A New Ethos of Craft and Beauty?

Last month, I examined the first of two recently published books heralding a major shift in our economy and culture: Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness (HarperCollins, 2003). This month, the spotlight is on Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class and How it's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life.
June 1st, 2004

Last month, I examined the first of two recently published books heralding a major shift in our economy and culture: Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness (HarperCollins, 2003). This month, the spotlight is on Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class and How it's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (Basic Books, 2002).

What makes these two titles stand out from the myriads of other recent hip cultural critiques and trendy economic investigations is their unique focus on aesthetics and creativity as being a primary economic force driving our society. As a Christian involved in the arts and longing to see our society rise out of the aesthetic malaise that engulfs us, these two books offer an exciting prospect for our society. Could it be that North America is moving over to a new ethos where craft and beauty dominate?

Of these two books, Postrel's is more directly about the aesthetic dimension of the marketplace. She chronicles how design and style have leaped to the forefront in economic decision making. In contrast, Richard Florida's book is only tangentially about aesthetics. He focuses instead on creativity, which is far more than artistic expression. What he has in mind is the uniquely human ability to solve problems and come up with new ideas, which he suggests is the critical factor for economic progress.

Florida's interest in creativity is intriguing. Creativity (or "imaginativity" as Calvin Seerveld is fond of saying) is central to what it means to be human. It is wonderfully grounded in God's creative character in whose image we are created. Florida's book would have been a great deal richer if he attempted to unpack how artistic creativity and the aesthetic dimension of reality interface with technological creativity. This idea is constantly hinted at but never really explored.

Florida, who is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's business school, began his research by studying the question of what attracts high-tech industries to a certain location. Initially, he was tasked with discovering why Pittsburgh, in spite of having two of the best research universities in the world and better than average amenities, was unable to attract and retain large numbers of high-tech businesses to its region.

Florida quickly realized that the question needed to be framed a different way: Why was it that so few engineers, scientists, and designers failed to remain in Pittsburgh after they graduated, in spite of its many attractive cultural and recreational opportunities? He began to ask focus groups in various parts of the United States, his graduate students, and practically everyone he ran into the question: Why is it that you decided to live where you live; what attracted to you to move there?

The usual approach to attracting high-tech businesses to a region was to lure companies and entrepreneurs with tax incentives, enterprise zones, and cultivating a business-friendly climate. Florida identified an entirely different reason why high-tech businesses move to a city or remain where they are: a large pool of creatively savvy workers. In order for cities to get ahead in the sexier industries of high tech and biotechnology, they need plenty of creative capital—creative professionals who can turn ideas into economic growth. (Florida derives his theory of creative capital from the ideas of Stanford economist Paul Romer whose theories are also closely related to Peter Drucker's knowledge economy.) Even more critical for the creative economy is what Florida terms the "super-creative core," a growing class that includes bohemians (artists and performers) as well as cutting-edge engineers and scientists.

So how does a locale attract enough creative capital to their region to spark significant economic growth? The answers Florida heard fell into a clear pattern. And it is here where things get controversial.

Florida discovered several characteristics of a community that make it attractive to young creatives. These include: (1) authenticity—super-creatives love older industrial and residential neighbourhoods rich in architectural texture, which they often rehabilitate into office spaces and lofts; (2) uniqueness—cities with their own singular style or personality, often defined by a locale's distinct audio-identity or buzz; (3) lifestyle—this includes not only ample opportunity for outdoor activities, but also a lively nightlife with clubs, street performers, art galleries, etc.; (4) cultural diversity—many members of the super-creative core are from foreign countries and look for a place where they can easily fit in; and (5) tolerance—many members of the creative core seek out gay-friendly cities, not because they themselves are gay, but because they often feel like outsiders who want a place where they will be readily accepted.

Florida augments his focus group observations with statistical analyses. He finds a strong correspondence between high-tech vitality and indexes that measure how bohemian, gay, creative (measured by the number of patents), and ethnically diverse metropolitan areas are. These different facets of a creative class-friendly city becomes, for Florida, a recipe for economic development. Do you want to attract more high-tech businesses to your region? Pass local laws that favour gay rights. Spend money supporting local theatre companies and art galleries. Market the unique character of your city. Make sure that you protect the historic inventory older downtown buildings. Sure, having local sources of venture capital, infrastructure, and good technical/scientific academic institutions nearby doesn't hurt. But in Florida's scheme, it simply isn't enough.

