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'Everyone is Creative': artists as new economy pioneers?

About the author
Angela McRobbie is Professor of Communications at Goldsmiths College, London, and the author of Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries (Polity Press 2015).
“What do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Oh really – which restaurant?”

(1980s New York joke)

One of the central features of the modern urban economy is the explosive growth in the numbers of people making a living through culture and the arts. The old supports of employment – manufacturing and public services (teaching, health, civil service) – are in numerical decline or losing their former status, and along with them have disappeared the reality and expectation of lifetime employment with a single organisation. And as these sectors have been hollowed out, new sources and patterns of employment have arisen – whose common point of reference is often the spreading category of “culture”.

Amidst radically redeveloped urban space, on the back of recurrent metropolitan consumer booms, and in the interstices between corporate office blocks and luxury apartments, a generation of young, mobile, and international people are making their living in existentially different ways from their parents. They work (and play) around the clock in a myriad of galleries, fashion outlets, clubs, studios, bookshops, themed restaurants, theatres, media, publishers, internet start-ups and cafes. They are obliged, and aspire, to be multi-skilled. And they resist easy categorisation – while in one dimension they may be described as artists, designers, musicians, actors, writers or photographers, in another they are gallery or shop assistants, temps, proofreaders, and – yes – waiters. By circumstance, they are simultaneously operating in “creative” and “business” modes – both motivated by the desire to make a mark creatively, yet ever alert to the career possibilities of network, publicity and sponsorship.

The “post-industrial” economy is increasingly a “cultural” economy – with the very understanding of culture itself being appropriated by the enlarged provision of (and longing for) meaningful “experience”. In his major contribution to the City & Country debate on planning, Charles Landry approaches this epochal shift from the perspective of urban development and the “creative city”; here, I am concerned to register its impact on the lives and working conditions of young metropolitan men and women.

How is this transformation to be understood? Is it an enlargement or diminishment of freedom, both for society as a whole and for individuals? Are these individuals best seen as the free-floating, shiny urban sophisticates depicted in TV adverts (and, increasingly, dramas) and in lifestyle magazines? Or are they being ricocheted between placement and short-term contract, forced to become multi-taskers, with no time that they are not working?

A new model of culture

In the UK, New Labour thinks it has the answers. One way to clarify the issue is to examine the arguments presented by this self-consciously “modern” government, which since 1997 has attempted to champion the new ways of working as embodying the rise of a progressive and even liberating cultural economy of autonomous individuals – the perfect social correlative of post-socialist “third way” politics.

The government’s green paper of April 2001 (entitled Culture and Creativity: The Next Ten Years) is a concise outline of its approach to the cultural economy. It sees the arts and culture, and the new patterns of freelance work and self-employment associated with being an artist, becoming a model for how economic growth is to be pursued. Deeply influenced by the writer Charles Leadbeater – a quintessential New Labour intellectual who moved from the Financial Times to Demos and authorship of a book with the title Living on Thin Air – the paper opens with his stirring words, “Everyone is creative”: It goes on to argue for the further expansion of education and training in the arts and cultural fields, for children and young people from all social backgrounds. There is special emphasis on the poor and socially excluded, those who in the past felt that the arts were “not for them”.

What is distinctively new in this ostensibly democratic opening up of relationships between the worlds of art, culture, and work? In the past, the arts and culture were in a sense overlooked by government and of relatively little interest to big business. They were consequently under-funded but still possessed degrees of autonomy. In the post-war years these realms came to be increasingly associated with social and political critique. But nowadays culture is of the utmost concern to commercial organisations, and art seemingly no longer “questions the social”.

Meanwhile, in the universities, the study of arts, culture and humanities flourishes, but the findings of research are of little interest to government. It is as though the two sides are speaking a different language. Few academics will bite the bullet and comfortably inhabit the unambivalent commercialisation of culture as government practice. This leaves policy debate to be monopolised by “young gun” arts administrators desperate for funding from any source, and by “gurus” like Leadbeater.

