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WHAT PRICE A CREATIVE ECONOMY

Stuart Cunningham

Platform Paper 9

Stuart Cunningham

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The creative economy is about much more than culture and the arts. It embraces the nation’s great writers, filmmakers and artists, but it’s also about the interaction designers who have contributed to the revolution in banking and finance, the technical writers who help make our education export industry strong, and the legions of amateur bloggers and animators who are triggering the explosion of digital content. What Price a Creative Economy? proposes a fresh way of looking at culture and creative expression in the twenty-first century. The arts struggle to grow their consumption and support base and the big cultural industries face confronting challenges from the three Ts: technology (the Internet, games and mobile devices), taste (Generations X, Y and the ‘millennials’ are not into the mass media like their elders), and talent (creative young people are doing it for themselves). We need a forward-looking view of what a creative economy might look like, and what it might take to make it stronger. What Price a Creative Economy? offers fresh reasons and evidence for renewing the case for public investment.

 

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About the Author

 Stuart Cunningham is Professor of Media and Communications at the Queensland University of Technology and Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation. He is a key figure in cultural policy studies.

 

What is urgently needed is a forward-looking view of what a ‘creative economy’ might look like, and what it might take to strengthen it. It is my contention that fresh arguments and evidence can be found for renewing the case for public investment. Not that this is the only way forward, but it does take up the case on economic grounds, which is where it typically needs to be built in the contemporary policy process.

 

Comments

Responses to Stuart Cunningham's Platform Papers No. , What Price a Creative Economy?

Martin Hirst teaches in the School of Communications and Contemporary Arts at Edith Cowan University. With John Harrison, he is the author of Communication and New Media: Broadcast to Narrowcast (OUP, forthcoming).

Critical analysis is in short supply in Stuart Cunningham's essay. There is little mention of the culturally negative effects of the further commodification of leisure, pleasure and popular culture when capitalism pushes its mantra of accumulation into the 'arts'.

The working definition of 'creative industries' is broad and loose. For example, does the category of 'designer fashion' include heavily branded clothing, footwear and accessories produced under industrial sweatshop conditions in Southeast Asia, Mexico and China?

Raymond Williams pioneered the critical investigation of popular culture and 'creative' industries in his studies of television, theatre, literature and other cultural forms almost 40 years ago. His work, grounded in political economy and materialism, is still relevant. But Williams is ignored here in favour of Richard Florida's 'creative class' thesis and the apologetic theorists of neo-classical economics who have been unable to properly explain the real world since they abandoned Keynes for Freidman.

However, there are some important clues in Cunningham's argument. He is right to point to the need of capital in Australia (and indeed globally) to harness cultural production to an 'industry policy framework' (p. 11). The question to be asked is 'why?'

The answers only make sense if they are related to the political economy of creative industries, rather than an econometric accounting. A critical approach will make use of Manuel Castells's 'mode of development' thesis in his Rise of the Network Society (1996). The 'mode of development' is the historically specific ensemble of methods that capitalism adopts in relation to particular technologies and areas of value to organise its ongoing renewal of profitability. It is this dialectic of combined and uneven development that gives capitalism its resilience.

The first example is the British government's definition of 'creative industries': 'the potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property' (cited on p. 5). Why is this necessary in the first decade of the twenty-first century? If one looks at the work of Castells and other political economists of communication the answer is fairly obvious.

Capitalism needs to continuously regenerate its sources of surplus value, accumulation and profit. The declining global rate of profit (the tendency towards periodic crises in accumulation) is exacerbated by the rising organic composition of capital-that is, 'dead labour' replaces 'living labour' as machines replace human beings in the production process-causing a further decline in productivity (as measured by the extraction of surplus value). Faced with these periodic crises, the capitalist economy seeks new areas to colonise and, as Williams pointed out in Problems in Materialism and Culture (1980), for the past 50 years popular culture has been a site of increasing commodification and surplus value. The 'creative economy' is a descriptor for the ways in which capitalism is seeking to renew its profitability by commodifying many aspects of the digital production of culture.

