Privatizing creativity: the ruse of creative capitalism

4 Posted by - October 10, 2012 - Features, Policy

1. The new hype about creativity

Who can hate creativity? Who would want less of it? No one, obviously.

But something profound has happened to the idea of creative expression in the past 20-30 years that should give us pause. For one, it’s become big business: as the globalized economy becomes more and more competitive, corporations are increasingly desperate to have their workers “create” new and different things to sell. As advertising media accelerate and slowly fill up public space, marketers are frantic to “creatively” (the people who come up with advertising ideas are actually called “creatives”) develop new ways of pitching products. And workplaces—from factories to hospitals to high tech firms to fast-food joints to schools—are all eager to “create” new products and forms of efficiency to keep the wolf at bay (usually at the expense of workers who must work longer, faster and leaner).

But it’s not just business that has embraced creativity as key to survival in the brave new world. These days whole governments have fallen in love with creativity as a means towards economic growth and social prosperity. Despite cuts to arts and culture budgets in this “age of austerity,” national, regional and local politicians pay lip service to the power of creativity not only to express people’s individuality, but to create jobs and heal communities. University of Toronto urban development guru Richard Florida has been staggeringly successful in promoting his idea of the “creative class.” He argues that the “new” post-industrial economy will reward those cities, nations and regions that foster and attract creative people, who bring with them good jobs and a better standard of living for everyone.

The call to embrace creativity does not typically include a call for equality, decent and meaningful work, social care and compassion, and social justice.

In a certain very limited extent this is partly true. A place that thrives with creativity is obviously more livable than one that doesn’t. But there’s a bigger problem at work. Not all places can be “creative capitals” and not everyone can be an artist in this economy — some places still need to make boring stuff, and so do most workers. More importantly, the call to embrace creativity does not typically include a call for equality, decent and meaningful work, social care and compassion, and social justice. Without also calling for these things, calls for creativity ring hollow: it is creativity for the few, not for the many.

The problem with the new hype around creativity is that it presumes that the economic system we have, with all its gross injustices and horrifying effects (global warming, child poverty, unrewarding jobs, imperial warfare, the exploitation of the third world), is inevitable. It doesn’t really imagine that everyone will get to express their creativity and enjoy the life of the artist. In fact, the new hype over creativity actually (ironically) makes us less creative in how we think about social problems and solutions. It makes creativity an individualized thing, the “private property” of each isolated person.

But in reality, creativity is a social, socialized and socializing phenomenon: it’s something we do together as social animals. Every great creative genius was part of a community of peers and a society that supported her or him. Only when we recognize that creativity is a collaborative process (not an individual possession) can creativity help us transform our lives and our world creatively, and employ creativity for the good of everyone.

2. The creation of creativity

To understand how we ended up with the limited, individualistic idea of creativity we have today, we need to go back in history. All sorts of cultures have different ways of recognizing and valuing creative people and their accomplishments. We need to focus on the Western European worldview and its idea of creativity because it is this worldview that has shaped the world over the past 400 years, thanks to European imperialism and the spread of capitalism.

Part of the imperialist project was insisting all other cultures acknowledge Europeans as the most creative “race” and see their own creative accomplishments (in the arts, sciences, theology, ecology and other fields) as childish imitations. Europeans, for instance, established schools that taught the “canon” of Great White thinkers and artists as the pinnacles of human creative achievement, reaffirming a sense of superiority that justified their “enlightened” domination of other peoples. We still study this canon, to the exclusion of many of the great works of world literature, art and science (from Arabia, Persia, China, the indigenous Americas, etc.).

So it might surprise you to learn that the European idea of creativity was, itself, created. In Shakespeare’s day, for instance, no one would have called The Bard “creative” — the word itself hardly existed in the English lexicon except to describe God’s generative powers (His creatures, His creation). Those whom we today consider “artists” were then considered more like skilled craftspeople. The originality of a play or a painting was valued far, far less than the craftsperson’s conformity to established forms and patterns. Shakespeare, like most of his contemporaries, was a plagiarist and a hack by today’s standards — he stole and sampled, he wrote for money and he earned it. Indeed, if today’s standards of “intellectual property” and copyright existed in Shakespeare’s day, he’d have been writing sonnets from the Tower of London.