While there might well be a good deal of energy and enthusiasm from the new entrepreneurial cultural managers, the social effects of these changes and the emerging inequities are swept aside. Instead the creative sector is seen as vibrant and exciting. From Shoreditch and Hoxton to Notting Hill, artists are now, it seems, able to reinvent themselves for the increasingly global market. They can be successful, sell their work; they no longer have any reason to be angry social critics. This is the New Labour classless dream, a high-energy band of young people driving the cultural economy ahead, but in a totally privatised and non-subsidy-oriented direction. The dream merges with the new meritocracy of the Blair government, which with the power of the visual media is further burying the social democratic vocabularies of workplace protection, job security, and sickness pay.

About those outside the loop, and far away from London and the other metropolitan centres, no questions are asked. Over the hill in age terms? Too unconfident to manage the presentation of self? Then, as Anthony Giddens argues, there are only privatised and therapeutic solutions.

Tensions within “individualisation”

One way to understand the government’s strategy for education and promotion of arts and culture – evident in several other recent documents of the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport – is as a process of “cultural individualisation” which brings together three elements: the individual, creativity (now extended to mean “having ideas”) and freedom. The aim is to cultivate self-sufficient individuals whose efforts will not be hindered by the administrations of the state.

The government sees the cultural industries themselves, from film and TV to design and publishing, as thoroughly part of the global economy. And its “ideal local labour market” is one that frees individuals from dependency on state subsidies, creates a thriving entrepreneurial culture and a new work ethic of self-responsibility.

“Self-employment” is the mantra. Set up your own business, be free to do your own thing! Live and work like an artist! You can make it if you really want! And this “selling” of creative work (or a creative attitude to work) is particularly appealing to youth because the implied emphasis on uncovering talent feeds off young people’s proximity to the fields where the space for creativity seems greatest: popular music, film, art, writing, acting, fashion, graphic design.

This sector, the argument runs, provides Britain with the possibility of re-invigorating a distinctive national economy of pop music, fashion and the arts by drawing on both indigenous and migrant traditions of popular culture which have gained currency since the early 1960s. In a talent-led economy, the individual alone is to blame if the next script, film, book or show is not up to scratch. Or as Anthony Giddens puts it (Modernity and Self Identity, 1991), individuals must now “be” their own structures.

There are three obvious tensions in the way that this conception of cultural individualisation impacts at the level of individual life-experience. First, it relies on impossible degrees of enthusiasm and willingness to self-exploit, and requires an unhealthy degree of belief in the self. What Bauman calls the “must try harder and harder” ethos results in a punitive regime.

Second, the logic of a Treasury-driven government policy is to withdraw the social supports of creative life in a way that reinforces its intrinsic insecurity. There is a new template of a “normal” urban existence: one where architects double up as online editors, novelists work as proofreaders, arts administrators are employed as freelancers on short-term government projects. By this means, new patterns of creative work are established. Far from being “independent” they are frequently sub-contracted, almost wholly dependent on the bigger companies for whom they provide creative services. By encouraging this kind of regime, government establishes ideal conditions for companies requiring a cultural workforce without having to actually employ them.

Third, cultural individualisation is inseparable from a business ethos which, as it pervades the cultural world, imposes its own brand of “fast capitalism”. While creativity has traditionally been nurtured in interiorised, slow and quiet mental and physical spaces, in the new cultural economy it is encouraged to be increasingly populist, noisy, easy, thin: in the words of Scott Lash, “flattened out”. Where there is little or no time for thinking, the art-work itself can hardly be thoughtful.

All this has profound implications not just for the quality of artistic work, but for the career possibilities of a generation of young people, and ultimately for the economic viability of the government’s model even in its own terms. If, as Zygmunt Bauman suggests, capitalism now “travels light”, then much of what is produced will be “art lite”(see In the Culture Society, 1999).

Artists increasingly create works that are merely extensions of what is all around them in popular culture, in the tabloids and talk shows. In cultural worlds, there is an endless flow of what Ulrich Beck describes as “biographical solutions to systemic contradictions” (The Risk Society, 1997). Artists, too, join in the rush to confess. The constant temptation is to drain artistic work of complexity, confining it instead to a cliched and commercially conformist vocabulary of personal experience, pop song lyrics and (often female) pain.

