Creative industries

When the concept of “Creative Industries” first developed, it brought together two essentially political motives. First was the desire to develop and enhance particular national or regional (within a nation) sectors that could make up for economic sectors in decline: typically manufacturing, but also areas such as had exhausted natural resources. In the UK, with the first big push, to promote creative industries was seen as playing up and building on acknowledged strengths that already had international recognition such as design, fashion, heritage tourism, museums, music and performing arts, etc. Promoters assumed that given established recognition, government intervention could support and subsidize new growth in these areas, creating jobs and new tax revenue. Industrial factories might be closing, but new jobs could be created in cultural innovation.

Second was the desire to get away from a much more critical view of mass culture, generally discussed under the term the “Culture Industry” which itself had roots in Theodor Adorno’s left-wing critique of mass culture, mass communications, capitalist ownership, and ideological control. The Culture Industry critique’s inherent pessimism hardly fit in with a desire to expand and renovate the entertainment and culture sector. Also, using the term “culture” immediately brought along the baggage of the conservative ideal of High Culture and its entrenched and reactionary views of preserving a legacy, adherence to the recognized classics in the arts, and resistance to the popular and mass consumed. By phrasing the change as “Creative Economy” and “Creative Industries” one could compliment existing capitalists and financiers by recognizing the validity of “industry” while using the term “creative” to make it seem something brand new was going on. At the same time, the creative branding of cultural production allowed this economic sector to seem important, perhaps potentially on a par with science, technology, engineering, and medicine — which were certainly aided and abetted by changing strict regulations and subsidizing useful infrastructure and innovation enterprises. If you accepted the neoliberal logic of Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) which could be roughly translated as, “Capitalism is in charge, get used to it,” then culture — rather than having a critical relation to society in the sense of providing an alternative, a critique, an radical difference — could be reformed in the neoliberal order as “creative,” contributing to the economy by being on board, and happily industrializing those cultural areas that were formerly seen as a drag on growth and innovation.

At this point, local/regional bodies had an opportunity to get some of the new money to increase and improve, especially if it could be argued the result would produce a profit. The education system could also be brought in, and subsidy money could flow to centers and individuals with proposals to aid and abet this acceleration. What followed was enthusiastic promotion of a general overview with publications such as John Howkins, The Creative Economy: How People Make Money from Ideas, which argued, using the tone of a motivational speaker, that the “new economy” would raise all boats and you just had to rid yourself of old-fashioned ideas. It also meant that by creating something “new” one could escape the restraints of existing regulation and vested interests such as unions, or renegotiate them. Just as the financial services sector was now surpassing the old manufacturing arena in inventing new ways to make money, the creative culture sector could potentially change and expand. New forms of information and communication promised new ways to monetize necessary activities.

This line of thought spread in different ways. In the United States some enthusiasm flowed into and around the “dot.com” boom in the 1990s and was part of the neoliberal Clinton administration’s camouflage for pushing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) while slashing social welfare programs. Politicians promised that “retraining” in the new digital world would make up for the hit that the traditional Democratic Party base would take as manufacturing jobs moved abroad. It never happened. And the dot.com bust at the turn of the century called for retrenchment on all fronts.

Probably the most successful of the creative economy salesmen was Richard Florida, a city planner, who pointed at the transformation of Pittsburgh PA from a classic rustbelt disaster to a revivified regional financial and education hub within a massively cleaned up and remade central core. As decades of grime and soot from the steel town’s industrial roots were sandblasted away, a clean lighter city emerged. Florida said that “creatives” now wanted to live there, and with an arguable sleight of hand came up with a model for other cities in distress. Make them attractive to “creatives” and those folks will come and innovate and that innovation will jump-start your ailing urban economy.

The appeal was obvious: for politicians it meant adding low cost amenities such as bike lanes, more trees, flower-filled traffic dividers, farmer’s markets, summer music and art festivities, etc. rather than adequately funding city schools, making major infrastructure improvements such as roads and public transport, and improved housing for the lowest income citizens. For the professional middle class, the “creatives,” this change could translate into tangible things they liked: creating a pleasant cultural ambiance, validating connoisseurship and consumption. The apparent results: transport that served them well such as light rail from the suburbs to downtown, specialty consumption sites such as wine bars, new music club venues, and bistro food. You could shop at a Whole Foods big box store instead of a Wal-Mart big box store, and go to an art house cinema instead of just the multiplexes.

Florida’s counterintuitive imagination reverses the commonplace wisdom that improving the economic base of a city will lead to a better cultural superstructure. Instead the order is reversed: change the cultural environs and an economic miracle will follow: “Build it and they will come.” Of course there are some jolly things here: Florida actively argues that being queer-friendly brings more “creatives” to town, which sticks it in the eye of Christian fundamentalists and Republican Presidential aspirants by promising the gay goose will lay some golden eggs. And what self-respecting professional wouldn’t like having one or more alternative live music venues in town, with an organic locavore restaurant nearby, and ready parking places to plug in your hybrid auto?

