Notes Towards a Reframing of the Creative Question

An all to familiar error goes largely un-challenged in the extensive public
discourse on the Creativity topic, the tendency to elide the term
creativity with the arts as though the two were interchangeable. The facts
on the ground tell a very different story, revealing an inflationary
expansion of the notion of creativity that goes far beyond mere
instrumentalisation of the Arts.

General Purpose Creativity (GPC)

Recently Warwick University published a detailed report; Enriching Britain,
Creativity, Culture, Growth, 1. at the same time as the launch of the BBC’s
extensive -Get Creative Campaign-2. And both of these projects coincided with the
leader of the UK Labor Party Ed Milliband‘s introduction of the Creative and
Cultural Industries theme into Labor’s pre-election campaigning. Taken
together these initiatives signify a return of the so called Creative and
Cultural industries, if not exactly to centre Stage, then at least, (as
Chris Smith one of the architects of the original project declared ) -as a
mainstream concern of government- and part of the -Darwinian struggle for
money and influence in Whitehall-. All of which make it an opportune moment
for a pragmatic review of the Creative Question. Not only in order to
understand what has changed but also to ask whether anything has been
learned by the political class in the decades that have elapsed since New
Labor introduced the meme into mainstream British party politics.

MBAs in Art Schools?

An all to familiar error goes largely un-challenged in public discourse on
this topic, the tendency to elide the term creativity with the arts as
though the two were interchangeable. The facts on the ground tell a very
different story, revealing an inflationary expansion of the notion of
creativity that goes far beyond mere instrumentalisation of the Arts. Since
the 90s the creativity meme has proliferated to become an obligatory
component of a political economy in which continuous innovation is an
inescapable response to accelerating commodity cycles. To take just one of
the many symptoms, something is clearly afoot, when a famous school of art
and design Central St Martins in London is proposing to start, of all
things, an MBA – an MBA centered on “organisational creativity and

The ‘Creative’ a New Professional Category

However audacious the decision to situate an MBA in a college of art and
Design appears, it should not be seen as a particularly strange or
surprising development. Rather it can be seen as a logical consequence of
the continued currency of the creative industries meme in conjunction with
the fact that for more than two decades courses of media art and design are
no longer locked into single media crafts; e.g. painting, sculpture, film,
graphic design, or web design etc. At all levels (and including Fine Art) we
have seen the emergence of courses that cater for an employment landscape
made up of networks of interdisciplinary General Purpose Creativity
companies. Frequently using digital media as a catalyst for cross platform
hybridity. The general acceptance of this kind of creative hybridity is
reflected in the currency of a term designating a new kind of professional:
the -Creative- a term that these days frequently displaces -artist or

Feeding the Creative Economy

For a decade or more wave after wave of students are emerging from these
digitally inflected hybrid media arts courses which are typically made up of
a highly specific constellation of disciplines which is more specific than
mere interdisciplinarity, and more widely applicable. “It is a distinct form
of collaboration that combines art, technology and communications/marketing
with particular emphasis on data mining and development simultaneous
relationships between a variety of media and social media platforms”.  These
courses are giving rise to generations of graduates, who, for better or for
worse, have been educated to expect a new kind of participatory economy,
requiring enhanced levels of mastery, connectivity and personal autonomy. It
is generally known as the -creative economy- and is founded, above all, on
the principal of continuous renewal and innovation.

What is at Stake ?

Despite the numerous ways in which these youthful expectations have been
betrayed through both ingenious and crude forms of exploitation and
self-exploitation, not to mention an accumulating rubble of mind numbing
management speak. I want to argue that we must be prepared to take the risk
of engaging with Creative Industry discourse on its own terms. As It is my
contention that there is something like a radical revisionist version of
this narrative to be uncovered. And I would further argue that its worth the
risk of contamination as such an act of recuperation might offer an
important component in answering the most urgent and difficult question of
all: how do we make the vital transition to a zero or low growth economy?

Real Artists Ship

It was Steve Jobs who perhaps inadvertently offers the best definition of
the creative industries with three short words: “real artists ship”.
Uttering these words made it abundantly clear, that from the outset (and
despite appearances) Apple’s destination was never going to be Bohemia. On
the contrary it was his ruthless capacity to translate a highly specific and
ultimately monopolistic vision of creativity for all (everyone is a creative
if they -Think Different-) into mass market commodities, that 
made the world
sit up and listen when Jobs later declared that for Apple: technology was
not enough –he famously expanded his vision of the fusion the creative arts
and computation by declaring that- its technology married with the liberal
arts, married with the humanities, that yield the results that make our
hearts sing-. However cheesy this sounds to critically trained ears, it was
the successful marketing of this euphoric pop narrative that finally
consigned CP Snow’s influential two-culture stand-off between the arts and
the sciences into the dustbin of history; inaugurating the era in which the
post war cybernetic paradigm came out of the shadows into the spotlight of
popular culture.                   

