All entries for March 2015
March 20, 2015
Last Monday I attended a sub-meeting of the Global Cultural Economy Network (GCEN) – an informal group of policy experts concerned to help re-frame current debates around culture and economy. The meeting was at the University of Tilburg (Netherlands); it was not a mainstream gathering, which comprises all or most of the Network’s 30 members, but a seminar organised by one of them, Professor Hans Mommaas (one of Europe’s leading scholars on urban culture and politics).
The meeting revolved around a discussion paper by Justin O’Connor, which started with the statement ‘Creative Economy is not Working’. Its animating contention is that cultural policy has become subsumed in the discourses and priorities of ‘creative industries’ and ‘creative economy’, whose strong concept of ‘economy’ has steadily eclipsed many dimensions of culture. Indeed it has disempowered ‘culture’ itself as a form of political agency. This ‘economy’ concept is not general, benign and self-evident. It is specific – deceptively so. That ‘the economy’ has become a discrete and independent entity is a theoretical move of huge social significance, and is central to a political imaginary that has devalued the aspects of life most important, aspects that once constituted a ‘public’ realm.
That the hegemonic power of the concept of ‘the economy’ has serious implications for our concept of culture, is obvious (the way the discourse of economics has become the central actor in politics and government globally is arguably in inverse proportion to the decline of the public realm). It appeals to an irrepressible sense of logic (‘we all have to earn a living…’ etc.). What is not so obvious is how the substantive meaning of our historical concept of ‘culture’ has become attenuated – at least in the face of the last few decades and massive increase in the investment in, uses of, and public popularity of the arts and culture. We have larger cultural events and festivals, exhibitions and art museums, landmark public architecture, multi-million pound funding schemes. Culture is no longer framed by heritage, but is now on the political agenda; so what is the problem? Indeed, a few academics and policy makers at the seminar were puzzled at what they saw as the anti-neoliberal angst expressed in Justin’s paper. Is this not the disgruntled left, nostalgic for post-World War Two welfarism, and an irrational opposition to markets of any kind – where do we go with that in cultural policy?
But Justin’s paper was more than just a paper; it articulated the research agenda of the Network, and that agenda is diverse given the diversity of its membership. The fundamental concern relates to how the capitalist economic triumphalism of the past thirty years has generated rhetoric, professional discourses and value systems that have permeated our entire society. And this was at the same time as failing to deliver on any of its promises (indeed, delivered inequality, instability and a public realm that is incapable of functioning without specific and limited projects that involve huge and regular injections of money). ‘Creativity’ has been wrested from culture itself, and has been used to politicise and re-frame certain areas of industry. ‘Creative economy’ as a term represents a new governance of culture, where strategic management and IP have re-ordered cultural production so that what is validated tends to the professional, specialist, organisation-bound or institutional and economically productive. The validation of the non-tangible, or nonmaterial, dimensions of culture has evaporated – the role of culture in the local ‘everyday’, generating social conviviality or community, philosophical beliefs, identities, education, a diversity of expressions, individuality, modes of engagement with nature or the urban environment, and so on. This is not to say that the harnessing culture to economy has not generated a massive amount of productivity – not least active audiences and social engagement, interdisciplinarity and new technologies, and so on. This is not an old leftist argument against markets -- there were markets before capitalism. Justin’s discussion paper states ‘We cannot see culture as the ontological space of value and meaning, as opposed to that of necessity or instrumentality’. This is not an argument for a culture set apart from economy, which would hail the return of the parochial days of close communities and state funded national monoculture. The issue is more that culture itself – its facility for empowerment, political agency, social value – has been divested of its ability to imagine aspects of another life, or meanings for a better world (not an ideal world, but a world as productive and functional as this one).
What is interesting to me in this now-familiar narrative is the way cultural ‘autonomy’ has not been dissolved by the commodifying power of the creative economy regime, but preserved – our fine museums, archives, opera houses, cultural institutes have seen cuts, like everyone else, yet remain as powerful actors in the national cultural sector. And yet, is our historically rich cultural sector generating a new ‘imaginary’ that can challenge the claim of the economic powers that be over social identity, meaning and value? Are they really attempting to construct a life worth living, or just making the life we have been given more humane, intellectually enjoyable and upwardly mobile?