The oppressiveness of creativity

Has capitalism co-opted our creative juices? A review of Oli Mould’s new book ‘Against Creativity.’

David Beer
30 October 2018

Credit: Pixabay/Ramdlon. CCO 1.0.

Given that I’m writing about creativity it’s tempting to come up with a dazzling opening line - something unexpected that will sell this article to you. I need not have worried.

Oli Mould’s blistering critique Against Creativity suggests that we are all under constant pressure to be ever more creative and original; such demands are an inescapable part of the capitalist structures we occupy. The result is that creativity has mutated in the pressure cooker of advanced capitalism. Filtering down from the wider political economy, his thesis is that constant calls for us to be more creative are the product of a more general and engrained push toward entrepreneurialism and productivity.

Yet the co-option of creativity into capitalism is nothing new in itself, and we can of course resist this kind of appropriation. So why try to find a problem with something that, in general, we probably all wish we had more of? Mould acknowledges early on in his book that creativity is a ‘slippery’ and ‘nebulous’ concept, and as it turns out, he isn’t actually against creativity as such. Rather he is against certain types of creative processes in which monetization is central. So the book is not so much against creativity but the wrong type of creative impulse and its negative effects. Rather than banishing creativity, Mould wants to reset our approach to how we see and use it.

“Being creative today,’ he writes, “means seeing the world around you as a resource to fuel your inner entrepreneur. Creativity is a distinctly neoliberal trait because it feeds the notion that the world and everything in it can be monetised. The language of creativity has been subsumed by capitalism.”

This seems a fair point. Capitalism and creativity have clearly become entwined in the creative economy and in the wider honing of the entrepreneurial self. The language of creativity readily gets folded into capitalist structures and drives the pressure to demonstrate greater ingenuity in everyday contexts.

Inspired by, amongst others, the critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and their famous arguments in the 1940s concerning the rise of ‘the culture industry’ and the imprinting of the profit motive onto cultural production,  Mould  focuses on the confines or limits in which creativity now works. He finds that the possibilities have come to be highly circumscribed by the aims and visions of neoliberal capitalism: “creativity under capitalism is not creative at all because it only produces more of the same form of society; it merely replicates existing capitalist registers into ever-deeper recesses of socioeconomic life…capitalism co-opts creativity for its own growth.”

It is this process of co-option that his book explores by focusing in turn on work, people, politics, technology and the city. It is hard not to be drawn into agreeing with the picture of the toil of creativity he paints. The chapter on work is particularly powerful and builds an image of the constant drive for creative angles under increasingly precarious conditions.

The uneven distribution of costs and benefits that flow from this reductive vision of creativity forms a strong theme throughout the book. As Mould puts it, “the politics of creativity is crucial,” since creativity in this narrow sense works out well for certain people whilst having a crushing or exclusionary effect on others.

Occasionally, the concept of neoliberalism takes on a little too much of the explanatory burden in trying to get to grip with this politics of creativity. It is used, at times, as an answer rather than being unpacked to explore the real forces at work. Neoliberalism is a haunting spectre in the book, a malevolent presence that exerts a powerful influence without ever quite becoming flesh. Yet Mould has produced a pointed polemic that makes frequent and telling connections between creativity and social inequalities.

The impact of austerity is one way he gets into these connections. The heightened precarity of austerity has brought a new and inescapable demand for creative expression, with increasing uncertainty and anxiety adding to the harm. This is just one way that Mould develops his core argument. Elsewhere his book looks at how norms act as obstacles to creative thought, hemming us in with expectations about how to think and act. He couples this with an exploration of how the ‘horizontalization’ and decentralisation of media structures limits rather than enhances spaces for thinking.

For those who might imagine that artificial intelligence will overcome human shortcomings, Mould provides a discussion of how algorithms and machine learning change the terms of human creative thought rather than improve its prospects. And then we come to the rise of the social media entrepreneur seeking to use their creative nouse simply to get noticed (which he also links to the rise of a win-at-all-costs TV talent-show type culture). Across these themes Mould unsettles our understandings of creativity and questions the part it might play in achieving more progressive outcomes.

From all of this, he concludes that:

“if creativity is about power to create something from nothing, then believing in impossible things is its most critical component. We need to believe that impossible worlds can be reached, if these impossibilities can ever be realized and become lived experiences.”

There is an energising boundlessness to this suggestion about removing limits to what is possible in order for creativity to take on less damaging forms and really thrive. But is this the case? Some time ago, back in the mid 2000s, I was working on a small project exploring the impact of digital technologies on music. As part of that project I was speaking to a recording engineer about their practices.

We reflected on the changing technologies of music production, the impact of the infinite number of tracks in recording studios, and the unlimited possibilities of post-production. We discussed whether creativity might actually be hampered by these endless options, since at least in part it is about overcoming limits, and is not always, as Mould suggests, about creating something from nothing. In a much larger follow up project a few years later, we found that the recording engineer actually sees it as their role to find ways to realise the sonic vision of the recording artist even as it clashes against the material constraints of the studio. Here, the constraints are an active part of the way that such artistic creations are made real.

When we think of the fear that is induced in the writer by the blank page, perhaps it is not so much a completely open space for the imagination that we need but a more energetic engagement with the boundaries that constrain creative thinking, organizing and action. As the recording engineer suggested to me, we might use the boundaries we face to inspire creative action and help us to imagine alternatives. Creativity has a complex set of relations with such boundaries, and despite the careful arguments in Mould’s book these relations are left a little unresolved. Mould seeks to remove the barriers of possibility, but we might wonder whether this will leave us with nothing to bounce off, to solve or circumvent. 

The other key question that Mould’s book leaves unanswered is how to tell pathological forms of creativity from their more progressive or transformational counterparts. The political quagmires of today undoubtedly call for more imaginative thinking in which the politics of creativity are central. Breaking out of the constraints of politics or economics-as-usual calls for genuinely novel ideas and institutions.

Against this pressing need, Mould’s warning - and it is a useful one - is that if we seek change then we need to be careful that we don’t cling to a type of creativity that is anchored in neoliberal economic interests. If we do fall into this trap then we may simply perpetuate the values and limits that established modes of governance and production bring with them.

Creativity itself is not the problem, as Mould’s book makes clear; rather it is the limits that are placed on the future by engrained notions of what is possible and worthwhile.

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