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Creativity might be playful – but it’s also work

Creativity ‘does not somehow float free of economic gravity, miraculously aloft’. Fabio Zenoardo, CC BY-SA

Creativity might be playful – but it’s also work

The view that art is essentially unworldly and creativity is play has a long history, dating back to the Romantics in the 18th century. According to this view, art must be kept separate from money, lest it be corrupted, and creativity must be unshackled from the machinery of work. The economist John Maynard Keynes perhaps expressed it best when he said:

Everyone, I fancy, recognises that the work of the artist in all its aspects is, of its nature, individual and free, undisciplined, unregimented, uncontrolled. The artist walks where the breath of the spirit blows him. He cannot be told his direction; he does not know it himself.

This is an appealing construction. The artist is pictured as someone unconstrained by rules or expectations, and free too from need or want. He is pictured, that is, as the kind of gentleman artist that Keynes regularly encountered in his own life as a member of the famous Bloomsbury set.

Yet there are important forms of creativity for which Keynes’ picture does not hold true at all.

There are two kinds in particular that lie almost at the other end of the spectrum, demanding focus, planning, and resources. They are:

  1. Creative works which require a sustained effort over time

  2. Works whose scope exceeds the personal capacity of the individual author/artist.

Think of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume sequence, Remembrance of Things Past, or the 39 years (and counting) Robert Caro has spent researching and writing his multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, or The Hobbit trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, which employed an estimated 3,000 people over a three year period.

These forms of creative work are characterised by their resource intensity and the high level of collaboration required to bring them off. They are as far from the undisciplined, free-flowing Keynesian model as might be imagined.

They are also fundamental to the great human project of knowledge creation and expression.

Economic rights in creative works

Creativity may be playful but it is also work. Since it creates value and consumes resources, we must consider it as a form of economic activity.

Historically the value of creative work has been fixed in the form of intellectual property rights, where the creator is granted a legal right of exclusivity in the work they have created. This gives them an asset around which to organise the people and resources needed to bring the work to fruition and then to market.

To those who favour the Keynesian model of free, uninhibited creativity, the idea of intellectual property may be anathema – at best unnecessary and at worst a dead weight on the free expression of ideas. The American economists Michele Boldrin and David Levine have described it as “an obnoxious combination of medieval institutions” and called for its abolition.

They have a point. Rights such as copyright have grown far beyond their original legislated form, both in scope and duration. They have also become entrenched in global treaties that make them almost supra-national in force.

On The Conversation recently Dan Hunter asked what kind of law would encourage creativity, and answers his own question, saying “it wouldn’t look like copyright”.

He goes on to argue that copyright has negative effects for creativity, drawing on research showing artists do their worst work when they are commissioned. Humans, he says, “become creative when they’re internally motivated by curiosity or interest or desire” and become “demotivated” when money is introduced into the equation.

Hunter is right: money cannot describe the whole equation of creativity.

Yet to wish it out of the equation is surely a step too far.

For moneyless creativity is creativity without means. It is creativity with one hand tied behind its back. It is skimping, pulling back, and people going unpaid. It is ambition deferred and vision cut short.

We need to accept that creativity takes place in an economy and makes claims on its resources. It does not somehow float free of economic gravity, miraculously aloft. It may be playful and exuberant and done despite constraints – but it is still work. Very often it is hard work, and it takes time and money and many people working together to pull it off.

Cashless creativity is elitist

To argue for a cashless creative economy is not simply wishful thinking, benign and well meaning.

For if there is no money in creativity, then the kinds of creativity I have described become, by default, the privilege of the wealthy – elite pursuits from which most of the third world and many in the first world are excluded.

They become something that rich people do and poor people read about.

It’s the Bloomsbury model all over again: art as properly the province of the upper middle class.

Read other articles in our Creativity series here.