Last week the creative industries innovation centre released a report that found 43
WHAT GOT LOST BETWEEN ‘CULTURAL’ AND ‘CREATIVE’ INDUSTRIES
Last week the Creative Industries Innovation Centre released a report that found 43% of
the creative workforce consists of creative practitioners embedded in non-creative
industries such as manufacturing, financial services and healthcare. This led to an article
in which it was suggested my recent claim that the creative industries had “run out of
steam” – also on The Conversation – was wrong.
What I had wanted to say was that the creative industry’s agenda (the action plan for the
industry at large) has run out of steam, and this is why.
Culture as economy
The term “cultural industries” emerged in Europe in a positive sense in the 1970s and
1980s. It suggested, first, that culture was an economy – people worked, had contracts,
sold stuff, bought stuff, sacked people, set up businesses and so on.
At the same time many pointed out this cultural economy did involve commercial
values these were mixed up with cultural values in complex ways. As such it was not as
responsive to “price signals” as other kinds of economy – we needed a new kind of
policy approach that recognised this.
But this call was overshadowed by the claim that the cultural industries employed lots
of people and generated real wealth. Such industries were not a basket case but a
significant part of the economy and should be treated as such. It was an argument very
popular among those working in arts and cultural sectors, who saw this argument as a
crucial means to counter the ongoing cuts in state funding.
The concept of state funding for such industries was made more palatable by a third
claim. Such industries were not just important because of their growing size. They
produced signs and symbols with a direct connection to the passions, lifestyles and
identities of the consumer. They were, as British sociologists Scott Lash and John Urry
argued, templates for all future “post-industrial” economies.
So the great divide between culture and economy opened up by the 1960s counterculture could now be closed. The economic future lay with culture. Step aside
economists in suits: the long-haired rock stars who never got a proper job were
These positive energies mobilised by the cultural industries explain the excitement
around Creative Nation: Commonwealth cultural policy released in 1994 by Prime
Minister Paul Keating and the 1997 New Labour Government in the UK, ousting 18
years of backward-looking Tories to a soundtrack of rave and Britpop.
This outburst of positivity capitalised on youthful enthusiasm when UK Secretary of
State for Culture from 1997 to 2001 Chris Smith rebadged the “arts and cultural
industries” as “creative industries”. It was a pragmatic shift from a subsidy-prone
“culture” to a sector at the cutting edge of the information or knowledge economy,
where the cognitive ability of workers to adapt information and manipulate symbols
The economic heft of the creative industries was significantly helped along by the
inclusion of software and computing services. This was by far the largest part of the
newly-named “creative industries” and remains so. But is computer coding a “cultural”
occupation? Where do we draw the boundary of this sector? Or we might ask what is
not creative - why not include medicine, science, engineering and so on?
Transition from cultural to creative industry
In their recent article on The Conversation, Roy Green and Lisa Colley say the term
“creative industry” implies there are “non-creative industries”. According to that article,
shifting the focus to creative occupations spread throughout all industries solves this
problem. It doesn’t.
First, it simply moves the opposition to one between creative and non-creative
occupations – a can of worms we can’t open here.
Second, it forgets “industry”, a term that designates a roughly inter-related set of skills,
practices, value-chains, products, regulations and so on that mark it out as an
identifiable sector amenable to policy support. It is the fuzziness of “creative” that has
dogged policy in the sector for over a decade.
Shifting the focus to creative occupations just makes it more fuzzy.
“Creative” – when employed by those who work in and for the creative industries
agenda – is used in a highly abstract way – creating something “new” that has “value” –
divorced from any specific application or context.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), on the contrary, in its recent report, has to
use “creative occupation” quite specifically to statistically identify this group. They
designate cultural occupations as those involved in cultural or symbolic products (such
as music, performing arts, fashion, design, architecture and publishing). For creative
occupations they add related retail and the (massive) digital/ computing sector.
Let’s take Finance in the ABS statistics. When “creative and cultural occupations” are
being counted the financial sector employs a pretty substantial percentage (17%). When
only cultural occupations are being counted the total falls drastically (7%).
The “creativity” being spread here is not ‘cultural’ – nor is it scientific, or medical or
even financial innovation. What counts as “creativity” is computing, data-basing,
system coding, web-site building and marketing activities in “non-cultural” industries.
Yet this is routinely involved as some force of creativity working its way through our
industries. Creative input in this sense is not about radical innovation but more akin, as
they say in the design world, to putting lipstick on a pig.
Have we reduced culture to its economic impact?
Is it possible that those involved and invested in the creative industries have used the
ambiguities of “creative” to reduce culture to its economic impact. I would suggest it is.
Creativity is a good thing, and is surely needed in industry, of whatever sort. But the
creative industries drew on a very specific notion of creativity traditionally associated
with art and culture (and to some extent scientists of the more wild hair variety). It has
now been spread thinly to cover any non-routine problem solving or innovation in any
kind of organisation or product you care to mention.
In any event culture involves more than being “creative” – it is about individual and
collective meaning. From its inception it was opposed to “the economy” not (just)
because of an aristocratic disdain for commerce, for dirtying its hands, but because it
held out the possibility of meanings outside the pure economic imperative.
If the price for government legitimation is the absorption of culture and its creativity by
the economic, then it is too high.
This is not to place art and culture in some other-worldy zone; the idea of the cultural
industries rightly put paid to that. It is to refuse the ever-tightening noose neo-classical
and neo-liberal economists and their politicians have thrown around “the economy”.
Anything outside the formal, profit-driven, financialised global economy is no longer
considered economic. Even though most people do live outside it. As feminist political
economists Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson argued in A Post-capitalist Politics, the
range of our economic activities in informal, gift, domestic, state-funded and grey
economies is to be counted as part – and for many the most important part – of our
The cultural economy sits here. Not as a marketing and social media adjunct for the
financial services but as a crucial contribution to the livelihoods of thousands of people
and to the joys and meanings of lives lived individually and collectively.
Reducing culture to a “creative input” runs the risk of squandering our cultural
inheritance and shackling not liberating the creative imagination we desperately require
to change the world.