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Go on then … what are the creative industries?

Creativity is the X factor of modern industry. When it slumps, our economy splutters. Creativity is the source of the unprecedented wealth of the last two centuries. Yet we still understand very little…

Matthew Hutchinson

Creativity is the X factor of modern industry. When it slumps, our economy splutters.

Creativity is the source of the unprecedented wealth of the last two centuries. Yet we still understand very little about it.

Ideas create the industries and societies that generate the capital and income that lifts the world up. That is simple to say but difficult to achieve.

In the 1990s we began to talk about creative industries. We bundled fashion, design, advertising, architecture, publishing, software, movies, television and similar enterprises into their own sector. They became a lobby. In major economies, creative industries make up about 3%-5% of employment. As poorer economies develop, the size of their creative industries grows.

The term “creative industries sector”, though, is a bit of misnomer. For any industry can be creative. Conversely, fashion and design industries and their ilk often are lame. Little is creative or even interesting about today’s consumer computer companies.

In 2000, creative industries evangelists promised us a brilliant future. Some 30% of the population would belong to the creative class. The baton of creativity would pass from computing to bio-technology. Broadband networks would revolutionise business. Yet none of this happened.

Instead we ended up with prolonged global stagnation. We are in this pickle because we are less creative today than we were 50 years ago.

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Any industry can be creative. Agriculture is just as important as media. Creativity should not be confused with glamour. Movies are glitzy but today they are also mostly banal. The days of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford are long behind us.

The same is true of technology. If we compare the period 1930-1969 to 1970-2009, the per-capita number of significant Australian inventions declined.

More lobbies, more policies and more government money won’t fix this. Bio-medical research is a cautionary example. After 1970, research money in real terms exploded. Yet the number of new molecular entities approved for drug use in the United States in the 2000s was barely more than in the 1950s.

The arts are equally miserable. In the 1950s, discussion raged about the relative merits of figurative and abstract art. Tradition was pitched against modernity, ornament against smooth surfaces. Then along came arts council funding.

This was followed by obsequious hyper-ventilating discourses and finally the “neo” and “post” movements. The result was tedium. We can barely recollect the names of the practitioners of this anaemic era, let alone compare them with the monuments of Cubism, De Stijl or Abstract Expressionism.

In the past 40 years, the most interesting work in the arts has been in commercially-minded design and architecture. Works like Rem Koolhaas and OMA’s 2008 China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters in Beijing are impressive. But these remain the exception.

The China Central Television (CCTV) tower under construction in Beijing, 2007. Michael Reynolds/EPA

This suggests that, for all our rhetoric, we still do not understand how creativity works. We try to institutionalise something that defies institutionalisation. There is no document-driven procedure for creativity. It is very hard to nail down. This is because what lies at its heart is very odd.

Ian Harvey

Creative people do what most people including most clever people do not do. They take what others normally think of as being unrelated and put them together. That is what it means to be creative. It is a very off-putting thought process, not unlike that of an acerbic comedian.

Someone at AT&T had the idea of putting together the concepts of (wired) telephony and (wireless) radio in 1917. Almost a century later we carry in our pockets the fruits of that original thought meld. Very few people think like that.

Creative societies allow those who do the freedom to muse and the room to convince others that their outlier idea will soon enter the mainstream and define the norm.

Creative people look at the exception and see it as the rule. They are not being difficult or outlandish. While often witty, they are not self-consciously wacky. They just see X as Y. That is their gift and their curse.

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They see change as continuity not novelty. Creators are innate conservatives born with a wicked sense of irony.

Some societies and some eras go along with this. Some don’t. We pay lots of lip-service to the creative economy. But our time is not very creative. The arts and the sciences are dull. Technology and industry are not very innovative. No new industry sectors are emerging. This is a big problem.

The French economist Jean-Baptiste Say rightly observed in the early 19th century that in a modern dynamic economy supply creates demand. This means that without interesting and exciting products people save their money, and sluggish economies stagnate. That’s where we find ourselves in 2013.

Our larger problem is that we mistake glamour for creation. We think that working in the air-conditioned pastel offices of a designated creative industry makes us creative. It does not. We need to stop mistaking pretty labels for real entities.

Moses M

We now have to go back to scratch. We need a hard re-think about what creativity is and how we encourage it. We need to de-regulate creativity and let it off the leash. Since the 1970s we have forged a society fixated on petty rules and stern processes. Universities are among the worst offenders.

The result is not creation but enervation. We call our research and development creative but mostly it is not. We are risk-averse and shy of discovery.

One of the few exceptions to this in the past 40 years was Silicon Valley in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. It was truly free-wheeling. It was a place where a young man like Steve Jobs could combine his love of modernist aesthetics and electronic technologies. But that’s long gone.

Steve Jobs. Monica M. Davey/EPA

Silicon Valley in its brief hey-day was philosophically libertarian. Today it is wearisomely left-liberal. Sanctimony has replaced discovery. Moralism has supplanted gusto. The fire of excitement has given way to the same ideology of correctness that haunts the universities today. Big ideas have been replaced by minute rules.

PayPal’s Peter Thiel is right when he observes that the technology and economics of our other key industries such as air travel and energy are stuck in the 1960s and 1970s. American critic and scholar Camille Paglia is right when she observes that, since the early 1970s, the arts have been a wasteland.

And I can’t see much monumental in the sciences since the structure of DNA was discovered in the 1950s. The incidence of classic science papers declines sharply after 1970.

We are not like Germany in the 1890s or California in the 1950s. One produced a stream of great philosophy and science; the other a stream of great technology. Until the tap was switched off – in one case by totalitarianism; in the other case by big government liberalism.

Little of our era will enter the history of ideas. Twittering on about creative industries makes no difference if our industries are not creative.

Our biggest problem today is that we lack ambition, energy and imagination. Our problem is us. Only we can fix that problem.


This is a foundation essay for The Conversation’s new Arts + Culture section. If you are an academic or researcher with relevant expertise and would like to respond to this article, please use our pitch facility.

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