It was only with the rise of global, European capitalism, that the idea of the “creative genius” emerged in Europe, largely in the 1700s. As the feudal system fell apart a new class of merchants, financiers, factory owners and middlemen started to demand “culture.” This was not “culture” as an inclusive part of community and everyday life (the ways songs, dances, and even plays used to be, for rich and poor alike) but as distinct objects or experiences that could be purchased for exclusive, private use by individuals — commodities to be consumed. This new class demanded novels, paintings, objects d’art, opera tickets and other articles of “refinement” to prove to themselves (and everyone else) that they were distinct from (and better than) the working classes, despite having no noble blood.

By the 1800s, creativity was generally understood to be the private property of eccentric men who tended to drink themselves to death in Paris.

What made these cultural commodities (a painting, say) distinct was not so much their particular beauty or quality but the signature of an artiste, a special, unique and gifted “genius.” For a “creative” object to be valuable it needed to be singular and appear to be the true expression of the tortured soul. This is the origin of our modern idea of creativity: it was always a scam. Specialized workers called themselves artists to rip off haughty rich people.

But in doing so there was an unintended consequence. Once upon a time, art and culture was part of everyday life, everyone both created and consumed culture everyday. Creativity was part of the “social process,” the way people lived and worked together. But by the 1800s, culture was something you bought, rented or paid for, and “creativity” was generally understood to be the private property of eccentric men who tended to drink themselves to death in Paris.

3. The creativity commodity

The whole situation intensified again near the turn of the 20th century and the birth of what cultural critic and historian Walter Benjamin called “The Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” With film, photography, cheaper inks and printing presses, industrial manufacturing and the phonograph, culture-as-commodity became not only the property of the rich, but of everyone. By the advent of radio and television, the idea of creativity as the special property of gifted individuals (rather than social groups) was being broadcast into every home. The idea of the genius was lionized in the figures of stars and celebrities whose glamorous, aristocratic lifestyles illustrated their semi-divine status. Public schooling valourized a list of upper-class creative geniuses all students were to look up to at the same time as they denigrated everyday and working class culture as crude, simplistic and “derivative” (i.e. not creative).

Meanwhile, the opportunities for creativity in most people’s lives became increasingly scarce, even in Europe and North America. Through the 1800s independent crafts-people, peasants and working people had been swept into cities and factories where they toiled for much of their lives for a meager salary. Exhausted after a day of work, many turned to commodified culture for solace: cheap “sensation” novels, music-hall performances, and later, moving pictures. Opportunities to express oneself creatively were scanter than ever. Not only was there less time (and less money) to pursue creative expression, by this time creativity had become largely severed from community and daily life. Raising a barn, dying wool, or preparing a feast all became individualized affairs or industrialized processes. The idea of making and doing together, as a community, was suffocating.

So too was the creativity of daily life. As more and more jobs and processes became systematized, concentrated and commodified, the everyday “micro” acts of creativity (the unique way a woodworker turns a piece of wood; the idiosyncratic chemistry of fibres, dyes, mordants and patterns a weaver might use; the innovative twists on and recombination of narrative a storyteller might employ) began to disappear. Meanwhile, in the colonized world, economies managed from afar left little space or room for native culture and creative workers, unless they agreed to emulate European forms.

By the mid-20th century, the strict social division of labour, where only a handful of gifted geniuses got to be “creative,” was held to be best for everyone.