The 15 hour week

Sociologist and activist David Graeber recently provided a valuable
perspective on the transition to zero or low growth. In his short,
influential essay -On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs-5 he describes the
contemporary economy as made up of a large proportion of the population
doing meaningless tasks they hate; “bullshit jobs”. He suggests that these
jobs are an artifice –they are fake, made up jobs- designed to keep a
certain class of worker too busy to question the status quo. Its a kind of
neo-liberal re-boot on the old protestant homily that – the devil makes work
for idle hands-. Although the conspiracy theory behind the essay might be
questionable its starting point has a bearing in our discussion here as
Graeber begins his essay by reminding us that In the year 1930, John Maynard
Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced
sufficiently so that countries like Great Britain or the United States would
have achieved a 15-hour working week.

Graeber insists that -There’s every reason to believe that Keynes was right
as in technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet, he
continues,  -it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if
anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more-. His observation is a
reminder that insatiable growth is an addiction, and that we already have
the means at our disposal to transit to an entirely different kind of
economy. Further on I want to suggest that some surprising data from recent
Brighton Fuse research program, suggests that many in the digital creative
free-lance Community could be seen as outliers for the emergence of a new
political economy.

Time for a Change of Tone

Last November Amsterdam’s Institute of Network Cultures 6. made a timely
return to the theme of the Creative Economy approximately eight years after
its original and ground breaking conference -My Creativity-. This time,
tweaking the title into My Creativity Sweatshops. It is noteworthy that INC
thought it was worth reprising the Creative Industries meme, albeit
accompanied by the predictable dose of critical probing. This interrogation
initially took the form of the text, Nine Theses on the Creative Question,
7. (Lovink. Rossiter and Olmer) 
which begins in Thesis 1, by characterising
the Creative Industries as -a creepy discourse.. far removed the version of
creativity is from radical invention and social transformation.
Could it be that much as we need to compose critical melodies we need to do
so in a less predictable key ? Particularly as 
the very act of reviving the
meme on this scale could actually be seen as a complement, a tribute to the
remarkable staying power and continued currency of the creative industries
concept. Decades after its conception this discourse is still able to
mobilize theoretical and policy debates at the highest level as well as
determining the allocation of significant research and development

I would like to argue that the reason that critical thinkers return again
and again to the concept is the lingering suspicion that the concept retains
radical surplus that has been overlooked. After so many decades critique is
not enough, as the hidden potential may only be uncovered if, as I stated at
the outset, we are prepared to risk engaging with this discourse on its own

Competition is not the Only Fruit

In the third of the Nine Theses describe the ‘economy of abundance’ as a
phantom, that requires purging by a Piketty for the internet age. The
authors go on to make an urgent plea for a better understanding of how
‘extreme inequality’ translates into digital culture. Agreed but rather than
Piketty, I would advocate that to better understand the dynamics one might
risk a picnic with the Devil, by dipping into the primer 
“Zero to One”: 8. by
shameless uber capitalist Peter Thiel, co-founder of Pay-Pal, the (truly
creepy) Singularity University, as well as being the first outside investor
in Face Book.

Zero to One is refreshingly candid, quickly dispensing with the usual
legitimizing neo-liberal nostrums of the -invisible hand- and -wisdom of
crowds expressed through a free market-. Instead Thiel argues strongly
against any thought of entering the brawl of free market competition. This
he insists is to be avoided at all costs as the true goal of every startup
must be to become a monopoly, a company so dominant in its technological
arena that it can give investors enormous financial returns with cash to
spare for the intensive R&D that can ensure its long-term viability. Indeed
he begins by quoting the famous opening lines of “Anna Karenina”: “All happy
families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But he
declares  ” Business is the opposite. All happy companies are different:
Each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies
are the same: They failed to escape competition. We to can deploy Thiel’s
critique of the unquestioning benefits of competition into the public sphere
where not only education and health but also transportation, energy and
banking – might also question the benefits market competition (or its
equivalent the internal market) which is continuously promoted as an
unalloyed good.

