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Putting Creativity to Work

Ah, creativity. We’ve always known it was desirable stuff, good for kids and poets and so on, but in the last few years creativity has entered that exalted realm of sacred social concepts. Today it ranks with “competitiveness” and “excellence” as one of the ineffable qualities that promises to make us all rich. Or maybe a little bit effable: Creativity, leaders and thinkers tell us, is essential for business, and as such it must be managed, protected, and actively promoted, not just left up to the haphazard experimentation of the “creatives” themselves. Indeed, from Taiwan to New Zealand, managers and policymakers are working to promote what they call “creative industries,” which are supposed to rationalize the creative process and deliver earth-shaking creative leaps, all nicely wrapped and poised to boost tourism and puff stock markets and real estate prices onward into the skies.

In the U.K., which once considered “rebranding” itself as “Cool Britannia,” the idea of creativity as a servant to business has guided government policy ever since New Labor came to power in 1997. Shortly thereafter, the Blair government established the Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport (the name itself is mind-boggling in its callow pragmatism), which was commissioned to promote such “creative industries” as fashion, advertising, architecture, TV, art, and what the ministry’s website calls “interactive leisure software.”

Art for art’s sake has become an official initiative of an authoritarian government.

It did not take long for Pacific Rim countries to jump on Mother England’s creativity bandwagon. In 2004, the newly re-elected center-right Australian government reaffirmed its commitment to supporting a “Digital Content Strategy” to promote people and businesses that produce “content,” or what was formerly known as “culture.” In Taiwan, where manufacturing is increasingly being off-shored to the People’s Republic of China, the government has taken similar steps, launching a “Digital Content Institute” whose budget runs into the hundreds of millions of New Taiwan Dollars and whose website declares, matter-of-factly: “In this highly competitive information age, content rules.”

As usual, though, it is the island nation of Singapore that is in hottest pursuit of today’s trendy business idea. Singapore’s plan is to make itself a “global arts city” by creating a more bohemian-friendly business environment where “creative workers” will want to live, play, and generate content. Even better, the city is called—optimistically—“Renaissance Singapore,” according to a government report, a place where “building up a cultural and creative buzz” is an order from the highest authorities. You know the routine: Vibrancy. World-classness. Enthusiastic government support for the “scene.” Even an annual gay festival, the largest in Asia—all in a country where anti-sodomy laws are still on the books. To announce its transformation from an over-sanitized corporate utopia to a cross between fifteenth century Florence and nineteenth century Paris, the Singapore government launched an advertising campaign on CNN International featuring a soulful writer-type testifying to his love of the magical richness of Singaporean cultural history and seductive textures of every day life in the creativity-friendly city-state. He is, of course, Irish.


It doesn’t take a very creative sort to spot the irony here: Singapore may be infatuated with creativity these days, but it isn’t a particularly democratic place. It is a “depoliticized” land that doesn’t have much by way of opposition parties, and those who dare to stand against the ruling People’s Action Party are frequently sued into bankruptcy under the country’s stringent defamation laws. According to one highly regarded index of press freedom, Singapore earned by far the lowest ranking of all developed countries. In 2004, it found itself just one notch above Iraq and eighteen places ahead of Myanmar. (Singapore’s response, according to the Associated Press: “Outsiders shouldn’t equate freedom with criticizing the government.”) Founded at the height of the Cold War, and in the wake of British attempts to put down Communists in Malaysia, the ruling People’s Action Party has prided itself from the outset on its ability to maintain an orderly, spanking clean, multinational-friendly island of stability right on the equator. It set the gold standard for Asian modernization.

The push for creativity is driven by a hyper-rational logic.

Those planning to take in the super-authentic street markets and ethnic festivals depicted in Singapore’s ad campaign should know that its image heretofore has always been one of malls and chain stores; a place so bland that TGI Fridays was until recently considered an exciting place to cool one’s heels on Saturday night. Indeed, Singapore is a kind of experiment in business rationality gone mad. Witness, for example, its infamous dabbling in social engineering: During the sixties, Singapore’s government grew concerned about the population boom and implemented a number of punitive policies to discourage large families, especially among the poor: These “population disincentives” included innovative features like preferred entry into elite primary schools for the children of parents who had agreed to be sterilized before the age of forty. By the beginning of the eighties, the opposite problem was threatening the island’s stability: Now the government worried about the declining fertility of its upper classes. A government matchmaking agency was set up for yuppie lonely hearts too busy to date in order to encourage the “right” kind of procreative unions, with generous grants and, once again, preferred entry into elite public schools for the children of university-educated women.