By the mid-20th century the notion of creativity as an ivory tower on a hill was nearly complete. The industrial age had seen communities fundamentally redrawn around private homes and private lives. Women (of a certain class) were increasingly expected to stay in the home and were thought to be incapable of real creativity. Education was geared towards drilling facts into kids’ heads – creativity was seen as a dangerous threat to the social order. The strict social division of labour, where only a handful of gifted geniuses got to be “creative,” was held to be best for everyone. When the manual worker focused on doing his job and the artist doing his, all was for the best.

In addition, creativity had by this time become an almost industrial product with a handful of major corporations controlling the production and consumption of music, books and film. Outside of arts and academic institutions, galleries and museums, conservatories and granting agencies effectively gate-kept the realms of “high art” from “uncivilized” intruders. The cultural markets of colonized and post-colonial countries were (and are) flooded by cheaper films, plays, books and art from the globe’s metropoles.

Meanwhile, the situation of those perceived to be “minorities” in Europe and especially North America was worse. As noted above, Euro-American ideology insisted that only white men could be real creative geniuses. Yet denied any other means of expression (or often the means to earn a living) many racialized people took up the fields of arts and culture. For instance, as cultural historian Robin D. G. Kelly argues, Blacks in the US were able to carve out a space of creativity and freedom within and sometimes against the “culture industries.” Largely this was because their creative products fed a deep and unquenchable hunger for integrity and authenticity among cultural consumers fed a steady diet of formulaic cultural mush. Unfortunately, from blues to jazz to soul to disco to hip-hop, these groups often witnessed their cultures of creative resistance commodified, mass produced and stolen by (largely white, male) corporate profiteers.

4. The rise of “creative capitalism”

Is it any wonder, then, that after the Second World War youth rebelled against that cultural system, demanding that they be allowed to express themselves creatively? The counterculture and protest movements of the 50s, 60s and 70s were, in part, based in a furious demand for a life that actually valued creativity. The best parts of these movements understood that capitalism systematically denied people’s creativity and abilities through an unjust and exploitative division of labour: most people got to do what the boss told them to do while only a few got to “be creative” (usually they were related to the boss in some way).

The worst parts of these movements satisfied themselves with creating little spaces for creativity in their own personal lives through things like music, drugs and alternative living. The revolutionary feminist movement began to create spaces and processes to value women’s creative potentials and challenge the very idea of creativity as a white, male European project. In anti-colonial struggles, creativity became a key part of struggles for national liberation with artists, musicians and writers rekindling repressed creative and cultural traditions, stealing and subverting the traditions of the colonizer, or mixing and remixing the two, with revolutionary brilliance and fervour.

This era left its mark. After the 60s creativity ceased to be seen as a threat to social order and the idea that “everyone is creative” became widely accepted, especially in schools. While not in itself a bad thing, this new found acceptance of a very individualized idea of creativity had some troubling consequences. For one, it prompted what some say is a total redesign of capitalism. In order to answer and co-opt people’s demands for greater creativity freedom in their lives, capitalism (as a whole system) began to offer more and more cheap commodities by which people could define themselves: more alternative fashions, more lifestyle products, more ways of expressing “individuality.” It even began to offer commodified opportunities for creativity, from art classes to tape recorders (a big deal in their day!).

That Subway insists on calling their underpaid workers “Sandwich Artists” tells you a lot about just what sort of “creativity” is in store for most of us.

It also broke a homogeneous “mass” popular culture into commodified subcultures, which encouraged people to adopt diverse lifestyles and modes of creativity and community, but always under the broader, unquestionable domination of the “free market.” For instance, Jazz, which was once considered a radical and dangerous form of music and cultural expression very quickly became commodified as a set of consuming practices – both in terms of music and in terms of style, dress and design. Skateboard culture is a more recent example of a grassroots from of creative expression being coopted and colonized by a more diversified and clever capitalist culture. Indeed, French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have called this commodified freedom and individuality “the new spirit of capitalism,” noting that the system gains consent and legitimacy by encouraging all of us to believe we are unique, self-possessed rebels. This individualism, in turn, assists in the decay of collective institutions, from communities to the welfare state.