The use of the Chinese example of creative 'renewal' (pp. 8-9) is also instructive. If one assumes that China is somehow a post-capitalist society it doesn't make sense, but if we assume it is a capitalist economy (state-capitalism with a growing class of private capitalists) then its efforts to harness creativity to profitability are merely symptomatic of China's attempts to integrate itself with global capitalism. China has learned from Japan, Taiwan and Korea who have already adopted the networked society mode of development (see Castells).

My final example is the 'techno-legal time gap' that develops between application and regulation as global capitalism attempts to realign intellectual property regimes to 'keep pace with technological and social change' (p. 13). It is necessary to realign bourgeois property and production relations in favour of capital to ensure the continuing accumulation of surplus value.

It is unfortunate that Cunningham makes no attempt to engage with the critical dimensions of this debate. It is less a personal failing than a symptom of the failure of Australia's critical intellectuals to engage with a political economy analysis. Instead, some scholars are content to describe ideological constructs such as 'creative industries' and the 'knowledge economy', ignoring the tough questions.

What price a creative economy? The continuation of global capitalism, the further marginalisation of dissent as popular culture becomes more homogenous and commoditised and the continued exploitation of 'creatives' as they are chewed up and spat out of the great maw of 'industry'.

Benjamin Marks is co-author, together with Rodney Marks and Robert Spillane, of The Management Contradictionary (South Yarra: Michelle Anderson Publishing, 2006).

I fully agree with the general thrust of Stuart Cunningham's essay: 'The "price" to be paid [for a creative economy] is that the special status attributed to the arts and culture is folded into the need for creativity across the economy and society. To reach our destination, we must take the long way round' (p. 44). But this is the only point on which we agree. We both want a creative economy, but Cunningham's 'long way round' to get it is too narrow for my liking.

Instead of analysing government involvement in the arts, he acknowledges that old arguments do not work, that new ones are needed and that, compared to some other industries, the arts do not receive anywhere near as much funding or immunity from criticism. So what!?

Cunningham agrees with John Holden, author of Capturing Cultural Value: How Culture has become a Tool of Government Policy (2004), when he says that 'no one speaks of the "subsidised" defence industry, the "mendicant" education sector or a health system "propped up" by government funding. Yet all these sectors are funded substantially or wholly by our tax dollars and are subject to the same supposed regime of market failure as the arts and culture' (p. 3). This hardly addresses the question of whether government funding of the arts (including indirect funding) is justified. It is an argument based on popularity rather than logic. It is understandable that one might draw a comparison between government funding of defence, education and health, which is widely accepted, and the arts, which is more controversial. But, what if someone-such as myself, for example-were to come along who doubted that government should subsidise defence, education and health services? I contend that government intervention must prevent competition, which is, after all, what it is designed to do. This tends to result in the end product being of inferior quality and higher cost than if government did not intervene. This is basic economics. Either economics is a science and the law of supply and demand always true, or it is not. Cunningham does not believe that economics is a science.

He makes no attempt to defend his claim that because 'the electromagnetic spectrum [is] a scarce public resource'

(p. 25), government involvement is necessary. All economic goods are by definition scarce, and what exactly does he mean here by 'public'? Surely, economic goods can only be private; the real question is whether or not owning them is criminal. Whether they are distributed effectively is not a scientific question, because the judge of efficiency is utility, which is not inter-subjectively comparable. What is the unit of measurement for 'utility'?

Interestingly, Cunningham doesn't invariably choose to enclose the word 'price' in inverted commas. This is because a price is something that is voluntarily agreed upon, whereas a cost is something foregone. Cost does not determine price. Suppose someone lives in seclusion, spends their lifetime reinventing the wheel and then looks to be reimbursed for the time and effort that this has cost them. Who would they sue if they weren't? Disambiguation of cost and price is central to any economic analysis. Where government is involved, either there are no prices, or else prices are grossly distorted. Government by definition uses force to extract its income, and therefore there are no prices (which by definition must be voluntarily agreed upon) attached to government interference, only costs. The difference in connotation is clear.