Cultural Capital and Beyond-

Another concrete reasons why reprising the Creative Industries question Is
historical perspective afforded by the passage of time. The arrival of
Creative Capital the book by Robert Hewison9. (the My Creativity conference
key-note) a longstanding commentator close to the genesis of the concept. In
Creative Capital he provides an extremely valuable retrospective analysis of
the origins and political dynamics that gave rise to Creative Industries as
a political phenomenon. The book is strong on the ways in which New Labor
imbibed a radical cultural studies agenda from an academic context and
translated by policy wonks such as Mullgan and Leadbeater into a more
expansive and inclusive conception of what constitutes culture. And once
free from the financial strictures of the early years and under the
stewardship the minister, Chris Smith, the arts finally entered a period
where, in Smith’s Words, they “came of age as a mainstream concern of
government and joined the Darwinian struggle for money and influence in
Whitehall”. The review of New Labor’s vision for the role of culture,
whatever its shortcomings, nevertheless highlights the shallow and reactive
nature of the current Labor party’s engagement with the subject.

The book carefully weighs the evidence examining in detail what Hewison
concludes was in the end a Faustian bargain for culture in accepting the New
Labor billions. Interestingly the moment the bargain was struck can be
traced back to the moment when Blair literally changes the script .. when
about to address the key gathering arranged by Murdoch, on the eve of the
speech Blaire forces a re-write on the section of the speech dealing with
the Arts to highlight the economic benefits of the agenda. 
–Its an early
sign that New Labor would always, as Stuart Hall was to write, be “operating
on a terrain defined by Thatcherism”

Affective Labour, and the Compuational Avant Garde

Although informative, a vital element is missing from Creative Capital, an
account the relationship between the transformation of culture and the
emergence of a new technological paradigm. A paradigm that would ultimately
propel the 
figure of the consumer to center stage, displacing the worker, or
rather merging these two figures into into what “Hardt and Negri
characterised as “affective labor,” subsuming old-style industrial
production together with much else. 10

Moreover the very structure of computational media is “avant-garde” – A fact
related to the attribute Self Expansion, an atribute described by Castells
whereby computers are the basis for constructing new computers and the more
powerful they become the more complex the technologies that can be built
using them. This self accelerating cycle is best captured by Moores Law. 11

Lev Manovich described in Software Takes Command 12. how computational
media’s avant garde structure, is giving rise to a situation in which the
role of the media avant-garde is no longer performed exclusively by
individual artists in their studios but instead by a variety of players,
from very big to very small – from companies to independent programmers,
hackers and designers. –

The dialectical relationship between new styles of production, the rise of
affective labor and the emergence of new 
social movements are yet to be
theorised in ways that will help us as to locate the agents of progressive
change in a control society. 13.

The Free-lance Economy

In the coming section all of the statistical data and some of the analysis
is drawn exclusively from the second Brighton Fuse report. Both reports can
be Downloaded in full from the Brighton Fuse site.

One of the most obvious deficits in the claims and counter claims made for
The Creative Industries is a lack of research informed by data sets large
enough and broad enough to take us beyond speculation. In this regard,
Brighton Fuse, a major 2-3 year research project funded by the UK’s Arts and
Humanities Research Council, represents an important step forward,
delivering one of the most detailed pieces of analysis of any industry
undertaken in the UK.

The focus is entirely on what the authors characterise as (CDIT) or Creative
Digital & IT companies and has two phases the first focused on the ecology
of small and medium size  companies an (average of 7 employees) that make up
The most significant part of Brighton’s new media ecology. The research is
based on a sample of 500 firms and 77 detailed interviews. The second phase
(the report has just been published) examines the free lance economy and
drew on a  survey of 334 free-lance Workers drawn from a pool.

Although we might disagree with the conclusions of these reports and
question some of the methodologies behind the sampling procedures there is
still a great deal to be mined from the Data that has been gathered. I will
however restrict myself here to the most recently Published report that
examined the free lance economy.  The first of the Brighton Fuse reports
(2013) already highlighted the scale and importance of the free-lancers
contribution. 80% of firms in the sample worked with
 freelancers with the
average firm working with more than 7
 freelancers. Interestingly these same
firms had an average of 7 full time employees.

The growth of self employment since the recession is often characterised in
wholly negative terms, as part of the precariat. A groundswell perception
has taken root of the self employment as a low paid residue that is left
after the essential workforce has been identified.- The perception is
accompanied by the general suspicion the self-employed are struggling to
keep up appearences with occasional odd jobs, and would prefer the security
of a ‘real job’.