In the world of work, creativity became a key theme in restructuring economic life towards corporate-led “globalization.” As increasingly powerful corporate empires shifted industrial production overseas, a greater and greater share of work took place in the “flexiblized” information and service sectors. While the vast majority of this work is banal, routine and unimaginative, creativity is held up as a corporate ideal. Information technology workers are encouraged to see themselves less as digital drones and more as “creative collaborators” on shared projects. Service workers are told they are “creating positive environments” for their “clients,” rather than that they are being exploited not only for the time and labour but also for their brains and their social and emotional skills.

That Subway (one of America’s largest fast-food joints) insists on calling their underpaid workers “Sandwich Artists” tells you a lot about just what sort of “creativity” is in store for most of us. Even if most workers don’t believe this creative bullshit there’s no denying that, in our current “Age of Austerity,” where social programs and the welfare state (health-care, pensions, employment insurance, schools, etc.) are being cut to the bone, we have all had to get a lot more “creative” just to survive the new “creative” economy!

5. The passion of the creative class

Ever those who are working in the actual “creative” sector these days aren’t doing so well. For one, jobs for designers, musicians and authors are extremely hard to come by — permanent, full time ones with benefits and pensions even more so. Most people who want to work in or for arts organizations need to be independently wealthy enough to spend months or years as unpaid “interns” to gain enough experience or connections to land even a small paying gig. Artists and other “creative” types almost always have to supplement their income with other, “un-creative” jobs, often in the service sector (waiting tables, etc.).

Without a formal workplace and without a clear institutional hierarchy, artists, actors, web-designers, poets and others often lack the sorts of protections other workers (used to) enjoy. For instance, in an economy where you are constantly seeking to secure short-term contracts through personal and professional connections, issues like discrimination in the workplace (based on race or gender) or failure of employers to pay are often never pursued (who has money or time for a lawsuit?).

Today, artists and creative types are also made to serve other economic purposes as well. For instance, community activists across North America and Europe have consistently observed that when low-paid, free-thinking artists move into “quirky” poor neighbourhoods, looking for cheap rent and studio space, they are often followed by more affluent citizens seeking to “gentrify” the area, and speculate on up-and-coming properties, driving up property prices and rents and driving out the original inhabitants. Worse, in an age of cuts to municipal and government services (from community development to public infrastructure to school budgets to anti-poverty initiatives), government officials can often be enticed to fund “creative zones” or projects because they appear to offer public benefits (“social cohesion,” “entrepreneurship,” “vibrancy”) that make up for or cover over government neglect.

As British cultural critic Angela McRobbie has pointed out, the slogan that “everyone is creative” is the slogan of a broad cultural shift in our society: “artists,” she suggests, are being held up not as poverty-stricken social malcontents, but as triumphant “pioneers of the new economy.” Today, when the idea of a good, steady, life-long job seems impossible, corporate propaganda encourages us all to see ourselves as artistic souls. Instead of relying on big bureaucratic organizations like paternalistic corporations or the meddlesome “nanny-state,” we should all, like artists, rely on our personal “portfolio” of skills, passions and past accomplishments to secure short-term, no-strings-attached “gigs.”

The reality of course is that no-one feels any special passion for working three part-time jobs, and few achieve aesthetic (or any other sort of) satisfaction from working in a call centre. But the idea of the artist and the promise of creativity are today being held up as “carrots” for workers in the age of “creative capitalism.” The “stick” is the brutal discipline of the dog-eat-dog global economy.

It’s even more insidious. In our new economic situation, as digital-economy scholar Tiziana Terranova explains, many of us do “free” creative work all the time. We record music on our computers. We Photoshop images. We make video mashups. We write blogs or fan fiction. We teach ourselves digital photography. And we create what internet people call “content” and we do so because we enjoy it, and usually we share it for free.

