The Arts and a Generation of Whiners (?)

Consider this the next time you're trying to raise money for an arts organization or trying to rally support for the creation of an arts center or just trying to see the world in a fresh, new way. Baby Boomers -- those 76 million born between 1946 and 1964 -- are the most pessimistic, disappointed, and self-entitled generation of the 20th century. Let's be clear: I'm not saying this, though it makes sense to me. This is from a report in The Washington Post.
This is according to a social and demographic trends survey released recently by the Pew Research Center. The survey measured the pessimism, dissatisfaction and general curmudgeonliness of 2,413 adults in various generations. The results validate any member of the Greatest Generation who ever looked at his or her offspring and sadly thought, "soft." Simply put, boomers are a bunch of . . . whiners. More than older or younger generations, boomers -- born from 1946 to 1964 -- worry that their income won't keep up with rising costs of living. They say it's harder to get ahead today than it was 10 years ago. They are more likely to say that their standard of living is lower than their folks' but that things don't look too good for their kids either (67 percent of younger generations, meanwhile, feel they have it better than their parents).
And this attitude problem isn't just because of middle-age crises. Another report on social trends from the University of Chicago, which surveyed happiness levels for the past 30 years, suggests that boomers have never been happy. Again, the Post:
In 2004, 28 percent of respondents born in 1950 considered themselves "very happy," compared with 40.2 percent of those born in 1935. Back in 1972, the figures for those same generations were 28.9 and 35.4. A whole lifetime of whining.
So what's made them so unhappy? There are many theories in the Post article, but I like this one from Yang Yang, the author of the University of Chicago study, because I've seen this in action:
Boomers, born into families riding the American Dream, expected that such easy living would always come naturally. Happiness was seen as a right and inevitability.
Put another way: The boomer attitude is not collaborative but confrontational. It's not one of compromise but of conflict. It's doesn't begin from a position of pragmatism but of ideology. This is why Barack Obama is so appealing to many people under 50. This is why that same group of people -- the so-called Gen X and Gen Y -- were so disgusted by the 2004 presidential campaign, in which it came to light how much boomers were still fighting about the 1960s. The last straw, for me anyway, was to brouhaha over John Kerry's adventures in swiftboating. Why compromise when happiness -- and many other things, I would argue, like the American Dream itself -- is your right? This attitude as applied to the arts: People should care about the arts, boomers say. They should give money to arts organizations. If they don't, boomers say, then they're stupid. If they don't, then artists are victims. Perhaps boomers, who are now facing retirement and old age, can afford to be so dismissive of the very real challenges facing younger generations of artists and art lovers, but those under 50 cannot be so dismissive. We have to face the realities before us. I saw this during the first "Creative Spaces" discussion at Redux Contemporary Art Center in April (in Charleston, SC) when Marian Mazzone, chair of the Redux Advisory Board, said that artists are being "displaced," and artist Linda Fantuzzo said that "artists have had to flee" the peninsula. If you haven't guessed by now, Mazzone and Fantuzzo are boomers. In an interview with me, for a story on the future of Redux, Mezzone said she was hesitant to talk to me, because I didn't appear to have sympathy for Redux. She said this, I think, because I've said many times that the current venue problem is one of the performing arts not the visual arts. If I'm not with them, then I'm against them, another trait of the Whiner Generation.
"People born in times of cultural renewal tend to take an overt attitude of pessimism," says Neil Howe, an author who gained fame for his theories of recurrent generational behavior. They see their pessimism as a tonic that will wake up the world, then they just end up drunk on disappointment.
July 30, 2008 7:18 AM | | Comments (2)



I'm a late boomer ('63) and, I'm sorry, I was raised to fend for myself. I'm tired of artists and their unsubstantiated sense of entitlement and their less-than-obvious disgust when they don't get what they expect.

Case in point. I was an administrative assistant for a photography fellowship while in graduate school. Part of my job, among others, was to hand back submissions to artists who weren't selected to be recipients. I never saw such a large group of bitter, self-loathing and rude people in my life.

To be an artist, you have to be ready to accept the good with the bad—the latter being more prevalent. Having a thick skin is a requirement. As my grandmother used to say, "You'll catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar."

So lose the sour face, stand up tall and move on.

I read this blog on a regular basis, but today it feels like the late Hilton Kramer (not a boomer)is at the keyboard. All of those dogmatic statements about whining, unhappiness, confrontation and ideology - it's like an uncivil union of Jesse Helm and Bill O'Reilly.

I don't know if the author of flyover is a boomer or not, and if so, a whiner or not (although it sounds suspiciously so in this blog). I am a boomer, although not a whiner, and while thus schooled in the archetypal anti-establishment protests, summers of love, better living through chemistry and the like, I have never been less than optimistic about what makes art matter and about the obligation to build the art into a mortar of public community.

Perhaps its because, in my case, working near the bottom of the institutional food chain for so many years with emerging artists who, over time, have gone on to revolutionize much of which is happening at the top has made me understand that it is the strength and interdependence of creative community that creates both ideas and the resources to enable their pursuit and production.

When I was growing up, I thought it was others who came, silver spoon in hand,to write history. For me and my contemporaries, I think the challenge has been to fill in the gaps and the backstory, particularly with voices and communities who were never heard of or by the Greatest Generation or other conveniently titled demographic groups fore and aft of the Boom.

After 30 years or so in New York (FYI Doug McC. knows my background), I am now in New Hampshire after a passage through Minnesota - talk about flyover countries. As I build a new and NH-appropriate frugal platform to support artists and engage communities in the telling of and listening to one another's stories, I often informally describe the mission of my work as :enabling the 21st Century to take on the 18th century in a fair fight." In a state where the historical past is everything, I take care in my little plot of ground to make sure that a door is open to "future history" as well.

It's not conflict,it's a conversation that moves through an ever fluid present.

I constantly wonder at all this vitriol that the critical fraternity (and the occasional media giant) heaves at this demographic bulge in history as it work is its way towards its terminus. I think about the interaction of parents and children, teachers and students, artist and mentors - and almost never about what my age class happens to be doing to or for the world (well, Bush makes anyone ashamed of his age class). It's a false positive, a contrived community, other than as it exists in an economist's or sociologist's metric.

Quite frankly, it's enough to make a boomer want to punch somebody.


Recent Comments


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on July 30, 2008 7:18 AM.

Your earnings determine your culture was the previous entry in this blog.

We have scientists on the arts, but where are the artists on science? is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.