March 11, 2009

Where'er you walk

Richard Florida has an article in The Atlantic this month speculating on the relationship between place and recession-pain level. It's basically a disaster-movie extension of his "creative class" brand.
Economic crises tend to reinforce and accelerate the underlying, long-term trends within an economy. Our economy is in the midst of a fundamental long-term transformation—similar to that of the late 19th century, when people streamed off farms and into new and rising industrial cities. In this case, the economy is shifting away from manufacturing and toward idea-driven creative industries—and that, too, favors America’s talent-rich, fast-metabolizing places.
What will this geography look like? It will likely be sparser in the Midwest and also, ultimately, in those parts of the Southeast that are dependent on manufacturing. Its suburbs will be thinner and its houses, perhaps, smaller. Some of its southwestern cities will grow less quickly. Its great mega-regions will rise farther upward and extend farther outward. It will feature a lower rate of homeownership, and a more mobile population of renters. In short, it will be a more concentrated geography, one that allows more people to mix more freely and interact more efficiently in a discrete number of dense, innovative mega-regions and creative cities.
Florida advocates using the economic crisis as an opportunity to reshape society to privilege such creative industries.

It's interesting that the idea of a critical mass of creative people in a particular place still holds for classical music, at least. Historically, that's par for the course—culture has been a big-city phenomenon going back to the Renaissance. But, given the hype of the game-changing nature of the Internet, you might expect to see a bit more evidence for a decentralized cultural ecology. Take the case of new music: will the Web eventually supplant geographical centers of activity with geographically scattered by digitally aggregated ones? Or will Florida's dense, creative cities consolidate their historical lead?

What makes this hard to predict is that much of it depends on the nature of the artistic activity in question. David Galenson, who made a splash last year with his economic investigation of why different artists bloom early or late, used his conceptual/experimental framework to look at the dissemination of artistic style in an NBER working paper called "The Globalization of Advanced Art in the Twentieth Century." Galenson reasoned that 20th-century styles spread comparatively rapidly because they were more conceptual (based on a pre-determined method or aesthetic stance) than experimental (based on trial-and-error):
The dominance of conceptual forms of art during most of the twentieth century was largely responsible not only for the increased speed with which innovations were made, but also for the greater speed with which they diffused geographically. Collage was an early example of a major innovation that was so highly conceptual, and so versatile in its uses, that artists could adapt it to their own purposes simply after hearing descriptions of it, without even seeing actual examples. The innovations of such movements as Dada and Pop put greater emphasis on ideas relative to execution than virtually any earlier artistic movements, and this allowed many of their new practices to spread almost spontaneously. Throughout much of the century, the great importance of written manifestos was symptomatic of the centrality of conceptual innovation, and these manifestos contributed to the rapid spread of the conceptual practices of the movements that produced them.
Galenson is writing about the visual arts, but the spread of the serialist and minimalist conceptual frameworks fits the pattern. However:
The dominance of artistic centers was reduced by the progress of globalization. During the twentieth century it became possible, for the first time in the modern era, for artists to make important contributions to the artistic mainstream without working in the art world’s central place.... Yet predictions like those that some art scholars and critics made in the late 1960s, that place would no longer matter for artistic innovation, appear to have been wrong. As in the past, it remains true today that artists who have already created novel styles or methods can work nearly anywhere they please, but also as in the past, it is unlikely that any contemporary artist can develop, or at the very least begin to develop, significant innovations anywhere other than in one of the central locations of the art world. The mainstream of western art still runs through central places.
For new music, even more so, now that the serialism/minimalism paradigms have become but two elements in an experimental eclecticism.

Back to the Internet—will the connectedness of the Web ever become sufficient to replace the geographic connectedness of artistic centers? Web-based social networking, for all its buzz, is as yet a diverting gimmick, with nowhere near the flexibility, nuance, and signal-to-noise ratio of an actual geographic artistic community. One assumes that, given Moore's Law, the capacity for that robustness will eventually be achieved. But will there still be a market for it?

Florida again:
[W]e need to encourage growth in the regions and cities that are best positioned to compete in the coming decades: the great mega-regions that already power the economy, and the smaller, talent-attracting innovation centers inside them—places like Silicon Valley, Boulder, Austin, and the North Carolina Research Triangle.
Of course, what we could also do is encourage research and development in making talent-attracting innovation centers in the virtual world that would rival those in the physical world—online social networking as rich and productive as real-world social networking. What it would mean is deciding, as a society, if geographical diversity is a worthwhile goal. Cities and states watching their manufacturing base dry up might not be able to retool themselves into a New York or a Silicon Valley, but would it be a worthwhile investment to develop the technological capacity to compete with those places virtually?

One more thought: the Internet has been a boon for artists and the arts. But remember, it was developed by the military, out of their R&D budget. So imagine: what would, say, the NEA look like if it was more like DARPA—if it had both the wherewithal and the goal of not just supporting artistic projects, but developing artistic infrastructure? Not just bringing the arts outside of artistic centers, but funding research that could make artistic centers accessible regardless of location? Small-town-to-big-city dreams might not have the same romance. But think what you'd save on gas.

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