Years ago in Boston, I was buying drinks for a bunch of whining baristas with vocal music degrees, when I uttered a remark that I now consider often. The topic of the night had turned to the tragedy of vocalists unable to make a living plying their trade. Why oh why, would society value their beauty and artistic talent less than the brutish number crunching of the engineer sliding them a Jäger bomb?
Deciding I’d rather amuse myself and curtail my growing bar tab than continue with the dance, I replied with what I thought was a bit of truth.
“That’s because no one dies if there’s no one to sing in a choir. No engineers? After a bit you’ll have no gas, then no food in your store, and eventually no store at all.”
Since then, despite enjoying the explosive aftermath of the comment, I’ve realized that I was no wiser than the entitled baristas. The belief that the arts live on the back of productive society has been pervasive, particularly on the political right. To be fair to my younger self, from a short term, literal view many creatives who do have a job in the arts are taxpayer funded. However, talking about tax burden, or what the arts are today, rather than what they should be misses the larger, more profound picture.
When a society abandons the pursuit of cultural achievement, it can stagger forward on momentum. The formerly inspirational artists ply their skills to fewer each year, passing along less knowledge to dwindling numbers of students. In my short-sighted view, I never considered what would be the end result of such a progression, even while living in it. By pursuing the expedient, our society has driven culture to the point of collapse. Now people aren’t dying from starvation due to gas shortages, they kill themselves or overdose. Centers of commerce fall into disrepair not because it is beyond our ability to maintain them, but beyond our willpower.
Culture must inspire society into the future and technology can bring those dreams into reality. Technology has advanced rapidly in the past few decades while the common culture of the legacy media has withered. The dreams of the society have turned regressive and dark, nurturing new culture has fallen to the wayside, and society at large is clearly suffering. The common view has been that culture is much like technology, capable of formulaic deployment as needed. After all, art has been a tool throughout human history, whether it be to create an emblem to rally behind or propaganda to vilify a foe. Underlying the myriad of legacy media failures is this same sentiment and it is why they are losing the ability to create at all.
Art, and broader culture, is not created in a vacuum nor is it a finite set of parameters. Absent examples of beauty and transcendent purpose, culture falls stagnant. Culture nurtures culture; something of a chicken and the egg problem. Technology can help build the nest so to speak, but culture is its’ own strange animal. Like craftsmanship and the pursuit of quality in any endeavor, culture takes time to grow and develop.
Therefore, I will repeat my refrain of perseverance and determination in the Iron Age. Opportunities will continue to grow as the legacy media dies, but there is a trap before us. Art, culture, should be valued for its own sake, judged on its own merits, rather than seen as a means to an end. This is the error of our current, cadaverous culture and the temptation is plain. So resist it and do not fall into the trap of my old mindset. I am optimistic that despite these strange and troubled times the Iron Age will become a culture that values craftsmanship, quality, and purpose.
This editorial originally appeared in the second issue of ANVIL: Iron Age Magazine. If you'd like to support the magazine you can find it here