But how free is it? The internet-service providers, who are almost all big corporations, make money from our subscriptions. Google (Blogger, YouTube), FunnyOrDie and Facebook are all making money hand over fist thanks to all that “free labour.” In a funny way, our hobbies now act as free training for many jobs — free for our corporate masters that is: our ability to take and manipulate digital photographs, our competencies at social networking, our ability to type quickly, our capacity for online banking: all of these prepare us for the brave new world of work where we are competing against thousands of other people for the same few (typically bad) jobs. The Pentagon actively benefits from new recruits weaned on years of violent videogames.

Meanwhile, as we try and survive in this digital world, amidst increasingly casual and unsecure (“precarious”) employment with few guarantees about our futures, creativity becomes a highly individualized means of solace. Sure today’s economy has brought us unprecedented ways of becoming an amateur filmmaker, animator, fiction writer or crafter. But was it brought us real creativity? As art critic Gregory Scholette points out, the number of people we consider artists and the range of things we consider creative practice are expanding everyday and in ways we can’t yet fully understand. And while there is a lot of potential for people to create new forms of community and empowerment, it all takes place within and as part of the expansion of global and local poverty, exploitation, and social dislocation.

Despite all this, establishment pundits and professors have declared ours an age of “creative capitalism.” Capitalism, they argue, is the best system for providing creative opportunities for everyone. Indeed, many argue that capitalism thrives on what is called “creative destruction” – the way competition forces companies to constantly reinvent themselves or go under, the way the incessant drive towards profit forces innovation and dynamism.

Capitalism drastically alters what sorts of creativity we think are valuable and it focuses humanity’s creative energies towards earning ever greater profit for a few.

The unseen cost of all this “creativity” is the tremendous effects on the human and natural environment as corporations compete to find new ways to cut costs (eliminating/downgrading jobs) or “externalize” their expenses by sub-contracting, globalizing or forcing governments to pay for their wrongdoing. This isn’t to mention the massive social upheaval when a firm shuts its doors or moves elsewhere because it failed to be “creative” enough, or the ecological costs of multiple corporations competing to “create” thousands of brands of almost identical products (a trip down the shampoo isle of a local drugstore is quite illuminating).

What capitalism does, in effect, is fundamentally shift what we could call the “economy of creativity”: it drastically alters what sorts of creativity we think are valuable and it focuses humanity’s creative energies towards earning ever greater profit for a few. While this system has produced many fine things, it is destroying the planet and most people’s lives because it has no broad vision of a decent future. It is driven only by irrational and pathological competition for profit, not by any compassionate and collective social vision. Imagine what the world would be like if we focused our creativity and energy towards other ends?

6. Creating a different world

Real creativity is the ability to change the world together. Or, more accurately, the ability to see our collective creative efforts realized in reality. So while today we have more opportunities than ever to “be creative,” we have less and less of an ability to actually control our fates. “Be as creative as you like,” the system tells us, “just colour inside the lines of the individualist, consumerist, capitalist system.” “You can even criticize and rage against the system – do that all you like (in fact, here’s an album you can buy whose lyrics reflect your anger and alienation),” it tells us “but nothing will ever change, and you know it.”

I’m not saying that all individual creative pursuits are dishonest or useless and worthless. Nor am I saying that the system is invincible (it isn’t), nor that we should reject the few moments of borrowed creative freedom that we do enjoy (we should). I am saying that if we really care about creativity, we need to ask ourselves what creativity really could mean.

Lets return to the abstract idea of creativity itself. While the idea of the “creative genius” might be the product of European history, it is, of course, not totally false. There have been and are creative geniuses whose work we love and cherish. But the thing we need to remember about Jane Austen, Mozart, Frida Kahlo or Miles Davis is that none of them ever existed in a vacuum. They were all part of creative communities that supported their work, or spurred their work on through competition, collaboration and criticism. Creative genius never occurs in isolation. Geniuses are manifestations of their time and place, and so is creativity.

