Crisis of Cultural Capital

Posted by | October 02, 2009 | General | No Comments

From the Producers Chair 

Reflecting on the economic disaster of 2009 producer Simon Holloway suggests the current awards seasons focus on the music and other creative industries presents an opportunity for a revisionist look at  recent popular output. He argues the current economic collapse is in fact due to a crisis in cultural capital and explains what musicians collectively can do to alleviate the issue. 

If you look back beyond the collapsing banks, the furious swapping of mortgage derivatives, and the resulting strangulation of credit when the trading reached its inevitable zenith, then what is revealed is a generation of consumption fuelling an increasingly overvalued bubble of assets. To keep the bubble growing there had to be an ever more accessible credit line and with that came the expectation for many that a lifetime of indebtedness was the norm, and that capital appreciation meant that, somehow, sort-of, you were ahead on the ledger.  

Ultimately the main motivator for both the perpetrators of and the participants in this generation of consumption has been greed. A lack of checks and balances on this emotion and a propaganda promulgated by advertising media has lead to an imbalance in how we view our society and act within it. 

Basically the bankruptcy of the capitalist economy reflects a moral bankruptcy in capitalist society. To paraphrase Adam Smith, the Invisible Hand has lost the human touch.  

How does a society become morally bankrupt? I would argue that it is in fact a crisis in cultural capital that has lead to moral bankruptcy, and that we, the musicians, collectively as artists, are ultimately responsible due to our failure as an aggregate to deliver meaningful and moving art over the last 25 years. The zeitgeist (the attitudes and ideas that are generally common to a period in history) will have a preference for art that is relevant but conversely is also fed by art, so part of the current ethos must be a product of the creative sectors. This is evidenced by the ‘dumbing down’ of free-to-air television and mainstream media, and the move of the music industry through the 90s towards short-term gains based on quarterly profit targets, leading to commoditised mass market ‘products’, such as the boy and girl b(r)ands, Britney Spears et al. Similarly, in the film industry there was an increasing focus on maximising the opening gross, resulting in the evolution of the ‘blockbuster’ genre.  

Musicians, rather than react against this intrusion of commoditisation, have bought into the idea that they must compete on the industry’s terms, resulting in music that is researched, sanitised, and so lobotomised as to be artistically devalued. ‘Playing the  game’ means compromising in order to secure financing and gain a foothold in the industry. The result has been the most uninspiring chapter in the history of popular music. Excluding a few noteworthy, but increasingly marginalised sub-genres, all current popular music has been capable of is a passive regurgitation of past eras or a totally callous and calculated buy-in to the mass-marketed hype machine in the hope of quick fame and money. But there have always been, and always will be, self-interested charlatans. 

The problem is that those with nobler goals have either not been saying anything of value for quite some time, or if they have, the deck has been stacked against them.  

Musicians who have been seduced by the freedom of expression of the internet have been hoodwinked by the net’s supposed egalitarianism. In reality we are potentially facing a new Dark Age. As the traditional music industry disappears there is an air of the fall of the Roman Empire about, where we are doomed to MySpace-style outposts of fan groups clustered about but isolated from each other in a digital Dark Age, and the true jewels are lost to some new Arabia, awaiting the next cultural Renaissance. The double-edged sword of the information technology revolution further strengthens the fraudsters, making it easy to create and disseminate drivel, rape and pillage others’ ideas and repackage in vacuous forms that are devoid of any critical input, because they come about in this creative vacuum.  And so the crisis will be perpetuated. 

What can we do about this? 

We can look to the last significant upheaval in our capitalist society’s past, which was the recession of the 1970s. The resulting catharsis produced one of the most enduring and significant artistic statements of the last few generations – the punk movement. The diversity, visceral intensity and immediacy of punk influenced and mirrored the zeitgeist of the time.  

As artists we need to recapture the fire that the freedom of expression of punk ignited. Repudiate the aging custodial Baby Boomer self-interested agenda that has driven this generation of greed. Transmogrifying like a hybrid chameleon/dinosaur from 60’s free-love idealists to neo-liberal capitalists, their deathbed conversion to socialism is passing on the debts of their sins and potentially disenfranchising their offspring generation X and Y. Why buy into their fools’ game of trying to find utopia in the corporate wasteland? 

Open your eyes to what is happening around you and refocus: it’s time to rediscover that personal politics are an essential part of creating a better world for us all to live in – bring back the human touch to the Invisible Hand. Embrace ethical behaviour in your day-to-day lives and make art that will stimulate others to do the same. Reclaim your right to unfettered freedom of artistic expression. Grow our cultural capital.  

Expose the myth of consumerist ‘generation-I’ market fragmentation as the cancer it is before our society is completely atomised. Inspire and illuminate with your creativity. You must have the courage to lead, because you will be the new generation of gate keeper. Art, as history shows us, from the Renaissance through to the Cubists and beyond, has the ability to critically assess and cognitively comment on the societal upheavals happening around us.  

Where is this popular voice for the digital age? It’s time to hear it. Quality will always make its way to the top and eventually reach a critical mass where it will become part of the zeitgeist. That is what popular culture is about – by definition it has to be popular. And music is the purest art form there is, speaking with an immediacy across the social strata like no other can. 

Simon Holloway is a founding member of the NZ Association of Music Producers (www.nzamp.org) and runs Aucklands Beaver Studios (www.beaverstudios.com).

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