Cunningham admits that the traditional-albeit fallacious-argument from market failure to justification of government fails. However, instead of advocating the cessation of government involvement, he wishes to be 'pragmatic' and 'keep moving forward on several fronts, lest [he] be outflanked or forced into retreat' (p. 44), i.e. challenged or refuted. He suggests that '[s]everal bodies of economic thought need to be tapped to engage this challenge, among them transaction-cost economics, growth theory, and evolutionary and information economics. This process has only begun' (p. 33). Back in 1967, in their Social Construction of Reality, p. 128, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote the following prescient words: 'It is correct to say that theories are concocted in order to legitimate already existing social institutions.' It is peculiar that Cunningham himself lacks the ingenuity and faith in the arts that he is anxious to foster in others.

Response to Stuart Cunningham's Platform Papers no. , What Price a Creative Economy?

Robert Beveridge teaches media policy at napier University in edinburgh. He is also director of Voice of the listener and Viewer, a media advocacy group for quality, diversity and a secure future for public service broadcasting.

Stuart Cunningham's essay-indeed, each of the quarterly Platform Papers-deserves a global readership, not least because it is important that we take the debate from seeing and deploying arguments for public and private money for the arts, culture and creativity as being subsidies and more as investing in economic success and quality of life issues.

However, it is important not to assume that the new digital technologies are such that the arguments and policies that have served for the analogue world can be jettisoned in their entirety. Of course, Cunningham does not call for this, and nothing is more poignant than his reminder that, while we need to understand the 'interaction between the potent legacy of broadcasting and the convergent broadband media, […] content creation [needs to] remain close to the mainstream of popular cultural consumption' (p. 41).

Yet the market-or, if you like, audience taste-is formed in part by what is made available and by the judgments of the creative artists and community in their attempts to communicate their visions and ideas to themselves and to their audiences/readerships. And here the real enemy of creativity is marketing. Too powerful an impetus towards giving the audience what they will want leads to repeating forms and formulas. Alternatively, trying to be so sensational and controversial means that the real aim becomes that of publicity and competing for attention in an overcrowded marketplace.

Furthermore, the arrival of digitalisation will certainly extend the number of channels but will it really extend choice and diversity? In my judgment, not if it is accompanied by further deregulation and an increasing tendency to conceptualise the viewer/listener/online creator or contributor as a consumer, rather than as a citizen who should have a range of entitlements.

Here Cunningham is absolutely right to call for linkages which establish 'tripartite interfaces between cultural institutions, universities and content industries' (p. 40). This is particularly needed, not least because small-scale independent enterprises frequently lack the capacity and capital to enable them to undertake sufficient investment in education and training for their staff.

So creativity depends on having organisational cultures which can remember, celebrate and use the best of the past while not being bound by it, and find new but quality ways of determining the new-not just new for its own sake, but new with meaning and resonance.

And this also needs perhaps to be a mixture of the global and the local, so that, as Cunningham so clearly indicates, each city or economy can share and jointly develop ideas and frameworks. I know that many in Scotland and elsewhere would love to join in such ventures.

Finally, it might be worth recalling the maxim of a former Director-General of the BBC, who called for the Corporation to 'make the popular good and the good popular'. Despite Cunningham's tempting dismissal of essential arguments-a position which is articulated in the 1940s Powell and Pressburger film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and, yes, the music of Beethoven and Mozart did not prevent Nazism-nonetheless, the story of progress, while very uneven, does lead to an acknowledgement of the positive power of the BBC's (and the ABC's) mission to inform, educate and entertain and, nowadays, to connect-in every sense of the word.

So, we in Scotland look forward to further, and extended, connection with Australian ideas and platforms.