What is meant by the creative economy and what does it mean for how we understand cultural work? Following a recent public lecture hosted by LSE’s Department of Media and Communications, Professor Philip Schlesinger, Professor in Cultural Policy in the Centre for Cultural Policy Research/CREATe at the University of Glasgow and Visiting Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, outlines the history of the concept of the creative industries from the time of the New Labour in the late 1990s to the present day, arguing that the complexity of cultural value has been subordinated to economic value.

It’s difficult not to talk about the creative industries and the creative economy. For the past couple of decades, a framework of ideas and supporting institutions has been built that has led to a dominant, orthodox take on the value of culture as primarily economic. We are bombarded with headline claims. For instance, the UK Government’s Creative Industries Economic Estimates 2015 says that one in 12 UK jobs is in the creative economy and that the creative industries account for 5 percent of the UK economy’s turnover.

Such statements depend on questionable calculations. Behind the apparent certainties, experts debate how to define cultural or creative occupations and industries. The focus on headline figures has ensured that the economic value of culture prevails in public discussion with government. The measurement of public value apes the processes used for establishing market value in what Michael Power terms the audit society.

Behind the headline claims about what our culture is worth to the national or global economy, the idea of the creative industries and the economisation of culture have become increasingly embedded and naturalised. There are creative industries conferences galore. At least 30 universities around the UK – my own included – offer undergraduate and Masters courses in the creative and/or cultural industries or the creative economy. These supply talent for a saturated and largely underpaying marketplace, where personal connections count hugely, unpaid internships are common, and precarious portfolio work is the norm. That is the state of play for the generations entering the job market as such right now.

The UK Research Councils have invested heavily in research into the creative and digital economies, defining the present agenda, broadly in line with government. Tellingly, as it jockeys for position during the present Charter Review, the BBC has sold itself as ‘British Bold Creative’, ‘Britain’s creative partner’ and is making ‘growing the creative industries and promoting the UK abroad’ part of its raison d’être. This captures the reflex, modal way of talking about the role of culture in the public sphere, across arts bodies, support agencies, government and higher education. Ever-ready creative partners proclaim their virtue above all by being useful to the national or global economy.

How did we get here? How did the so-called creative turn become so pervasive? Most will agree that the marketing of the term ‘creative industries’ in 1997/98 by the first New Labour government led by Tony Blair firmly put this trope first, on the national and then, the global agenda. Creative industries discourse was developed as a political economic project. Expertise provided by think tanks, policy advisers, and industry figures contributed to shaping the policy process.

A policy paper produced by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in 1998 has been astonishingly influential in shaping this discussion. It defined the creative industries as ‘those activities which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property’. The key sectors identified were: advertising, architecture, the arts and antiques market, crafts, design, designer fashion, film, interactive leisure software, music, the performing arts, publishing, software and television and radio’.

This list aggregates 13 distinct fields of cultural practice, designates them as ‘industries’, and constitutes a new policy object whose central purpose was  – and still is – to ‘maximise economic impact … at home and abroad’. By making the exploitation of intellectual property so crucial, the complexity of cultural value has been subordinated to economic value. Is this the acme of neo-liberalism – the celebration of individualistic entrepreneurship in a free market? In their study of New Labour cultural policy, David Hesmondhalgh and his colleagues have pointed to the wider objectives pursued – the boost to arts spending, the attempts at social inclusion. But that is not what has gelled into the prevailing orthodoxy.

If the UK and Australia made the initial policy moves, it was in the USA that the best-known academic interventions were initially fashioned by the economist, Richard Caves, the first to analyse the ‘creative industries’ in 2000. Two years later, another US economist, Richard Florida, hailed the rise of the ‘creative class’, selling the attractive notion that almost a third of Americans were ‘creative’ and that policy intervention could make a wide range of places into creative cities or regions.

The follow-on coinage of the ‘creative economy’ – designated industries being seen as systemically interconnected – came from British consultant John Howkins in 2001, emphasising the value of intellectual property in the ‘global battle for comparative advantage’. Creativity becomes identified with human capital – as primarily of economic value. Creative industries are a blueprint to be applied or modified. In the official and academic literature, the number and type of ‘industries’ may vary from one country to another. And the ‘cultural industries’ may be defined as distinct from ‘creative industries’, with culture often depicted as more fundamental or at the core of a society. What remains common is the overall strategy pursued by many states of seeing the creative economy as a policy object that can be managed to secure primarily economic outcomes and increase competitiveness.

The creative industries idea is protean and can be readily indigenised to fit local circumstances. It can become the official policy of the Chinese Communist Party or a development ideology espoused by the United Nations. It can be used supra-nationally, at nation-state or sub-state levels, and at a regional or city level. Consequently, creative nations, regions and cities, are so much part of the landscape that everyone takes them for granted. New icons of differentiation have continually to be found and new policies to be devised the better to compete in selling film, TV, games or performances.

In the past decade in the European Union, member states, the European Commission and Parliament have adjusted their thinking about the value of culture. European institutions have increasingly adopted the rhetoric, along with its accompanying economism. Longstanding European Commission interventions to promote the audiovisual industries and cultural cities, for instance, now come under the badge of Creative Europe – a significant repackaging of earlier schemes.

Since 2008, the globalisation of these ideas has been best illustrated by the UN’s series of Creative Economy Reports. The idea of the creative economy as a ‘new development paradigm’ has had widespread appeal. A counter discourse focused on the idea of a ‘cultural economy’, emphasising culture rather than the economy and the social rather than the individual, this remains at the margins.

Since the creative economy was invented, it has given rise to a supporting creative economy industry, not only national but also international. This consists of academic research and publishing and the flow of reports from policy advisers, creative consultants, and conferences organised by brokers such as the Westminster Media Forum and the Creative Industries Federation. My research into ‘cultural intermediaries’ in the UK – public bodies set up to make the creative economy work more effectively in line with national policy goals pursued – reveals the extent dominant ideas shape intervention. However, there is tension between the overarching vision and translating ideas into action.

Of course, other valuations of culture have not been eclipsed. We engage in cultural practices for their inherent satisfaction, the pursuit of aesthetic goals, our own fulfilment and interest. Craft sensibilities as described by Richard Sennett have not disappeared. But when it comes to making a living out of cultural work, an encounter with the creative economy is inescapable.

This blog gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.


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