Creating Culture

By Gillespie, Nick; Freund, Charles Paul et al. | Reason, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Creating Culture

Gillespie, Nick, Freund, Charles Paul, Wasow, Omar, Walker, Jesse, Turner, Frederick, Shedroff, Nathan, Gioia, Dana, Shepheard, Paul, Bayles, Martha, Oliver, Charles, Doherty, Brian, Reason

How to cultivate the arts when the old rules need not apply.

In recent years, the production of "culture" - art, music, literature, video, and other forms of creative expression - has exploded. There are any number of reasons for this, including technology that has dramatically lowered production and distribution costs, higher discretionary income, greater communication among peoples of the world, and the erosion of traditional "gatekeeper" authorities. REASON asked a number of writers, scholars, and new media specialists to recommend up to three books that explore, discuss, or exemplify the ways and means by which culture is, was, or could be created, circulated, and evaluated.

Nick Gillespie

Despite an assumed antagonism, the marketplace for culture shares a lot with the marketplace for less rarified goods and services. Both embody an unpredictable mix of creative vision, technological innovation, sweat equity, and luck (good and bad); both are characterized chiefly by failure and manage to support all sorts of losing ventures; and both tap into a basic, often unrealistic, human urge for risk taking.

At rock bottom, the artist and the entrepreneur face the same dilemma: In a world of prolific choice, how do I cultivate, hold, and grow an audience for what I'm offering? Relatively free and unregulated markets in culture and commerce alike have helped create so much stuff that we sometimes take our aesthetic bounty for granted, much in the same way we take a supermarket whose shelves are overpacked with food for granted. But of course food doesn't just grow itself, much less make its way to the corner store.

I suggest those interested in how culture is created, circulated, and evaluated in an open society take a look at the Beat movement, particularly its three best-known figures: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs (the latter two of whom died just this year). Whether or not you care for their product, they provide a case study in the cultural marketplace: Like some ridiculously undercapitalized startup in an industry dominated by a few big firms, the Beats throughout the 1950s slowly built a market for themselves, eventually winning over an indifferent public, sidestepping a bellicose critical establishment, and even overcoming official state repression (Ginsberg's great poem Howl was the subject of a now unthinkable obscenity trial). True cultural entrepreneurs, they created the modern, wine-soaked poetry reading, utilized alternative publishing outlets (including the Pocket Poets Series started by poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti), and tapped into a real yet inchoate demand for something different in American letters. In relentlessly hustling after a public, in drawing connections to the past while breaking with it, and in moving from the periphery toward the center of the literary world, the Beats exemplified the process by which culture flourishes when left to its own imaginative devices.

The Beat Scene (1960), edited by Elias Wilentz, is a contemporaneous (and often comically hyperbolic) assemblage of writing, photos, and commentary that captures the energy and appeal of the movement, along with its sense of community and propensity toward myth making. As their subtitles indicate, Desolate Angel: lack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America (1979, 1990), by Dennis McNally, and Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (1983), by Gerald Nicosia, focus on Kerouac, but both are excellent at tracing and explaining the various, dense, and often disturbing personal and professional relationships that helped create and promote what might be called the Beat franchise. For a taste of what people responded to in Beat writing, check out this alternative trio of books: Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, the 1958 follow-up to On the Road that illustrates how the Beats cross-fertilized and cross-promoted one another; Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems (1956), which features a shrewdly legitimating introduction by William Carlos Williams; and Burroughs's Junkie (first published in 1953 under the pseudonym William Lee), a coolly compelling tour of the dropout demimonde that proved irresistible in Eisenhower's America. …

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