Is “creative industries” just the new, economically justifiable version of “the arts”?

This article, by Julian Meyrick on the Conversation, has sparked so many thoughts that they have to marshaled into an orderly queue and forced to wait patiently. Its primary focus is the evaluation of the arts and its unquantifiable benefits in a policy environment which demands quantification. That issue is enormous, so I’ll put that aside for a moment and talk about discomfort over the term “creative industries”.

Simplifying the measurement of the arts to statistical and financial data and over-reliance on such measures in policy making around the arts concerns Meyrick. His piece in the Conversation contains this paragraph:

In the last 40 years, arts and culture have found themselves weighed against criteria and targets not of their choosing, while the sophisticated calculative practices constructed to do this have sometimes exacerbated the alienated character of the situation.

The hyperlink leads to a journal article by Meyrick and colleagues Robert Phiddian, Tully Barnett & Richard Maltby, critiquing a measurement regime called Culture Counts, then being considered for use within Australian government funding bodies for the arts. In it, further reservations are expressed about quantifying the arts as economic justification, but there is also a link to the emergence of the term, “creative industries”. Meyrick et al see it as linked to an increasing desire to measure the value of the arts; in fact, that it’s a reaction to it.

They talk about the work of academics such as Hawkins, Cunningham, Bennett and Stevenson who, they say, led “the pursuit for the biggest plausible GDP number” to attribute to the cultural sector.

These authors facilitated a shift in government understanding from a traditional concept of “the arts” to a contemporary concept of “the creative industries”, and a concomitant switch from an arts policy to a cultural policy. Quantification was key to this change, as was the alliance between left-of-centre cultural democracy advocates and right-wing free-market proponents.

There are a couple of things to note here. Firstly, that the term “creative industries” is seen as a successor to “the arts” – and not so much a natural evolutionary step, but part of a wider agenda to quantify the arts (which was “key to this change”). More than that, it was a kind of merging of points of view from the left and right. So here, the adoption of the term “creative industries” is seen, at least in part, as having a political dimension. They go on:

These parties found common ground in an instrumentalist cultural materialism with little interest in nuanced critical distinction making. Someone working in advertising or software design was a “creative” in much the same way as a violinist in a symphony orchestra.

Here they express a familiar criticism of creative industry definitions. They place wildly different professions next to each other – actors and architects, musicians and marketers – within in the same category. This discontinuity is even more palpable within those subcategories themselves. Not only, I’d suggest, does an architect not think of herself as in the creative industries with actors, she probably doesn’t even consider herself to be in the creative industries. It’s far more likely, she’d see herself as being in the architecture industry.

There is a problem here, well recognised by people (like me) who work across these boundaries. It’s that the inability of the individual sectors which fill up the grab bag of industries labelled the “creative industries” to coalesce into a unified group, has prevented effective lobbying to government to support those creative industries. That problem can be seen as an inevitable result of imposing a definition of creative industries on those sectors; the term didn’t come from them so no wonder they have trouble adopting it.

The political element is then expanded upon:

The Creative Industries in Australia was a “third way” rapprochement similar to Cool Britannia under Blair. From the historical moment that we are in now, it looks like a hubristic miscalculation of the stability of a liberal democratic centre and its capacity to constrain neoliberalism through neoliberalism’s own mechanisms.

Which, I think, is fascinating. They’re saying, “you tried to play the bean counters at their own game, but you got it wrong.” And what was wrong was, again, their measurement of value.

… its imprecise use of language reduced terms of policy capture like “excellence”, “access” and “innovation” to abstractions evacuated of precise critical meaning. At the same time, it presented numbers as a tool for demystification that stripped away the obfuscating rhetoric of public value to reveal its privileging of high art in comparison with popular culture. In this way, cultural studies researchers – those who should have been most alert to the inculcation of neoliberal techniques – condoned quantification as the price for a non-exclusivist conception of culture.

All of which leaves me pondering three (ish) questions.

  1. Is “creative industries” just a rebadged version of “the arts” designed to be more economically justifiable?

Personally, I have never seen it like this. My own experience is from working with the film and TV industry to then working within “the arts” sector, which existed, at least in a policy context, separately from film and TV. So that gave me the sense that there existed creative industries outside the arts. From there I moved to working in a quasi government role with creative industries businesses/organisations of which the arts was a subset, and the measurement of those organisations in that context was not about intrinsic value, but about performance improvement and sustainability. I’ve never felt that the Creative Industries was the Arts made more palatable to neoliberals, but it can clearly be read like that.

  1. Was adopting the term “creative industries” part of an agenda to measure the arts to death? Or were the two things just happening at the same time? (Is it correlation, not causation?)

To which I think it’s probably just both happening at the same time, but nothing ever exists in a vacuum. It seems plausible that both these developments – both seemingly motivated by a desire to change how those industries are viewed externally – fed off each other.

  1. Does the creation of the term “creative industries” have a political element?

And clearly for some people it does. This is a reminder that definitions themselves – what we list, what we include, what we leave out – create meaning. Definitions are therefore inherently political; you can’t create or adopt one in an ideological vacuum.

I have been thinking about how to talk about definitions of the creative industries without resorting to simply comparing and choosing between various lists of industry sectors. And here, I think, is an indication that definitions are never just that. They are designed for a purpose, informed by ideologies and infused with motives. They are, in themselves, narrative processes and the stories they tell are contested.

Meyrick, J (2017) “A new approach to culture”, The Conversation, viewed 30 Sep 17. https://theconversation.com/a-new-approach-to-culture-82448
Robert Phiddian, Julian Meyrick, Tully Barnett & Richard Maltby (2017), Counting culture to death: an Australian perspective on culture counts and quality metrics, Cultural Trends, 26:2, 174-180, DOI: 10.1080/09548963.2017.1324014
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