Liberal Arts in Crisis: The Creative Sector Hunkers Down

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Book publishing is used to dire forecasts for its future; the industry’s funeral has been prematurely anticipated for decades. Publishing was supposed to be killed off at various points by television, the Internet, and the general public’s apathy toward reading. But it’s always managed to scrape by — even if, in these scattered times, it’s been increasingly on the back of huge successes like The Da Vinci Code and the Harry Potter series. The stagnant-but-relatively stable industry has also long been seen as “recession-proof”; the thinking goes that consumers will still spend on small, non-luxe goods, such as books, during a downturn.

But that logic may prove incorrect this time around. (Of course, any business with the label “recession-proof” is almost asking to have the label ripped off.) Book sales have been slipping, most of the big publishing houses (Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins) have instituted layoffs that include eliminating whole divisions, and one publisher, Houghton Mifflin, put the kibosh on any new acquisitions — a drastic move that surprised even insiders. Meanwhile, Borders, the second-largest bookstore in the US after Barnes & Noble, is in serious trouble, though the chain’s woes began well before the current crisis. And all this is not to mention that the long-predicted era of the e-book has finally come to fruition with the Amazon Kindle, forcing a refiguring of publishing-industry attitudes (overdue, many would say) toward technology. Publishing, in other words, has a convergence of crises on its hands, and the recession is hitting it harder than expected.

Film is another industry known for weathering hard times gracefully; just think of those Depression-era photos of the down-on-their-luck masses flocking to the talkies for a bit of escapist fun. True to form, box-office grosses in January set records, with ultra-light fare like Paul Blart: Mall Cop leading the way, and Slumdog Millionaire, the feel-good economic fairy tale, dominating the awards season. Domestic box-office receipts, though, only tell a small part of the story. Movies coming out now were produced many months ago, so the real test is whether filmmakers and studios can secure financing for future projects — and the credit crunch is slamming Hollywood.

Studios are much more reluctant to spend millions of dollars up front on production, so they’re cutting back. Paramount, for instance, is making 20 movies next year, instead of its usual 25. Even heavyweights like Steven Spielberg are feeling the pinch: his Dreamworks studio split with Universal and headed to Disney over a financing kerfuffle. And the town hasn’t been immune to layoffs, with Warner Bros. recently letting 800 employees go in a cost-cutting move. But, while the mood around Tinseltown isn’t wildly optimistic — Sundance was unsurprisingly less bubbly than in recent years, and Oscar parties are going the austere route — there’s still a sense that the industry is less susceptible than many to economic ruin.

The art world, on the other hand, is a more complex beast. There’s no question that it’s struggling — the big auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, are in freefall; art fairs aren’t generating the buzz they once did; and buyers are drying up at galleries. And yet, it doesn’t seem to be an uncommon opinion that a recession could actually be a positive here, at least in some sense. Critics contend that the art world has grown bloated, full of itself, and unfocused during the boom years — one doesn’t see book or movie critics calling for a hard time to cleanse their realms, but in the art world, it’s not uncommon. Art and money, after all, have always had an uneasy relationship.

Over the past few years, the pro-recession argument goes, the business has grown increasingly cash-hungry and unwieldy, with buyers, sellers, dealers, and promoters taking precedence over the person who is supposed to ultimately matter — the artist. With bigger and bigger money involved, hype has fostered a herd mentality, with artists increasingly driven to market themselves, instead of turn out something unique. More and more art is being produced, but with fewer and fewer original ideas. Traditionally, this argument continues, artists are more able to make work on their own terms with the money gone and the pressure off. Of course, as in book publishing and film, this all means that students coming out of school, young workers in the industry, and the most vulnerable in general will be the hardest hit.

Will a leaner, meaner art (and book, and film) industry be worth the losses? Only time will tell.