We also need to remember that what we consider “creative” is a social phenomenon. In 1917 Marcel Duchamp took a mass-produced ceramic urinal, singed it “R. Mutt” and put it on a pedestal in a gallery and called it Fountain. This was one of the most significant moments in modern art history not because of Duchamp’s inherent creative power, but because the “work” existed in a time and a space where it could be recognized—by the public and by the artist’s peers—as creative.

Beethoven could write hundreds of pieces of music because he didn’t have to do his own farming, or laundry, or manufacture his own clothing.

Twenty-five years earlier Fountain would have been unintelligible; twenty-five years later it would have been redundant. After all, creating a perspectival drawing (eg. one with the illusion of “depth”) is something most art students learn quite early today and is not considered especially creative, but it would be considered highly creative (indeed, heretical) 500 years ago. And today’s experimental jazz would likely sound like meaningless noise (rather than creative boundary-pushing) to listeners even 50 years ago. Creativity is always a social phenomenon because creative people don’t survive except within a social environment. Beethoven could write hundreds of pieces of music because he didn’t have to do his own farming, or laundry, or manufacture his own clothing.

But on the other hand, creativity is not merely some sort of parasite, feeding on other people’s hard, boring “real” work. Creativity is work, it’s just not usually recognized as such. Work is the process by which we “reproduce” our selves and our community: it is concerted, collaborative effort to make the world go ‘round. Creativity is a fundamental part of how we work to “reproduce” our societies. Creativity lets us think about ourselves as people and as communities in new ways and provides us with a mirror for considering how things could be different. In a way, we are all being creative, all the time, just living our lives, making our way in the world. Under capitalism, all this work of reproduction, creative and not creative, is organized towards earning some people a lot of profit and keeping the rest of us in our place. And creativity is also made to serve this end.

So there is some truth to the slogan “everyone is creative.” But the real question is how we might have a society that actually values everyone’s creativity, not just the creativity of a few celebrities, or the creativity that makes money, or creativity that affords solace in an uncreative world.

Which brings us to the final point: you can be very creative under capitalism, and many people are. But real creativity, the sort of creativity that isn’t just about individual fulfillment but is about changing the world and being part of a changing world, is almost impossible under capitalism. It is a privilege reserved for a very select few, usually based on their ability to make someone else money (art dealers, the record industry, film studios, art supply stores, internet service providers, video game companies, etc.).

The fact is that capitalism doesn’t make good use of human talents, and it relies on exploitation and a fundamentally unjust division of labour, both within countries and around the world. We get to be creative on our MacBooks because children dig coltan for computer components in the Congo, because teenagers assemble touch-pads in Chinese sweatshops, because the global economy forces fthe toxic waste of computer manufacturing onto developing nations, and because we never have to deal with the consequences of mining, manufacturing, transportation and waste disposal (except in the broadest sense that digital waste is helping create a toxic planet for everyone).

We will see the best minds of our generation destroyed by debt, starved for time, and naked in a wearied, over-stimulated commodified cultural landscape.

Meanwhile, the same system imprisons everyone’s creativity in the prism of brutal economic “necessity.” Today’s Van Goghs are working at McDonalds. Tomorrow’s Mary Shelleys are graduating owing a fortune in student loans. Millions of creative people are in a day-to-day struggle for survival while some of the sharpest and most creative minds of our time are finding themselves dreaming up new ways of playing with money on Wall Street (a “credit default swap” is, after all, a remarkably creative product). We will see the best minds of our generation destroyed by debt, starved for time, and naked in a wearied, over-stimulated commodified cultural landscape.

Equality and autonomy are the real conditions of creativity. And equality and autonomy rely on and are grounded in creativity. Ideas of the “creative class” and the “new creative economy” celebrate creativity as an individualistic, capitalistic value. In doing so they are terribly uncreative when it comes to imagining what creativity is and what it might really be capable of.