Taking “individualisation” seriously

Cultural individualisation throws up real and pressing problems that require us to “think beyond” the present settlement rather than to take comfort in backward-looking and false solutions. It is too easy (and itself something of a fashion) to disdain the new intimacy between culture and commerce. The tendency is often for (predominantly) old left critics to bemoan a litany of losses and fail to look at what is actually happening. The result is an analytical collapse of two distinct trends – individualisation and neo-liberal values.

The key point here is that changes in the workplace – the end of fixed location, duration of employment and visible hierarchies of power and responsibility – do not necessarily have a unitary political meaning. On the contrary, it can be argued that individualisation, as manifest in the working practices of the cultural sector, must be separated from neo-liberalisation. It is only by investigating individualisation-as-lived that we can recognise the possible spaces it opens up for challenging the government-led neo-liberal model of arts and culture.

The fast-moving and precarious careers in the modern cultural economy exhibit the dynamic transition to what Giddens has called “reflexive modernisation”. There are dimensions of release and empowerment as well as insecurity and pressure. But the contradictions of being expected to self-monitor and self-evaluate as a matter of course, possibly on a daily basis, yet with no immediate access to a social/sociological vocabulary for understanding failures and shortcomings, are palpable. In addition, in a connected and networked global economy, the government’s idea of plugging into individual creativity as though it alone will suffice is short-sighted, if also strategic. What the new creatives need are clubs that provide old-fashioned social services.

The question, then, is not how to reverse cultural individualisation but rather to think both with and beyond it. This will require defusing the timebomb of a fully freelance economy, by broadening the social capital underpinning creative work, and by galvanising the capacities among young people for self-organisation.

A utopian dynamic?

It is not difficult to articulate a “domination model” of this ferociously competitive economy – a society of lonely, mobile, over-worked individuals for whom socialising and leisure are only more opportunities to do a deal. But although the “talent-led” economy has indeed facilitated the emergence of new inequities, there is an alternative imagining.

It works by recognising the utopian dynamic which lies buried within these novel ways of working – that is, the potential for turning the desire to make a living in an enjoyable and rewarding way, into a desire for creating a better society. This cannot be the project of a mass collective, nor of groupings of atomised individuals; but it will depend on the energies of “social individuals” which the inequities and failings of the cultural economy are themselves creating.

Such action is difficult to specify at present. But there are energies from below already visible in the form of “sub politics” (Beck) or “life politics” (Giddens), which may be better designated as a pressure group politics that relies on a sophisticated knowing – reflexive use – of media to push towards greater accountability and equity in working and life conditions.

One challenge for such groups is over language: to invent a new vocabulary for engaging with cultural individualisation that sees possibilities beyond neo-liberalism winning every battle. Another is to nurture alliances of “new labour” (what an irony!) on a fluid, international basis – connecting the fashion designer “self-exploiter” sweating at home over her sewing machine and the Gap seamstress in south-east Asia. A third is to build information and resource networks that are free of political and corporate manipulation.

Ulrich Beck argues that reflexive modernisation gives rise to a critique of both self and society. But the subjects of late modernity (or late capitalism) must have access to information and analysis in order to be reflexive. Here is one area where the accumulated campaigns of the post-1960s generations seriously inform the intellectual landscape. From academia (Richard Sennett) through radical analysis (Naomi Klein, George Monbiot, Michael Massing) and the creative work of subversive counter-currents, access to alternative modes of thinking and feeling is within the capacity of even the most time-poor hyper-individualists. There is no shortage of older social scientists and feminists willing to partake in a dialogue with young people who want to improve the world of new cultural work.

The more or less complete neo-liberalisation of the cultural economy under New Labour, with its power relationships and trends of development, seems likely to sustain the new cultural model for some time to come. And yet the myriad freelancers, part-timers, short-termers, and contract workers who sustain the model – who have nothing to lose but their talents – know that their way of life and work is, over the long term, utterly unsustainable. It is up to them to recombine the individual, creativity, and freedom with a fourth value – equity – in order to recover for the arts and culture the independence which alone can make it a vital, valuable and critical element of a democratic society.


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