Art as Industry 

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An Essay by Justin O’Connor

This is Part One of four essays on Culture and Economy – on how art and culture got tangled up in economy sometime in the 1970s. They are written looking backwards, from the perspective of the Covid-19 crisis of 2020, in order that we might go forwards. Part One begins with the crisis of the arts in Australia and why they have found it difficult to articulate what this crisis is and how they can get out of it. 

Laura Tingle: Just a reminder from a walk through Canberra this morning that ‘Arts’ didn’t even make it into the name of the department. No wonder an $111 billion industry is so easy to overlook. (Twitter)

The Agony and the Advocacy

The tweet, by respected financial journalist Laura Tingle, exemplifies much of the frustration in the cultural sector and its supporters with the lack of response by the Federal Government to its calls for help. The arts and culture sector, heavily dependent on live audiences, were amongst the first to be affected by the C-19 lockdown. Very quickly it emerged that many arts and cultural workers would not be eligible for the Jobkeeper allowance because they could not show 12 months continuous employment with one employer. The escalating precarity of arts and cultural work, highlighted by numerous publications and protests over the last two decades, has now become subject of mainstream public debate. This forms part of a general debate around the ‘gig economy’ and the changing landscape of modern labour, and how we might have to re-think the relations between work, income and social protection, from flexible pensions, though Universal Basic Income, to the 30-Hour working week. These are crucial questions, to which we return at the end. However, the immediate concern was two-fold: how could Jobkeeper and other forms of state support be properly purposed to support workers, firms and organisations in arts and culture, and more pointedly, why did the Federal government refuse to do this? 

In some sense this has been a long time coming. Federal funding for arts and culture, including public broadcasting, has been falling since the Coalition came to power in 2013. The ABC, despite being seen to have reclaimed its position as ‘essential service’ in the recent bushfire and C-19 crises, has been saddled with swingeing cuts by an unrepentant Coalition government. The dismal policy failure of the National Broadband Network, compromised and effectively privatised, is just another aspect of this evacuation from public culture and its infrastructure. If some of this can be put down to incompetence, at base it is ideological: the Coalition government, breaking with a century of Australia tradition, deeply resents any form of public provision outside of security and defence. The fate of the higher education sector – an interesting parallel with arts and culture – illustrates this well, as the government managed to rapidly shut down any loopholes through which public universities might claim Jobkeeper.

Laura Tingle’s tweet gives pithy expression to the consternation. First there is photo reference to the fact that the Coalition government, in a recent reorganisation, buried the arts portfolio in a ‘super-ministry’, the absence of ‘arts’ from the name panel reflecting this. Then comes the argument that has been threaded through all the commentary in this space since the crisis began: how is it that the Federal government can overlook an ‘industry’ worth $111 billion? As with the refusal to help Universities, Australia’s fourth largest ‘export’ generator, surely this is pure, self-harming, ideology? These questions were not predominantly rhetorical; there was real mystification as to why this was happening. Tingle’s figure of $111 billion – quoted repeatedly during the crisis – came from a 2018 Working Paper by the Australian Government’s Bureau of Communications and Arts Research (BCAR). The Australia Institute, a centre-left independent think-tank, also laid out the stark econometrics: creative arts employed more people than those two emblems of neoliberal Australia, mining and finance. What was going on? 

There is little doubt that this refusal to help is ideologically motivated. It is not that arts and culture have been overlooked or put aside as some trivial frill, irrelevant to the hard necessities of a national emergency. What the arts and cultural world is slowly waking up to is that the Coalition does not value them, and quite possibly deeply dislikes them. It does not value them despite the metrics of Gross Value Added (GVA) and employment thrown at a government sworn to a ‘laser-like focus’ on ‘jobs and growth’. This aversion to arts and culture is now a global trend amongst right wing governments; the European Far Right campaigns against arts funding, and the new wave of authoritarian rulers look to religion and ‘blood and soil’ as the basis of national cultural policy. The Coalition is part of this trend, and is a tendency certainly demands more investigation and analysis; but we need to start from a different place. 

We want to highlight another aspect of this situation, one that might be more uncomfortable for advocates of the arts and cultural sector but which we believe they must address. Our concern is with the ne plus ultra of arts and cultural advocacy that we now witness: for over twenty years the gamble has been that the framing of arts and culture as ‘an industry’, either in its own right or as part of a broader ‘creative industries’ or ‘creative economy’, would garner more government attention, support and ‘investment’. For arts and culture, in Australia, this has failed, the current crisis merely the final nail. Elsewhere, in countries where governments have adopted a creative industries or creative economy perspective (absent in resource extractive Australia) there may have been more funding for arts and culture, but mostly at the expense of framing these as an adjunct of this new industrial sector. So, we ask here: what did we lose when we started to call art and culture an ‘industry’?