7. Struggles for and against creativity

The struggle against the new “creative capitalism” is not very different than struggles against capitalism in other eras and in other places: people work together to win greater control over their working conditions; people create new ways of living and new communities that operate (to the best of their ability) outside the structure of capitalism; people reject the way capitalism divides people and puts them into hierarchies of race, class, gender, ability and identity; people try and take control of their governments to protect them from capitalist greed and sometimes succeed in transforming their economy and society completely. Little has changed in terms of the big scheme of struggle. But there are a few new facets to think about in this brave new world of creativity.

For one, the ruse of creativity and creative capitalism has seen capital outmaneuver many traditional institutions of workers’ power. Today, when workers are encouraged to see themselves as creative free agents and empowered economic individuals—rather than an exploited collective or community—union organizing has become very difficult. As workers increasingly flit from employer to employer and survive contract to contract, not only are they harder to organize into permanent collectivities, they often lack a shared culture and community that would foster solidarity.

Creative capitalism encourages workers, both those employed in (ostensibly) creative industries (eg. film and television, web design, fashion) and in mundane jobs (services, petty management) to consider themselves as competitive individuals and to see their bosses as merely more successful or talented versions of themselves. This makes organizing around class antagonisms difficult. The failure of traditional unions to meet this challenge head-on has led to the pervasive sense that unions are relics of a different age, no longer able to defend workers’ interests in a “new” economy. But this is also due to the fact that unions have long since ceased to offer a substantive vision of a different world or economy.

Meanwhile, many creative workers like scriptwriters or performing musicians or professors, have had guild-like associations for decades, and sometimes centuries. But new media has led to grave challenges for the monopolies these groups won in years past. For instance, musicians’ and authors’ unions have had their solidarity undermined by the flood of competition unleashed by the internet, where today anyone can call themselves a songwriter or a journalist. Meanwhile, globalization has also seen challenges to the strength of professional associations, with new forms of competition in realms like editing and proofreading, graphics animation and architecture. Unfortunately, many artists’ associations have thrown in their lot with the employers in attempts to solidify international copyright and “intellectual property” laws, despite the fact these laws have never served artists as well as they have served major corporations.

One of the key struggles today within and against “creative capitalism” is occurring over the place of the arts and culture in today’s society. In an age of austerity, where governments are making dramatic cuts, many programs that supported creativity are being slashed. As the economic crisis deepens, people have less money to consume creative commodities. Unrestrained, the capitalist economy has little use for any artistic or cultural expression that doesn’t make someone a profit.

The capitalist economy has little use for any artistic or cultural expression that doesn’t make someone a profit.

As the government exits the picture and money dries up, the cultural “market” becomes less and less creative: creators and their sponsors gravitate towards more and more conventional, tried and true material hoping for a secure market. Fewer experimental or challenging books are published. Fewer opportunities exist for composers to try new things. Another way of thinking about it is this: all art is risk — a roll of the dice that an stylistic innovation or individual idiosyncrasy will be seen as genius and not merely insignificant or unimportant. Formerly, there used to be more help for artists and creative types from governments and even from the private sector in helping artists and creative people swallow this risk, supporting them while they took chances. Today, that margin of risk has dramatically shrunk. Only the independently wealthy or the foolishly romantic can afford to dwell with failure in the mad hope of success, as their forbearers have done for centuries.

Ironically, the fact that “creative capitalism” both depends on and encourages extreme individualism also undermines creative opportunities. To the extent people see themselves as competitive individuals they cannot see the bigger sociological picture. They are unwilling to consider the benefit of art or culture they don’t personally enjoy. As we all work more and leaner, we have less time to experiment with our preconceived ideas and tastes and we resent the imposition of other people’s creative experimentation on our lives. The cultural media and market have slowly been consolidated in the hands of five or six major multinational corporations like Disney, Time-Warner, Fox and Vivendi. Local arts, film and literature festivals starve for lack of interest from a public addicted to the cultural equivalent of fast-food.