But the downstream version of these unexamined myths are even more distorted. Case in point: The June 2011 issue of Wired magazine includes a Special Report done with National Public Radio’s Planet Money project. In a “case study” of Omaha, Nebraska, the article claims:

“It’s only the 42nd-largest city in the US, but over the past two decades, Omaha has been transformed into one of the Midwest’s most vibrant cultural hubs. Here’s how the rebirth happened, starting in the ‘90s. Phase 1, 1991-1994. It all started with better food. For decades, Omaha had few gourmet destinations aside from its musty old steak houses. In the early ‘90s, though, new restaurants — and a revitalized farmers’ market — brought foodies back.”[10] [open endnotes in new window]

This analysis, and the adjoining one on the Planet Money Blog, fit reporters’ details to the Florida thesis template. But the problem is that the model isn’t sufficient to the data. This flaw becomes immediately apparent when Omaha people start adding comments to the blog, pointing out faulty facts, inaccurate histories, and major misinterpretations. A little more probing about the recent history of Omaha (on Wikipedia, say) reveals that changes among the city’s major businesses and real estate trends offer a much better explanation for the urban boom. In other words, the Florida thesis, though flawed, directed the journalists’ interpretation. But to make big decisions, be those life decisions for individuals or policy and implementation ones for cities and institutions, we need to get beyond wishful thinking and fanciful but flawed suppositions.

Others have built on Creative Industries optimism, which can take many different forms. In my personal experience it appears regularly in my now hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Endless proposals for creating a more vibrant economy appear with the promise that if we just make the community more amenable to “creatives” milk and honey will flow. More bike paths, more playing fields in the parks, fewer playing fields in the parks so we can have wilderness and wetlands restoration, more food carts, more parking garages downtown, closing off the main street downtown to make it like a walking mall, ending the blockage of the downtown walking mall so more vehicles can get there, more parking meters so its easier to park, fewer meters so its more welcome to park, and on and on.

For intellectuals in higher education the seductive power of Creative Economy and Creative Industries thinking has inspired new initiatives which sometimes short circuit a more rigorous analysis. An example is John Hartley’s recent work. His anthology Creative Industries puts forward a strong argument for moving away from an older model of Culture Industries analysis and seeing universities (in particular) as key points for contributing to this new economic and industrial formation. While his introductory essay to the collection works its way through alternative views, overall it tends to dismiss any skepticism. In this it reads like a brief for increased government, industrial, private and nonprofit funding of university work in this area. Of course this is exactly the kind of strategic plan and vision statement that is needed to sell the idea and gain concrete support. Hartley argues that there’s an opportunity (specifically in Australia where he was Dean of the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology), and with more resources he and others can run with it.

Seeing Hartley as an administrator pitching growth for his academic unit, the enthusiasm is understandable. But the let’s-build-something-new impulse quickly diverges from the foundational intellectual task of looking at something thoroughly and critically. Is it more complicated? Is there a downside? How does the promise hold up against the test of time? In that frame, intellectual inquiry begins with skepticism. And the point I’ve been trying to raise here is that the Recession of 2007 provides one stress test for the Creative Industries argument. And it seems to show us that the larger forces of neoliberalism, such as speedup and outsourcing even “creative” work overseas, are more decisive in shaping the actual creative work climate and the possibilities that individual face as employees than the wispy utopianism of turning on the creative faucet to get a stream of new jobs, opportunities, and adventures.

For the individual, swimming in or possibly drowning in the sea of change, it’s hard to see the big picture. You need a job, you want a career. You’d like to fulfill the promise of training in art, culture, and imaginative thinking. That’s the promise of freedom, determining your own work patterns, and so forth. As Abbing points out, lots of people are willing to give up security, or prestige, or high pay to get the flexibility. Some of this same logic famously infused the Silicon Valley and dot-com businesses that grew rapidly in the 1990s. In a series of articles and books cultural analyst Andrew Ross studied this phenomenon and pointed out the trade-off of “freedom” in the digital workplace for labor exploitation. Ross has continued investigating labor conditions and in his most recent book, Nice Work If You Can Get It, examines precarious work as endemic to the present moment. While Creative Industries boosters such as John Hartley spin precarity as needing to prepare students for a career in which they will be changing jobs frequently, adapting to different projects and technologies, skeptics like Ross look at the actual U.S. official unemployment rate (9.2% at this writing) and the actual unemployment rate (more like 16% if you include the drastically underemployed, the erratically employed and long term unemployed — that is one-sixth of the work force).

To turn this back to the start: some of these Creative jobs were in fact outsourced and off-shored (the animation factory in Banksy’s The Simpsons intro). And the scrambling response of the “creative” workforce has been to try to do something within the new breakout. Thus individuals are living on unemployment (if lucky) while trying to catch the golden ring by creating another iPhone app that will instantly catch on, or trying to find ways to make social media profitable, such as hyper-local newsblogs (with a little army of “volunteer” writers—read unpaid journalists).

We have our own ideological fantasies about this new world of work. A good indicator can be found in the blockbuster success of The Social Network: from creative individual (however obnoxious) to multi-billionaire in a few steps and a few years. Or the Ironman franchise: the genius entrepreneur/inventor as wiser and more benevolent than any government: actually like Faust (that is in Goethe’s Faust part 2) on superhero steroids.

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