Is our economy hostile to the humanities?

Wouldn't you rather watch this than a movie?

Wouldn’t you rather watch this than a movie?

Probably you scoffed at the headline of this post. Obviously, our contemporary economy is hostile to the humanities insofar as they include theatre and dance and, I dunno, edifying lectures on the origin of species. But from another perspective, culture is perhaps the most robust sector of the American economy. Pace niche competition from Bollywood and Chinese movies about kicking people, our film and television is the world’s film and television. Our music is the world’s music. These sentences will be included in a themed collection of Combat! blog posts that made Mose angry, but for the most part the United States has the strongest culture economy on Earth. But is our culture anywhere for a humanist to make a living?

That’s the question at the center of Gary Gutting’s recent NYT opinion piece “The Real Humanities Crisis,” and his answer is no. Before we go any further, let’s define our terms. When Gutting says “humanities,” he means philosophy, literature and foreign language, but he groups under the larger category “lovers of the humanities” people who majored in journalism, history and social sciences, along with “those devoted to producing the artistic works that humanists study.”

“Lovers of the Humanities” is the name of my new wave band. We had to leave New York because we couldn’t afford rehearsal space, but we couldn’t book shows there anyway because everyone was dancing to DJs at luxury cocktail bars. Gutting’s essential contention is that, like the larger economy, the contemporary economy for the humanities contains almost no middle class. It’s great for geniuses—your Britney Spearses and your Michael Bays, who are at the top of the humanities game—but your humble craftsman cannot make a living wage.

He can’t even live well as an amateur. Poetry and composition were never exactly cash cows, but Gutting points out that a lot of people whose primary interest was producing creative works once made satisfying livings as teachers. Now low pay and a terrible classroom environment have made teaching high school a nightmare,* Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 9.40.36 AMand—for young people at least—the adjunct system has made teaching college a worse day job than working at Starbucks. Dedicated humanists used to be able to trade a certain amount of material comfort for the time and resources to pursue their crafts. Now it’s dire poverty or blinding success, with little room for William Carlos Williams types between.

Gutting’s larger indictment holds that contemporary work is not satisfying. Here we speak so broadly that nothing we say could possibly be true, but it sure feels like he’s on to something. Since the 1970s, productivity has grown significantly in the United States, while wages have remained about the same. There is disagreement about the numbers on this issue, but quantitative and anecdotal evidence suggest that Americans work harder now for less money than they did 40 years ago.

There is unequivocal quantitative evidence that more of us are either very rich or very poor. In both social strata, money becomes more important than other concerns—concerns like writing a funny short story or painting a rad picture, but also concerns like being active in politics or finding a satisfying philosophical worldview. Finance is lucrative, but a lot of people find it less pleasing than teaching kids about Huckleberry Finn. Stocking shelves at Wal-Mart is less stressful than managing a hedge fund, but it makes paying the rent so difficult as to blot out concerns like reading books or developing a morally edifying popular culture.

A winner-take-all culture is not conducive to the development of the humanities, because very few people win by producing and appreciating art. In recent years, very few people win by doing investigative journalism, either, or by teaching kids history or solving moral problems. A culture focused on manufacturing more and better touch screens has nicer cell phones, but what do we talk about on them?

More importantly: is that our culture? Gutting’s editorial raises a lot of interesting points, and most of the socio-economic forces we’ve discussed above are probably real, but they don’t paint the whole picture in the basement after the kids are asleep and we’re done filing TPS reports. The internet, for example, makes it much easier for jerks like me to disseminate our humanistic products without ascending to the top of the arts and entertainment industries. And on the whole we are probably much more literate and morally educated than our counterparts in 1913. I wonder, though, which direction we are moving. I wonder if, as we move toward a desperate materialism and away from opportunities for individual expression, we progressively cease to care.

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  1. I imagine most middle-class consumers of culture feel like they’re already choking on a culture surplus. It’s difficult to drum up the kind of public subsidy Gutting wants for artists when the internet has made free masterpieces too numerous to sift and enjoy in one lifetime. If there is a crisis of scarcity on the supply-side of the culture economy, it’s the same crisis that journalists and educators have been facing.

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