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Is Culture Just for Rich Kids Now?

02/10/2015 09:49 am ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015
Dimitri Otis via Getty Images

A class war is raging in British culture. James McAvoy, the star of the X-Men reboots, is the latest actor to wade into the debate, when he told The Herald of Scotland that an acting career was becoming an elite activity: "That's a frightening world to live in because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody, but of one tiny part, and that's not fair to begin with, but it's also damaging for society."

McAvoy was adding his voice to the laments of a number of other performers, including Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren and Judi Dench. Julie Waters, famous for her role in Educating Rita and as the dance teacher in Billy Elliott, recently bemoaned the current lack of opportunities for young working-class actors: "People like me wouldn't get a chance today." The battle has even turned political. When the shadow culture minister, Chris Bryant, claimed that the British music industry was "too posh," James Blunt, who attended Harrow public school, called him a "classist gimp." All of this is terribly British, of course. Britain has always had a class system, and culture has been an integral reflection of it. Americans are in no place to sneer anymore, however. The same process is underway in the United States. The ability to create increasingly belongs to the wealthy.

Culture, like so much of American life, is being shaped by rising income inequality. Art, which was the domain of a democratic, sometimes anarchic spirit, has become a preserve for the cool display of privilege.

In hip-hop, once considered the most direct expression of the life of the streets, the top practitioners are now Drake and Kanye West, the first of whom is a nice boy from one of the better neighborhoods in Toronto, and the latter of whom is the son of a professor of American literature. The literary novel is obsessed with the minutiae of academic and personal life among the harassed members of the higher portions of the middle class and the lower portions of the upper classes, and writers have started showing up in families, just as they did in the 19th century: Your Foers, your Riches, the clan of Stephen King.

Outside of these inner circles, the creative industries exist on the sufferance of young people who labor on the condition of non-payment or negligible payment, which you can only do if you come from money or are willing to take on crippling amounts of debt or have married somebody with money. Journalism has been haunted by this reality for nearly 20 years. To start a career, you must either take an internship or go to journalism school, which can run to $40,000 a year. Felix Salmon's recent advice to young journalists tells the story of the rise of class into media through an anecdote about Nick Denton.

Gawker's Nick Denton tells an interesting story: when NBC News profiled him a couple of years ago, he dismissed as "archaic" the correspondent's questions about where his staffers had gone to college. No one at Gawker, least of all its owner, cared about such things; indeed, no one at Gawker even cared whether you had gone to college. All they cared about was whether you could write good clean fast funny hard-hitting copy.

But then Nick heard his employees' answers -- and it turned out that Gawker Media was full of graduates of "America's most prestigious schools". Whoops. The implication: there are thousands of great writers out there who didn't go to Columbia, who might not have gone to college at all, who might be old and conservative, rather than young and liberal.

The British are returning to their old class structures -- actors like Damien Lewis and Dominic West attended Eton, just like the Prime Minister and a strikingly large number of his cabinet. (Benedict Cumberbatch attended Harrow, like Blunt.) In America, the "creative class" is camouflage for a creative elite, but in its current form, cultural producers are entirely distinct from what Thorstein Veblen called the "leisure class." Aristocratic tendencies, which remain at least superficially anathema to America, must be carefully disguised.

So the creative class does whatever it can to hide its status as the mere accidental fact of an economic order. The great academic game of "check your privilege" is one such cover; it hides the fact that everyone at an elite institution is privileged and that there is nothing more privileged than sitting around dissecting which one is more privileged than another.

A cult of exhaustion has also developed. "My God, I'm so tired from designing posters all day." "You must be exhausted from your demanding schedule curating podcasts."

And of course, the richer the kids producing the culture, the more secure, the more they talk about how broke they are and how funny it is that they're broke.

The arrival of class into American culture is just another sign of the changing economic substructure of American life. But it will inevitably result in a changing conception of culture as well. The idea of talent as an unpredictable bursting forth, a rise of the low to the high, e pluribus unum, has resided at the very core of the democratic ideal. That ideal is under severe threat.

Meanwhile the difference between the "creative class" and the artists of previous generations grows starker. Artists used to be the ones who didn't fit in. Nobody knew where they, or their visions, came from until they exploded onto the scene. Now artists increasingly come with pedigree, and they must fit in to succeed. It's unclear whether this will lead to worse art. The Foers are good writers, all of them, as are the Riches for that matter -- but the heroism of the individual artist will surely be a victim.

No one who is paying attention can claim any longer that talent is such an unpredictable upswelling of mystical force into the world. Talent is becoming the capacity to navigate the cultural systems in place. Talent is becoming the opposite of originality.

The loss of that unfathomable, unquantifiable creativity will not be the least sacrifice to the stagnation of economic inequality: To make art now is just another inheritance.

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Stephen Marche is a columnist for Esquire Magazine and the author of The Hunger of the Wolf, which is excerpted here on The Huffington Post.