Apocalypto and the "Creative Class"

Certainly an odd juxtaposition – let me explain.

A couple days ago I watched the Mel Gibson movie Apocalypto with my wife and a couple of friends. Generally I thought it was a good movie in what I think of as the Mel Gibson genre of films – terrible things make an exceptional man very angry and he then fights against the source of the teribble things. It is like Braveheart of the Patriot, but set in the waning years of the Mayan civilization just as Europeans arrive. In this case the terrible things are the arrival of a hunting party that is rounding up human sacrifices in the hero’s village (English in Scotland, British in the Colonies, etc.), and the exceptional man is Jaguar Paw (William Wallace, Benjamin Martin, etc.).

The movie was interesting in general, but one interesting aspect of it is the layering of depictions of the evils of empire. The Mayan Empire is literally harvesting thousands of captives from its own region to sacrifice in order to end a plague that threatens the civilization. These people are rounded up in incredible numbers and killed by a high priest by having their hearts ripped out and then their heads cut off, all for the spectacle of the populace desperate for salvation. (Don’t get me started on the parallels…)

By the end of the film, we see the first European arrivals, and we know of course how that story will proceed – a new more powerful Empire will rape and pillage and spread plague and enslave the native populate for hundreds of years. It is the evil of the end of the Mayan system of human sacrifice write large, so to speak.

Now, to clumsily segue to the issue of the “Creative Class” – hopefully where I’m going will be clear in a moment. There is this theory put forth by, among others, Richard Florida, that a ‘new’ Creative Class is driving the economies of post-industrial cities. This class is connected to David Brooks’ concept of Bobos, or bohemian-bourgeois, essentially what I think of as the new upper/leisure/priviliged class in the Western world, particularly in America.

I don’t like language of a Creative Class for a few reasons. It gives the impression that other classes are less creative, or that the upper class in American has gotten where it is solely through its creativity and ingenuity (which is patently false, and fodder for another post sometime in the future). What I see is a fact of life, that the upper class in every culture ever to exist, the leisure class which can afford to have hobbies and create art rather than work itself to death trying to feed itself (like the vast majority of humanity throughout time), is always the “creative” class in the sense that creation and innovation are basically privileged activities.

In any given civilization, the upper class seems creative – it is the source of the philosophy, theology, art, architecture, etc. – because it enjoys privilege which is rooted in radical injustice and exploitation. The Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Microprocessor, etc., were all possible because of privilege concentrated in a tiny minority of the human population. The current Creative Class is no different. Bobos in post-industrial cities are able to drive economic development and culture because Third World serfdom provides us with cheap raw materials and manufactured goods, and because irresponsible economic practices outsource our pollution to future generations, and so on.

Its my belief that any group of people, freed from having to work in exhausting labor or in subsistence farming, would be just as “creative” as any given group you can come up with. The difference isn’t in the kind of people, but in the privilege of the people in question.

In Apocalypto, the urban elites sacrificed other human beings because they could, to try to uphold a civilization because it benefited them. The results included great architecture and artwork and amazing mathematics and astronomy, all built upon the corpses of the powerless.

Then along come the European elites to exploit the New World because they could, and the result was the late Rennaissance and the Reformation and the Enlightenment and the so-called “Age of Discovery”, all built upon the corpses of the powerless.

In a few hundred years, what will people think of our “Creative Class”, and what it cost to maintain the privilege that makes our lifestyle possible? And as they have the time to reflect back, who will be paying the price for them?

Who’s paying the price for me, and can I possibly be worth it?

Maybe this is only connected in my mind. Oh well. At least its off my chest.

7 thoughts on “Apocalypto and the "Creative Class"

  1. Doug . . . VERY thoughtful post and critique of the creatives. You should head to the Creative Exchange blog and see what the response is to some of your thoghts. One of the differences though about the Creative Class of today is the relative nature of tolerance and how that plays into lifestyle. Still couched in a middle/upper middle class culture, but I think that is a can be a unique descriptor.


  2. Thanks for the comment. You know, in posting this…I knew it was going to lack subtlety, and probably sound harsher than I really feel most of the time. On the other hand, I wanted to make the point sort of forcefully – I tend to do that, and then try to back off later (as I’m sure everyone has noticed). There’s also just a space constraint. These blog posts aren’t very long at all – really vignettes or blurbs when something more substantial is really called for.I’ll check out th Exchange blog when I get a chance – thanks for the suggestion.


  3. I think a lot depends on the observer, too. What counts as creativity? Mass media (driven by a few corporations)? What about community theatre? or embroidered paraments? Those aren’t necessarily produced by the “creative class” you describe. Or how about the kind of constant creativity that can make a meal out of nothing, or drum a complex rhythm on a 5-gallon paint bucket, or invent new rules on the fly for a game of soccer to be played on a sloped and pitted chicken yard?


  4. It cuts me to my heart when I consider that I’m privileged enough to sit at a computer reading blogs and posting to them. Meanwhile, in the time it takes me to submit a comment, someone else dies from starvation, disease, or violence.Yet how can we bring it to people’s attention so we stop building upon the corpses of the powerless if we do not communicate creatively? How can we use the privilege of creative communication to make a difference? That is a basic question for the so-called Creative Class.


  5. Nice post Doug, I was actually thinking that same thing when we were watching the “evolution” of man portrayed by Mel (also know as Apocalypto). I was also thinking that how easy it is to sit and watch something like that on my huge tv and at the same time not notice that the exact same thing that we are abhorred by happens in our world. To comment on Heather’s comment; I’m not so sure that creativity is about making something out of nothing or turning one thing into another. IE the tribe that is the main characters of the film are very creative in their hunting techniques. Even to the point that Jaguar Paw (main character) uses these creative solutions to his advantage over the “next phase” guys (his kidnappers). Part of this transition is how your “creativity” effects society as a whole…I hope that makes sense…


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