This narrative, however is not supported by the findings of the Brighton
Fuse research. To begin with the research indicates that free lancers are
well paid. Frequently better paid than their counterparts in formal
employment. The research points to an average income of free-lancers in
Brighton as £31. 137 and the median income as £27. 000 [this level was being
earned by 50% Of the respondents]. To account for the fact that the
respondents varied in the amount of time they devoted to free-lance
activities, the researchers provide a normalised full time equivalent
figure. In other words a projection of their income as if they were working
full time of  £ 58.107. And the median is £42.857. These figures show that
Freelancers in Brighton are actually earning very well in comparison with
the national average of both employees an free lancer. In terms of growth
rate the annual earnings of free-lancers Increased by 7.3% between 2012 and
2013 with a median growth of 2.8. This is remarkable when you consider that
the average growth for full time employees in the same period throughout the
UK is 2.1%.

However behind these figures are some facts and qualitative data that is
even more revealing than the earnings data alone and bring us back to the
discussion around the way in which the rewards of a certain kinds of
relatively autonomous dis-alianated labor might point towards a community of
outliers developing a different kind of political economy.

The Brighton Fuse research highlights the fact that among this community the
fulfillment of personal aspirations was by far the most prominent reason for

the freelance lifestyle choice. Many of the interviews emphasised the
importance of flexibility and possibility of realising specific business
 were deemed as important motivations by about 87% of respondents. This
flexibility seems to
 be important not just to people freelancing as a
secondary job, but especially to those doing it as a primary and full-time

As well as the aspiration to develop personal business ideas, or to achieve
more flexibility and autonomy in their lives. Many of the respondents invest
their time in side-projects alongside their freelance work, some of which
are intended for future monetisation such as products,
 others are the
individual equivalent of R&D, and still others are passion-projects, often
for artistic or philanthropic purposes. Some simply find the autonomy of
freelancing more convenient to manage family life.

Almost 40% of freelancers are involved in voluntary or unpaid work,
dedicating about 5% of their
 working time to it. The possibility of taking
 time off work to engage in these altruistic activities is another side
of freelancing that is hard to
 measure using approaches based on
 economic incentives. It may be that freelancers are using their
distinctive skills that they trade in
 working life, for these pro bono

Finally, about one third of the report’s respondents devote part of their
working time, about 10% on average,
 to other non-specified activities. When
 about such activities during the interviews, typical answers
included childcare, caring for someone
 else, producing artworks, or working
in a studio

“Only a small minority freelance through necessity, although many more do so
to earn higher pay.”

Networks Without Solidarity

Although the Brighton Fuse data may hold some indicative significance but
this fortunate group of free-lancers can at best be regarded as outliers
whose advantages are yet to be felt by precarious labor at the sharp end of
the great recession. in the wider economy. What these and similar reports
lack is anything that equates to the emergence of new forms of solidarity.
Certainly nothing that equates to the leverage of traditional forms of
Solidarity. Felix Stalder addresses this lack through a stimulating short
book on Digital Solidarity, but as yet the original source of solidarity’s
power of industrial leverage with which the labor movement of the mid-19th
to mid-20th century
 was able to exert its collective will over capital. In
this sense labor power not only represented and protected its workers it
also created a spectrum of political parties transforming the  political
mainstream until its achievements began to be rolled back In the 1980s. 

As Castells pointed out in a discussion with Paul Mason at LSE in 2012 that
It took 20-30 years from the arrival of mass industrialization to the point
when the union power and the labor movement became part of political
“It is a long journey from the minds of people to the
institutions   of society.” 
Castells may be correct but if 
the era of the
tripple Crunch,
 the credit, climate and the inequality crunch means anything
surely means that we no longer have the luxury of time. The process of
developing new regimes 
capable of organising networks of precarious
affective labor into viable and effective political formations with the
capacity to exert leverage 
urgently needs to accelerate. Patience is not
always a virtue.

1. Warwick University Enriching Britain, Creativity, Culture, Growth
 Robert Hewison Creative Capital

2. Get Creative- BBC,


4. Bournemouth University – Media Arts Practice

5. David Graeber, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs –

6. My Creativity Sweatshops-

7.  G. Lovink, N. Rossiter, Olmer –  9 Theses – On the Creative Question

8. Peter Thiel , Zero to One -Crown Business, New York

9.  Robert Hewison, Creative Capital, The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain,
Verso, 2014

10. Felix Stalder Manuell Castells- The Network and the Theory of the
Network Society, Polity 2006

11. Steven Shavero’s Blog – The Pinnocchio Theory – Blog entry title: A
Mcluhanite Marxism? Posted Monday, April 17th, 2006

12. Lev Manovich – Software Takes Command, Bloomsbury Academic, 3013

13. Brian Holmes in conversation at -Tactical Media Connections Meeting-
Tolhuistuin, Amsterdam 2013

14. Brighton Fuse Reports 1&2 2013-2015

15. Felix Stalder. Digital Solidarity, 2013, Mute