Today it is creativity, not eugenics, that fires the fancy of Singapore’s rulers. But the hyper-rational logic remains the same. The government still wants to engineer social progress and prosperity—only the new maxim is art equals money. The doctrine is spelled out with characteristic precision in a government paper titled “Culture and the Arts in Renaissance Singapore,” in which it is calculated that art and cultural activities add value to a city at a greater rate of return ($1.66 on every dollar invested) than either the banking ($1.44) or petrochemical industries ($1.35). The strategy has two elements. First, the government hopes to encourage Singaporeans to be more creative themselves while at the same time creating a creativity-friendly environment in order to attract and retain creative foreigners. Naturally, Singapore calls these creativity-inducing measures “Art for Art’s Sake” and “Art for Business’ Sake.” What one can be sure of, in the tightly controlled public sphere of the city-state, is that there will be little debate or creative dissent regarding these initiatives. Now that art has been declared good for business, the virtue of Singapore’s progressive new cultural policies will have to become self-evident to its citizens.

Thus the winding path by which art for art’s sake has become an official initiative of an authoritarian government. This may be extreme, but it should not be unfamiliar. After all, Singapore got the idea from us—specifically, from American theorists and American practices. For example, one of the island’s “Renaissance” studies focuses on an American government report on the peculiar economics of Broadway theater, where experimentation has been stifled due to high production costs and the demands for immediate profitability. New plays and genuinely innovative drama must emerge from nonprofit theater. Conclusion of the American government: Nonprofit theater is an important contributor to theater profitability, and as such is a worthy recipient of government funding. Of course, when all theatrical productions are considered as potential profit-centers, any notion of “nonprofit” theater is rendered meaningless.

Bohemians now serve a debt-driven, service-oriented urbanity that closes the door on Protestant austerity.

Once upon a time, of course, “art for art’s sake” was a slogan accompanied by misery and poverty. It was a bohemian rejection of market values, not a rallying cry for the calculating social engineer. True, the suffering of the nineteenth-century bohemian was soon exploited in works such as Henri Murger’s novel Scenes of Bohemian Life and Puccini’s La Bohème, a favorite of every opera company’s repertoire. Yet figures such as Manet, Baudelaire, and Flaubert made real material sacrifices in their attempts to achieve artistic autonomy. They were not team players. They cared little for the competitiveness of la patrie. They favored mind-altering substances that would get them in deep, deep trouble in Singapore today. “Art for art’s sake,” in short, was a defiant refusal of the sort of values that are manifested today in desperate-to-be-hip chambers of commerce.

For modern-day economist Richard Florida, however, bohemians should be celebrated for their savvy cosmopolitan consumerism. Florida is a hip apologist for massive first world de-industrialization: he says he was motivated by growing up in the Rust Belt and watching the decimation of the blue-collar communities that nurtured him. His neoliberal solution for laid off industrial workers and their ruined cities? Get art! Be bohemian! Naturally Florida leaves out the downside of garret life—tuberculosis, drug addiction, prostitution or chronic un- and underemployment. What Florida affirms is the bohemian indifference to penny-pinching—their profligate, devil-may-care spirit (in Puccini’s opera the bohemians spend their meager earnings in cafés and restaurants, on new clothes and jewelry, even though they can’t pay their rent or medical bills). Bohemians like their amenities, he tells us: They dine out a lot, shop on credit, live beyond their means, and go to museums and theater. Bohemianism is a profit center, as well as a critical resource for city planners, a key to reinventing the urban landscape. Bohemians serve a debt-driven, service-oriented urbanity that closes the door on Protestant austerity and frugality. They drive up real estate values while fueling property speculation, as the skyrocketing condo prices of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood seem to prove.

