The creative industries are hurting, not helping artists—we need a new model

A holdover from Tony Blair's "Cool Britannia" vision, the New Labour invention has turned its back on what makes art great

September 09, 2019
A holdover from Tony Blair's "Cool Britannia" vision, the hastily-assembled sector does nothing to help the artists it is supposed to serve. Photo: Prospect Composite
A holdover from Tony Blair's "Cool Britannia" vision, the hastily-assembled sector does nothing to help the artists it is supposed to serve. Photo: Prospect Composite

Every time you watch a television advert, go to a museum, play a computer game, or swipe right on a potential suitor, you’re indulging in the outputs of the so-called “creative industries.” Unless you can remember the time when a “smart” phone was one that simply had a snazzy cover, you would have grown up during the birth of the creative industries. The sector was created in 1997 under Tony Blair’s New Labour when they rounded up an errant group of industries into a (relatively) stable construct. Bundled up with the party’s Cool Britannia motif, workers as diverse as advertising executives, software engineers, dance music DJs and ceramic potters were put onto the same balance sheet and hey presto, a new vibrant and crucially, sellable, sector was formed.

The accompanying political narrative was that the creative industries would champion the social utility of arts and culture as progressive realms to engage fractured communities, realise progressive values and create a more sustainable economic world. In 1999, Blair himself argued in one of the foundational documents of the creative industries that “our aim must be to create a nation where the creative talents of all the people are used to build a true enterprise economy for the twenty first century — where we compete on brains, not brawn.”

Now it seems impossible to doubt the economic success story that is the creative industries. According to the (un-neutral sounding) Creative Industries Federation, a membership body that lobbies government of behalf of the creative industries, the creative industries contribute £101.5 billion to the UK economy, more than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences and oil & gas sectors combined. According to research commissioned by the 'Britain is Great’ Campaign, the UK is ranked first for “cultural influence” in the world (although how much of this is down to the existing contours of centuries-old imperialist oppression is not explained in the methodology.)

The trouble is that all this “success” has come at the expense of any cultural, artistic or creative integrity that the sectors once had before they were herded into a single political concept. As art world researcher Max Haiven has pointed out, financialisation has now been hard-wired into cultural practices. Whereas before artists and cultural practitioners could engage in art for art's sake, now they are judged, ranked and scored on how much private investment they can secure. So film students are taught how to budget at the expense of how to create a mise-en-scène. Sculptors learn about the cost efficiency of materials rather than the work of da Vinci. Children do art classes because they are seen as investments in their future career rather than simply nurturing their well-being.

Moreover, the very definition of a "creative" occupation or industry classification is constantly tweaked to include more productive areas of the economy. There has been a great deal of academic work critiquing the definitional chicanery by the DCMS that aims to inflate the sector with industrial practice that is far from “creative.” For example, the “software” subsector—which consisted mainly of accountancy and administration staff—was augmented in 2005 which added £4.7bn to the creative industries’ overall contribution overnight.

More damagingly, the creative industries also feed off an army of freelance, precarious and volunteer workers. Recent research has shown that freelancers in the UK lose over £5000 by working for free in the vain hope of gaining “exposure.” Sadly, the story of creative workers expecting to work for multimillion-pound institutions for nothing is all too common.

At the end of the day, the collectivisation of these industries into a "sector" has done virtually nothing to increase collective bargaining power for workers, or done justice to their ethical beliefs. Much of the important work is being done despite the bluster around the creative industries. The new computer games union, Game Workers Unite UK, help game developers cope with their increasingly stressful conditions while working to impossible deadlines. Many artists who feel their work is being used and abused by corporations looking to “wash” their unethical practices are now organising their own resistance. The National Portrait Gallery returning a donation from the Sackler family, the Tate ending their 26-year-old relationship with BP, the Design Museum agreeing to review its events hosting policy; these all came about through insurrectionary practices by the artists themselves, not from a political vanguard that was looking out for the artists’ best intentions.

The sectors that comprise the creative industries—the computer games, advertising, film and TV and so on—they have been going long before their political collectivisation came about. Of course, as individual sectors, they had internal hierarchies, political wrangling, lobbying power and exploitative practices all of their own. But with their rationalisation into neat subsectors of a disharmonised whole, any creative and cultural nuance has been lost in the ether of pure financialisation. The creative industries rhetoric has created a new language that all “creative” workers now have to learn. It is a language couched in the vacuity of management speak—professionalism, growth, innovation, digitisation, metrics and economics.

To reignite the value of cultural and artistic work to society that is so prevalent in the creative industries, as they are currently defined, requires a radical shift in governance. For over two decades now, all but the very few fortunate of creative labourers have had to live cobbled-together portfolio careers and sell their artistic soul for a few grand of Arts Council funding. Yet, the creativity that these people possess gives them the capability to revolutionise the economy as we know it.

Imagine a world where industrial strategies were based on cultural participation and well-being in the long term, rather than how many zeros you can add to your balance sheet in the next quarter. What would a creative economy look like that was deeply socialised and created collective power to resist labour precariousness and exploitation? Imagine what kind of cultural experiences, educational syllabi and abundant social services could be created with a properly funded "creative" sector.

Then, there’s the economy. New funding could be procured via a radically fairer taxation regime that targeted the offshore accounting practices of large cultural institutions. Furthermore, clamping down on Freeports—the cavernous, stateless, hidden-away, impenetrable and crucially tax-exempt vaults for some of the world’s most expensive art—would free some of humanity’s most cultural and creatively significant pieces to be seen publicly, and benefited from socially as well as economically. Even a fraction of the tax duly owed would suffice.

These are not utopian ideals; they are real demands that creative workers and activists should be placing on those who formulate policy, and collectively organising resistance when they don’t listen. As groups like the Games Union and BP or not BP? show, such resistance is happening. But to achieve this on a larger scale requires a drastic turnaround in what the creative industries currently are: a political concept that serves no other purpose than to allow capital to do what it does best; serve the few at the expense of the rest.

Oli Mould is author of Against Creativity (2018) out with Verso Books