Needless to say, Florida's ideas have been the darling of liberal policymakers who have long championed laws favouring sexual diversity and increased government spending on the arts. Consequently, many locales have been quick to embrace these ideas. For example, the Boston Globe reports that after reading The Rise of the Creative Class, Michigan governor Jennifer M. Granholm asked the mayors of 250 Michigan cities and towns to form "Cool Cities" advisory boards to brainstorm about "hipsterization strategies." Similar initiatives have been adopted in Denver, Providence, RI, and Wellington, NZ.

Florida's approach is not without its detractors, including scathing critiques by Steven Malanga in City Journal and Joel Kotkin in American Enterprise (Kotkin's economic research is cited several times by Florida). They question several of Florida's assumptions (for example, lumping San Jose in with San Francisco even though they are 50 miles apart and have very different characteristics) and economic analysis (many of Florida's best creative-class cities have seen a decline in the number of jobs in the past two to three years while sprawling suburban family-friendly regions, such as Riverside-San Bernardino, California—the antithesis of the cool city—have been among the fastest growing both in population and new job creation).

As another critic points out, it appears that Florida has "mistaken the side effects of a booming economy for the causes of [its] growth." It also appears to me that Florida tends to blur the distinction between bohemian and high-tech creatives, attributing the qualities and desires of the former upon the latter. (Is it that high-tech professionals are bohemian wannabees? Or have bohemians taken on high-tech jobs as a lucrative way to pay the rent?)

Florida also appears to overlook an entire segment of high-tech professionals who have very different criteria for selecting a place to live. Here in Oregon's Willamette Valley ("The Silicon Forest"), many of the engineers and design professionals I know (who work for companies such as HP and Intel and smaller dot.coms) live on ex-urban farmettes and are more interested in family and fishing than art galleries. Sure, there are trendy urban live/work neighbourhoods, such as Portland's Pearl District, but they are only one small part of the region's personality.

Richard Florida's book reveals a great deal about our contemporary culture, even if his economic and social analysis isn't entirely on the mark. North America has gone through radical changes in the past 20 years, some of which are external (ethnic diversity and changing household demographics), others of which are internal and reveal the heart of our culture. Take a hard look at the tastes and yearnings of the best and brightest of our culture. They appear to live for aesthetic experiences and surroundings, immerse themselves in the local street scene, and take advantage of outdoor activities on the weekend. It is a "work hard and party hard" ethos.

There is also a real rootlessness to the creative-class scene which is not altogether missed by Florida. In a chapter entitled "From Social Capital to Creative Capital," Florida contrasts his own economic and social findings with those of Robert Putnam's sociological theories. Putnam, in his classic 1995 essay "Bowling Alone," tracked how Americans spend less time with neighbours and family, volunteer less, and are rarely active in churches, social clubs, political parties, or sports leagues. This loss in social capital has resulted in the societal and economic decline of the past two decades. Florida observes that

the people in my focus groups and interviews rarely wished for the kinds of community connectedness Putnam talks about. If anything, they were trying to get away from those kinds of environments. Sure they wanted community, but not to the extent that they were inhibited from living their own lives. Rather, they desired what I have come to call quasi-anonymity. . . . Communities that once attracted people now repel them. Our evolving communities and emerging society are marked by a greater diversity of friendships, more individualistic pursuits and weaker ties within the community. People want diversity, low entry barriers and the ability to be themselves.

Welcome to the brave new world of economic prosperity, technological progress, and alienation. The coffee may be good and the music cool, but there is a spiritual and relational emptiness at the core of these hip new neighbourhoods which is bound to reveal itself in due time.

One obvious question to ask is where were the Christians when all this was happening? Part of the answer no doubt is that many in the church failed to get the kinds of technological expertise to participate in the super-creative sector. (Christian colleges have only recently offered majors in engineering and other technological disciplines.) Or it may have been the case that many Christian creatives chose to use their talents working at less cutting-edge companies, which offer greater stability and are in locations that are more family-friendly. (As Florida points out, it is a matter of values.)

Whatever the reason, Christians seem to be largely absent from the super-creative high-tech scene, and without the salt and light that Christians have to offer, the dot.com neighbourhoods have become a hip new Vanity Fair: colourful, vibrant, prosperous, and, despite appearances to the contrary . . . dead.

Topics: Arts Culture
 

Dave Hegeman is a librarian and writer in Newberg, Oregon, and does watercolours whenever he can. He is the author of Plowing In Hope: Toward a Biblical Theology of Culture (Canon Press, 1999).

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