The court philosophers of this new creative empire have emerged from the academic left and cultural studies, from disciplines formerly given to proclaiming their hostility to the bourgeois way. These new-style pedagogues hack with confidence through the thicket of the old-school humanities, still inhabited by rare but dangerous “modernists” and “elitists,” clear-cutting this once inhospitable terrain so that it can be made more useful to the creative-industrial state. Thus Terry Flew, one of the original administrators in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology, proposes a “new humanism” in which “self-actualization” and “lifelong learning” would allow students to be, yes, “creative” and prepare for “everlasting uncertainty.” Although Flew naturally dismisses the “old humanism” as an invention of the hated bourgeoisie, he seems to have no problem with market values themselves. The “new humanism” he describes is supposed to foster a better relationship between art and business, with business sifting cultural material like an eager Forty-niner panning for gold, and then offering in exchange the bright nugget of business-friendly ideology:

[D]iscourses identified as having their origins in the arts have been filtered through to business and now returned to the artistic and cultural practice through the concept of the ‘creative industries,’ where artists are increasingly expected to view themselves as cultural entrepreneurs, managing creative talents, personal lives and professional identities in ways that maximize their capacity to achieve financial gain, personal satisfaction and have fun.

Because the workforce will have to face “everlasting uncertainty,” the “new humanities” or “creative industries” are supposed to equip students for “lifelong learning.” It is apparent that “everlasting uncertainty” is code for no job security, “lifelong learning” code for constant retraining, while “creativity” is code for workforce docility. The old humanism taught us to reform the system; the new version instructs us to reform ourselves, to become ready at any minute to be downsized and “re-skilled.” What the old humanism valued above all was democracy, but in the ideology of creative industry, democracy is what is most obviously missing, with its troublesome reverence for skepticism, dissent, debate, and critique. In Flew’s benign account of business, each self-actualizing, creative person seems to exist all alone—actualizing, managing, adapting—so there is no need for dissent, dialogue, or politics at all.

It only gets worse. In a 2001 essay, “Creative Industries: From ‘Blue Poles’ to Fat Pipes,” creative industries cheerleaders-in-chief Stuart Cunningham and John Hartley celebrate creative industries as “an idea whose time has come.” Cunningham and Hartley begin by making fun of a painting that was and still is incomprehensible to most Australians: “Blue Poles” by Jackson Pollock, which was purchased by a Labor-led government in 1973 for a then-record price of $1.3 million. This is supposed to be high culture in all its absurdity. Ah, but “fat pipes”—these are the alternative to “Blue Poles”: They are the healthy, pragmatic, non-elitist conduits by which the creative industries will irrigate the Australian cultural landscape. According to Cunningham and Hartley, creative industries are pretty special—they’re sort of like Jesus. Not only will they make us rich (in spirit as well as bank account), but social hierarchy and prejudice will also fade into obsolescence once we “reconceptualize” creativity as industry. Before long, Cunningham and Hartley—in a routine tiresomely familiar to those of us who have to spend every day listening to cultural studies triumphalism—are mocking the effete “elitist” and celebrating the democratizing power of their new market-friendly university. “By bringing the arts into direct contact with large-scale industries such as media entertainment,” they crow, “it allows us to get away from the elite/mass, art/entertainment, sponsored/commercial, high/trivial distinctions that bedevil thinking about creativity.” They conclude that not only are arts and culture by nature elitist since they were once promoted by the aristocracy, but they are also coercive and punitive. Once they are supplanted by creative industries, however, we shall all be liberated from both ideology and history—and, it is to be presumed, from the dreaded penal system of culture itself.

So this is what freedom is to look like: “clustering, networking, R&D facilitation,” and, of course, the promotion of the video game and movie industries—since, Hartley and Cunningham assert, these two sectors have been known to produce goods both “excellent” and “aesthetic.” There will also be a great deal of marketing, plus the pursuit and identification of new markets to exploit. The plan for a creative-industries future looks a lot like, well, any other business plan, and it is just about as creative. Destroy the past and fuck tradition they tell us, but not in order to remake life in the image of art as the Dadaists proposed. Instead, we are to remake culture in the image of industry. At a time when university administrators have already sold off whole chunks of the academy to corporations (medical schools at private and public universities from USC to the University of Minnesota have been sold to private health managers), Hartley and Cunningham are the first in line to implore their cult stud allies to sell off the humanities and arts education to business interests as well. Why? Because they suggest that humanities education that distances itself from free market directives is both oppressive and outdated. The irony, of course, is that elite universities and private liberal arts colleges are branding themselves with their superior brand of humanities education: market niche has become the goal for institutions of higher education. The sad thing is that for local, regional, and public institutions from the U.K. to Singapore to Australia and the U.S., “creative industries” will indeed fulfill some kind of vocational training function for its captive constituencies, contributing to the great and growing divide between the elites and those who will serve their interests—creatively.