ideation to help spark major new arts movements that reflect today’s world in exciting ways.
Artists are now being kicked to the curb like everyone else. Meaning that the only people able to easily pursue artistic careers are increasingly the scions of wealth and privilege. So there are simply fewer people able to create art at least part-time, let alone build new artistic movements.
I know this line of thinking is only part of a possible explanation for the problems I’m outlining. And I also know that I could be off-base with some of my concerns. So, I would definitely like to hear from artists and others who have been ruminating about these and related matters. Maybe between us we can get some local ferment going of our own. The better to enliven our particular corner of the global arts scene.
Those of you with something to say should email me at [email protected]. If there are enough solid responses, I’ll publish them in a follow-up piece. Thanks in advance for any comments. I look forward to hearing people’s thoughts.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. He holds an MFA in visual art from the Art Institute of Boston.