Last week the Creative Industries Innovation Centre released a report that found 43% of the creative workforce consists of creative practitioners embedded in non-creative industries such as manufacturing, financial services and healthcare. This led to an article in which it was suggested my recent claim that the creative industries had “run out of steam” – also on The Conversation – was wrong.
What I had wanted to say was that the creative industry’s agenda (the action plan for the industry at large) has run out of steam, and this is why …
Culture as economy
The term “cultural industries” emerged in Europe in a positive sense in the 1970s and 1980s. It suggested, first, that culture was an economy – people worked, had contracts, sold stuff, bought stuff, sacked people, set up businesses and so on.
At the same time many pointed out this cultural economy did involve commercial values these were mixed up with cultural values in complex ways. As such it was not as responsive to “price signals” as other kinds of economy – we needed a new kind of policy approach that recognised this.
But this call was overshadowed by the claim that the cultural industries employed lots of people and generated real wealth. Such industries were not a basket case but a significant part of the economy and should be treated as such. It was an argument very popular among those working in arts and cultural sectors, who saw this argument as a crucial means to counter the ongoing cuts in state funding.
The concept of state funding for such industries was made more palatable by a third claim. Such industries were not just important because of their growing size. They produced signs and symbols with a direct connection to the passions, lifestyles and identities of the consumer. They were, as British sociologists Scott Lash and John Urry argued, templates for all future “post-industrial” economies.
So the great divide between culture and economy opened up by the 1960s counter-culture could now be closed. The economic future lay with culture. Step aside economists in suits: the long-haired rock stars who never got a proper job were vindicated.
These positive energies mobilised by the cultural industries explain the excitement around Creative Nation: Commonwealth cultural policy released in 1994 by Prime Minister Paul Keating and the 1997 New Labour Government in the UK, ousting 18 years of backward-looking Tories to a soundtrack of rave and Britpop.
This outburst of positivity capitalised on youthful enthusiasm when UK Secretary of State for Culture from 1997 to 2001 Chris Smith rebadged the “arts and cultural industries” as “creative industries”. It was a pragmatic shift from a subsidy-prone “culture” to a sector at the cutting edge of the information or knowledge economy, where the cognitive ability of workers to adapt information and manipulate symbols was central.
The economic heft of the creative industries was significantly helped along by the inclusion of software and computing services. This was by far the largest part of the newly-named “creative industries” and remains so. But is computer coding a “cultural” occupation? Where do we draw the boundary of this sector? Or we might ask what is not creative - why not include medicine, science, engineering and so on?
Transition from cultural to creative industry
In their recent article on The Conversation, Roy Green and Lisa Colley say the term “creative industry” implies there are “non-creative industries”. According to that article, shifting the focus to creative occupations spread throughout all industries solves this problem. It doesn’t.
First, it simply moves the opposition to one between creative and non-creative occupations – a can of worms we can’t open here.
Second, it forgets “industry”, a term that designates a roughly inter-related set of skills, practices, value-chains, products, regulations and so on that mark it out as an identifiable sector amenable to policy support. It is the fuzziness of “creative” that has dogged policy in the sector for over a decade.
Shifting the focus to creative occupations just makes it more fuzzy.
“Creative” – when employed by those who work in and for the creative industries agenda – is used in a highly abstract way – creating something “new” that has “value” – divorced from any specific application or context.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), on the contrary, in its recent report, has to use “creative occupation” quite specifically to statistically identify this group. They designate cultural occupations as those involved in cultural or symbolic products (such as music, performing arts, fashion, design, architecture and publishing). For creative occupations they add related retail and the (massive) digital/ computing sector.
Let’s take Finance in the ABS statistics. When “creative and cultural occupations” are being counted the financial sector employs a pretty substantial percentage (17%). When only cultural occupations are being counted the total falls drastically (7%).
The “creativity” being spread here is not ‘cultural’ – nor is it scientific, or medical or even financial innovation. What counts as “creativity” is computing, data-basing, system coding, web-site building and marketing activities in “non-cultural” industries. Yet this is routinely involved as some force of creativity working its way through our industries. Creative input in this sense is not about radical innovation but more akin, as they say in the design world, to putting lipstick on a pig.
Have we reduced culture to its economic impact?
Is it possible that those involved and invested in the creative industries have used the ambiguities of “creative” to reduce culture to its economic impact. I would suggest it is.
Creativity is a good thing, and is surely needed in industry, of whatever sort. But the creative industries drew on a very specific notion of creativity traditionally associated with art and culture (and to some extent scientists of the more wild hair variety). It has now been spread thinly to cover any non-routine problem solving or innovation in any kind of organisation or product you care to mention.
In any event culture involves more than being “creative” – it is about individual and collective meaning. From its inception it was opposed to “the economy” not (just) because of an aristocratic disdain for commerce, for dirtying its hands, but because it held out the possibility of meanings outside the pure economic imperative.
If the price for government legitimation is the absorption of culture and its creativity by the economic, then it is too high.
This is not to place art and culture in some other-worldy zone; the idea of the cultural industries rightly put paid to that. It is to refuse the evr-tightening noose neo-classical and neo-liberal economists and their politicians have thrown around “the economy”.
Anything outside the formal, profit-driven, financialised global economy is no longer considered economic. Even though most people do live outside it. As feminist political economists Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson argued in A Postcapitalist Politics, the range of our economic activities in informal, gift, domestic, state-funded and grey economies is to be counted as part – and for many the most important part – of our lives.
The cultural economy sits here. Not as a marketing and social media adjunct for the financial services but as a crucial contribution to the livelihoods of thousands of people and to the joys and meanings of lives lived individually and collectively.
Reducing culture to a “creative input” runs the risk of squandering our cultural inheritance and shackling not liberating the creative imagination we desperately require to change the world.