Archive for December 16th, 2019

Dana Gioia on the late Scott Timberg: a bitter symbol for those who have been marginalized by our “creative culture.”

Monday, December 16th, 2019
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A society-assisted suicide. He leaves behind a wife and son.

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a long piece on gifted cultural journalist Scott Timberg, who killed himself last week. He was 50. I wrote about it here, and my supposition was correct. He was killed by the “gig economy” he deplored in his 2015 book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, which discussed how digital technology and economic polarization were damaging American cultural life.

The LARB piece ends with a range of tributes, one of them from from a close friend, Dana Gioia, California poet laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts:

I knew Scott Timberg for over 25 years. He was not only a close friend and colleague — he was a constant presence in my life. For many years he emailed or phoned me nearly every day to discuss what he was reading or writing. In 2003 we edited a book together on the new literary Los Angeles for which Scott came up with the perfect title, The Misread City.

Scott was determined to give Los Angeles the careful reading that it deserved. I don’t think anyone covered LA culture so prolifically or omnivorously. He wrote about everything happening in the Southland — rock, poetry, fiction, film, theater, jazz, classical music, and the visual arts. He produced hundreds of articles, which had the special Timberg quality of being simultaneously open-minded and opinionated.

Dana Gioia: “something wrong with our culture”

In an age of cultural specialization, Scott’s range was invaluable. His commentary reflected the needs of the general reader who explores the arts with curiosity but finds little intelligent guidance in the media. Scott provided this animated coverage for nearly thirty years at a variety of publications, mostly notably The Day in New London, New Times LALos Angeles Times, and Salon.

Thousands of musicians, artists, writers, publishers, and presenters profited from Scott’s meticulous attention and advocacy. He was not so fortunate.  His professional career was slowly eroded by the economic and technological changes that transformed the contemporary media. Despite his immense productivity, he struggled to earn a living for himself and his family.

Scott combined his difficult personal experiences with his capacious knowledge of the arts and media to create a brilliant study, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (2015). This underrated volume remains the best diagnosis of our current cultural dilemma in a society where “information” corporations have become as large as nation states while the writers and artists whose work they exploit can no longer make a living.

Scott’s suicide was a tragic act. He was so greatly loved and so conspicuously talented. No one can truly know what despair or temporary madness motivated it. But his death makes at least one thing obvious to any attentive observer. There is something wrong with our culture when Los Angeles, which now has more artists than any other city in North America, including New York, cannot provide a living wage for such a hard-working and gifted critic.

In his death, Scott Timberg becomes a representative figure, a bitter symbol for thousands of other writers and artists who have been marginalized by our much-touted “creative culture.” I mourn him personally and publicly. His passing diminishes the California culture he did so much to honor.

Read the whole thing here.

A postscript from Dana’s brother, the jazz scholar Ted Gioia, on his Facebook page (we also quoted him in our earlier post here):

Los Angeles Review of Books has published a collection of heartfelt tributes (from me and 18 others, including my brother Dana) to our friend Scott Timberg, a brilliant arts & culture journalist who took his own life last week, leaving behind his wife Sara and 13-year-old son Ian.

I feel compelled to add a few more comments here—because Scott seemed like surrogate member of my family at times, and his passing has left such a mark on me (as it has on so many others—I note that around 600 people have donated to the GoFundMe campaign for his family).

When someone you know commits suicide, the first reaction is disbelief. More than almost any other human act, suicide resists attempts to find meaning in it. Even so, in this case a kind of larger significance has been attached to Scott’s death by many who knew him well—and it started happening almost within hours of his passing. To many of us, his death seemed to have uncanny and disturbing connections with his professional life over the last decade, when he emerged as our leading chronicler and champion of the many people who have lost their bearings in the “culture business”—a group that, for Scott, included everyone from artists and arts journalists like himself all the way to the film lover who once worked at the local video rental store (before it closed) or the minimum-wage clerk at the indie bookstore.

Scott had lost his job at the Los Angeles Times shortly before he turned 40. As an outsider, I was mystified by this turn of events, because Scott was one of the finest arts and culture writers in the country, smart and passionate and capable of delivering insightful articles at short notice on almost any subject. He never recovered his bearings after leaving the Times. Thrust into the turbulent freelance economy, he continued to do outstanding work, but with fewer opportunities and smaller rewards.

He increasingly focused his attention on others like himself who had been squeezed and displaced in the shrinking arts economy. He drew on his own experiences in writing a book on the subject, the harrowing (even more so after his death) Culture Crash, published by Yale University Press.

A different person with Scott’s talents would have reinvented himself in a different career or setting. But Scott loved journalism—he believed it was the highest possible profession, almost a kind of priesthood—and he loved Los Angeles too. He loved them too much perhaps. It may seem like a gross simplification to say that losing his position at the L.A. Times caused his death, but there’s some truth in that. I believe he would still be alive today if he had been able to do the work he was destined to pursue in his adopted hometown.

The narrative that has emerged in the last few days presents Scott as a martyr to the cause he chronicled in his writing. From this perspective, he is the patron saint of the suffering culture professional in the gig economy—and his own death has turned into a commentary on his life. It’s easy to criticize this way of packaging a tragedy that (for me and others) will never lose its sting. But there’s a large dose of truth in it too. All the pieces fit together, almost too well.

More to the point, it gives some small circumference of meaning to something otherwise so meaningless. And, frankly, I suspect Scott would have no disagreement with such a framing of his life and death. He saw the challenges he faced echoed in the lives of so many others, and he cared deeply about all those who suffered in this way. The notion that his abbreviated life might serve as potent symbol for the compassion owed to those squeezed by the shift in our culture, would have given Scott a small bit of gratification. I know it gives me some consolation.