Where people do embrace creative difference, they often do so as part of a commodified subculture where enjoying “unlistenable” music or watching art-house films gives us a sense of uniqueness and possibly community in a world of sameness and disconnection. From punk to funk, from hip-hop to skateboarding, cultures of once-authentic resistance and exprimentation have been folded into a mainstream commodified landscape that offers a valve for personal and social anxieties that is only very rarely transformative.

Unfortunately, all too often social movements participate in this game, acting more as subcultures of solace (with uniforms of dress or musical taste) than as broad-based engines of social change. Many forms of experimental culture or music also satisfy themselves with eking out a small space for limited creativity within a broader society, rather than demanding a different world — or they demand a different world only to the extent the act of demanding creates the illusion of rebellion.

More recently, the success of ideas about “creative cities” and the “creative class” has opened a new terrain of struggle. For many working in what are now considered the “creative industries” the idea that the arts could be an economic boon for cities and regions was welcome ammunition in a fight to maintain or improve meager government funding. For beleaguered cities and regions, concerned about the disappearance of factories and jobs in a “post-industrial” economy, the idea of creativity as the economic engine of the “information economy” seemed like a great fix, or at least like a cheap way to appear to be doing something. Many cities and regions invested millions of dollars in new arts facilities (often sponsored by major corporations which, for a relatively minor contribution to constructions costs, got to plaster their names all over a new opera house or art gallery).

Meanwhile, in an effort to improve the “livability” and attractiveness of supposedly “creative” urban hubs, many cities accelerated plans to “clean up the streets,” ironically driving out the local character of many areas and increasing property values, both of which had attracted or fostered creativity and creative people in the first place. This “creative gentrification” has been based on a typically narrow vision of what creativity means and what sorts of people and jobs are considered creative, and often had the stated intention of using creativity as a means to raise property prices and “tidy up” neighbourhoods, thus both increasing tax revenue and decreasing the number of people in an area depending on social assistance.

Unfortunately, this approach has warmly embraced not only by local governments but also many upwardly-mobile residents who preferred to see romantically starving artists than less-than-romantically starving panhandlers. Of course, we all want to live in a neighbourhood flourishing the creativity and vibrant energy. But the rhetoric and policy surrounding creative cities fails to make equality and the struggle against systemic injustice central to its vision. In the end, it serves real-estate developers and land-speculators far more than residents, grassroots creative workers, let alone the urban poor.

What will be key for organizers and activists fighting within and against the hype of creative capitalism, whether they are fighting worker exploitation or neighbourhood gentrification, will be acknowledging that the promise of creativity, while hollow, truly does move many people. It is precisely because our world offers so few substantive opportunities for creative expressions and efficacy that the rhetoric of creativity is so appealing. Creativity is valuable. Our task can be limited neither to pointing out that creativity is a carrot, nor showing that along with that carrot is the stick of brutal global economic terror. Nor can it be a flight into the most esoteric and self-reflexive forms of creative expression in a vain hope to avoid commodification.

Real, deep creativity can never be achieved as an individual possession but is always a collective process, bound up with values of equality, social justice and community.

Instead, we need to focus on making it clear that real, deep creativity can never be achieved as an individual possession but is always a collective process, bound up with values of equality, social justice and community. In other words, the promise of creativity can only be fulfilled in a very different society than ours. Creativity must embrace its tradition, potential and promise as a key part of cultivating critical, revolutionary communities that resist capitalism, colonialism, gender oppression and racism and create fierce and sustainable alternatives within and against the status quo. Creativity is, in part, the way we refuse our current “reality” and, in a very small and often abstract way, propose or model something different. When creativity joins, supports and critiques social movements for radical change, or when it helps imagine and build the post-capitalist society of the future in the present, it is at its very best.

Max Haiven is a Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of Art and Public Policy at New York University and Adjunct Professor of Material Cultural Studies at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. He can be reached at: maxhaiven@nyu.edu.

Image: Ties by Henry Gepfer.

This article originally appeared in Dissident Voice.

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