After the creative industries: cultural policy in crisis.

Author:O'Connor, Justin
Position::Special Issue: Cultural Economies and Cultural Activism


This paper, more polemic or manifesto than scholarly exegesis, was written for a meeting of the Global Cultural Economy Network (GCEN), an informal group of policy experts concerned to help re-frame current debates around culture and economy. In the last decade or so that relationship has been predominantly configured under the agenda of 'creative industries' and later 'creative economy'. The GCEN coalesced in the belief that whatever new insights, dynamics and policy constituencies were generated by the creative industry/ economy agenda, it seems now to have become dysfunctional for, even destructive of, a progressive future for cultural policy. This is not just a Northern hemisphere but a global crisis.

Though this paper, in a rudimentary form, was initially addressed to a specific meeting, the 'we' that it uses nonetheless needs some explaining. The GCEN is an informal--potentially 'activist'--group with no 'official line'. Indeed this paper was precisely an attempt to create a GCEN 'we' by using this statement of position as a central text around which the meeting was to be organised. Could we, as a group, accept this as a broad statement of where we stood? As it transpired, the meeting--at Tilburg University, The Netherlands--did not take place (at least in the form in which it was intended) and this text awaits a future meeting--face-to-face or virtual - in which this 'we' can be more formally brought into existence. Nonetheless, this paper has benefited enormously from the two meetings that preceded it (in Shanghai, and Prato, Italy), and the emailed comments that a prior draft had received. And of course, knowing the immediate audience had shaped its arguments and rhetoric as it would any attempt to actively persuade and enlist a specific group of people.

Which brings me to the second aspect of the 'we'. For though intending to bring a small informal 'we' into existence, the possibility of that act of persuasion was crucially dependent on establishing the existence (real and potential) of a larger 'we' to which, and hopefully for which, we could (eventually) speak. This 'we' is an imagined community, or more accurately perhaps, a rather ramshackle 'epistemic community', around culture and economy that emerged along multiple tributaries in the 1980s and 1990s. An epistemic community can be defined as 'a network of professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain or issue-area' with one of its features being 'a common policy enterprise, or a set of common practices associated with a set of problems to which their professional competence is directed, presumably out of the conviction that human welfare will be enhanced as a consequence. (1)

This aptly describes the emergent, transnational policy community of cultural (and later creative) industries and cultural (and later creative) cities experts in the 1990s--primarily in Europe, North America and Australia, and increasingly in Latin America, South Africa and East Asia. It emerged from older cultural policy formations--most significantly perhaps the UN 'culture and development' discourse - as well as from the academic traditions of political economy of the media, economic geography, cultural studies and critical cultural policy studies. These in turn were responding to the complex set of contested transitions from a 'Fordist' welfare state system to something else--a 'knowledge' or 'creative' or 'information' or 'post-industrial' or 'post-scarcity' or even 'post-modern' society. However interpreted, this moment of transition was seized as an opportunity for change encapsulated by an 'imaginary' in which culture and economy were to come together in new and positive ways.

Its members were consultants and consultant-practitioners, local and regional government officers, cultural space managers, directors of large cultural institutions, academics and representatives of national (British Council, Goethe Institute, etc.) and transnational cultural agencies (UNESCO, Ford Foundation, European Commission, etc.). Their emergent community was extended and consolidated across a series of conferences, networks, research contracts and practical projects. It constituted, in its formative years at least, a kind of mobile trans-local scene, temporarily convening and reconvening in various 'creative clusters', art spaces and conferences centers. This loose epistemic community can be described as an 'activist' one. It was not just a group of policy-oriented professionals seeking to push 'a common policy enterprise'. Its relatively marginal status, its claims to present the voice of an emergent constituency, its need to challenge existing settings in order to clear a space for itself--all these brought it close to the kinds of 'cultural social movements' that had marked (especially) urban activism since the protests of the 1960s.

Its not-quite-recognized field of expertise benefited enormously from the UK government's 'creative industries' brand and, in turn, this transnational epistemic community was partly responsible for the unexpected (by the UK government at least) success of this policy across the globe. Since that time, the community has extended its reach and recruited new members globally as national governments have sought to promote this agenda, as have agencies such as UNCTAD, WIPO and of course, UNESCO. The latter, gradually building momentum around its work to ratify and promote the 2005 Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, has taken a lead in the linking of culture to development, but using the cultural/ creative economy notion to give a new inflection to this agenda. One of the questions this paper raises concerns the costs incurred by this mainstreaming of an activist practice. This is not about 'selling out', rather it is about interrogating the conditions within which this mainstreaming took place.

The 'we' then is exploratory, a work-in-progress, a gamble. I called this epistemic community 'ramshackle' as it was made up of a disparate group of people operating on the margins of an already pretty marginal cultural policy constituency. Its concern to combine culture and economy gave it a certain cohesion and self-consciousness, and also provided the rhetorical strategy by which it sought increased centrality in policy. Does such an epistemic community still exist and can it be interpellated along the lines of our appeal here? What residual meaning does the word 'culture' retain after its systemic replacement by 'creative' as an all encompassing good? Perhaps the failure--after years of lobbying by the most powerful international agencies in the field of cultural policy--to get 'culture' anywhere near the list of re-iterated Sustainable Development Goals (now the Millennium Development Goals came to an end in 2015) might be the jolt necessary to create a 'we', for a moment at least. This failure attests to the further diminution of the 'culture and development' agenda as it does to the hubris of the 'creative economy' that was to transport us all to the heart of the policy-making process. Beyond that and this is the subject of this paper--the failure speaks to a serious, perhaps terminal, crisis of the cultural policy settings that emerged in the twenty or so years after 1945.

This paper then is not an attempt to give a detailed account--'the way it really was'--of this ramshackle epistemic community, nor of the period in which it saw itself as ascendant. 'To articulate the past historically...means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger'; seizing such a memory-in-danger, Walter Benjamin continues, helps us to 'deliver tradition anew from the conformism which is on the point of overwhelming it' and to set 'alight the sparks of hope from the past'. (2) This is one attempt to signal a moment of danger, and to suggest some hope without which, pace Deleuze, we will never forge new weapons. (3)

Culture and Economy: Elective Affinities or Reconciliation under Duress?

We should be mindful of the changed circumstances of today, compared to eighteen years ago when the UK government launched its Creative Industries Mapping Document. That policy moment built on twenty years of work around the cultural industries (and culture-led urban regeneration) and was welcomed by many (including many of us) as culture's arrival at a more powerful negotiating table. One widely quoted description of this is from John Hartley:

The creative industries idea brought creativity from the back door of government, where it had sat for decades holding out the tin cup for arts subsidy--miserable, self-loathing and critical (especially of the hand that fed it), but unwilling to change--around to the front door, where it was introduced to the wealth-creating portfolios, the emergent industry departments, and the enterprise support programmes. Win, Win. (4) We suggest that few would nowadays share the cloudless optimism of this highly revealing statement. After a decade at the front door many are concerned with what they jettisoned from the good old days at the back door. One thing stands out loud and clear: a condition of creativity's grand entrance seems to have been that it dropped its embarrassing links to art and culture. Creativity became tonguetied as it was forced to speak the language of growth, innovation and economic metrics. Despite this, since 2008 it has been increasingly deemed a luxury superfluous to requirements. Ushered out of the grand entrance its supporters are now dismayed to find that the back door has now shrunk to a porthole. Lose, lose.

This situation could be a path to cynicism or a return to pure art and 'intrinsic' value. The GCEN wishes to take neither.

We acknowledge the embrace of popular, everyday and commercial cultures outside the narrow field of the...

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