Damned Lies

Let’s start with the statistics, which have been crucial to arts advocacy since the mid-1980s. The $111 billion figure from the BCAR is the total for ‘cultural and creative activity’. Two things should be noted immediately: the word is ‘activity’ not ‘industry’, and the figure refers to ‘cultural and creative’ not the arts. Is this just semantics? 

First, the BCAR immediately urge caution ‘when comparing the measurement of cultural and creative activity with activity that occurs in a particular industry of the Australian economy’. The ‘contribution of cultural and creative activity to the economy measures the contribution of that activity across multiple industry sectors’, including ‘manufacturing, education, information media and telecommunications and arts and recreation services. The contribution of a particular industry (such as manufacturing) measures the contribution to the economy of activity from only that industry.’(5) ‘Cultural and creative activity’ is not one specific industry but specified activities dispersed across many industries. Their economic value is (broadly) a combination of the contribution of ‘industry’ sub-sectors (broadcasting, performing arts, newspapers, clothes and footwear manufacture etc.) and that of cultural or creative occupations across different industries – a musician working in education, an actor in mental health, a graphic illustrator in a finance company but also, as we shall see, a computer systems designer in a mining company. If advocates for education, or manufacturing, or engineering, started to count activities in this way, then they too might come up with a GVA far exceeding their own particular industries. Hence the BCAR warning. 

Second, BCAR refer to cultural and creative activities. Unlike in so much cultural sector advocacy these two words are not used interchangeably, nor is ‘creative industry’ used as a catch all term for them both. The statisticians in the Bureau make the point that has repeatedly been made to promoters of the ‘creative industries’ – water off a duck’s back – that culture and creativity overlap but are not the same thing. For the BACR ‘creative activity’ involves human creativity as a ‘significant and identifiable input’; ‘cultural activity’ aims to ‘communicate symbolic meaning, such as in beliefs, values, and traditions’. 

This distinction immediately disaggregates the $111 billion into ‘cultural activity’ ($63.5) and ‘creative activity’ ($48.2). The distinct ‘creative activity’ is made up primarily of ‘Computer system design and related services’ and ‘Fashion’, i.e. clothing and footwear manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing. ‘Computer system design’ is four times bigger than ‘fashion’. Indeed, the BCAR notes that ‘computer systems design’, located in the ‘professional, scientific and technical services’ ANZSIC category, accounts for most ($19.5 out of $25.8 billion) of the total growth over the last decade in cultural and creative activities. 

Why count ‘computer systems design’? Though ‘human creativity’ is clearly an input into computer systems design, why stop there? Is that the limit of creativity outside of the cultural domain? Obviously not – education, health, finance and so on all involve human creativity. It is included here simply because when the UK Government came up with the term ‘creative industries’ in 1998 it notoriously added ‘software and computing’ to an established ‘cultural sector’. The Australian Bureau of Statistics was encouraged (because everyone else seemed to be doing it) to replicate this definition in earlier reports, an example which the BACR is following. 

This addition of computing system design (under various titles in different countries) has consistently added around 40% to both employment and value-added figures for the ‘creative industries’. It is the ‘engine’ at the heart of all those figures showing the creative industries growing faster than the rest of the economy and employing anywhere between 6-10% of the active workforce. Strip computer systems design out and the figures reduce pretty quickly. This 40% inflation is what is happening with that figure of $111 billion. This figure includes anyone employed as ‘computer systems design’ in other industries – such as a data-base designer in a mining company or a wealth management fund. These are not, by anyone’s definition, part of an ‘arts industry’. 

If we restrict our measurement to cultural industries – those sectors coded as such by BACR using the ANZSIC classifications, and not including people with cultural occupations in other industries – then the GVA is reduced by one third, from $63.5 to $41.9 billion. So already, just using the broad definition of ‘cultural industries’ we have more than halved the $111 billion figure. 

We are not yet at ‘the arts industry’. BCAR’s definition of cultural industries includes ‘design’ (minus the computing systems, i.e. mainly architecture, advertising and marketing) which makes up almost a quarter of the total GVA. After this we have book and newspaper printing and retailing, and environmental heritage. Arts and media combined accounted for just a little more than design, that is, just over a quarter of the $41.9 billion total. The ‘arts industry’ – including broadcast and electronic media – is pretty much reduced to just over $14 billion.

This is confirmed by the Australia Institute report, whose headline figures on employment in the ‘creative arts’ are quoted but less so its findings on value added – $14.7 billion to GDP in 2017–18. The AI report has a conservative definition and its does not include cultural employment in other industries. Creative arts includes, in descending order of employment size: Creative and Performing Arts Activities; Heritage Activities; Motion Picture and Sound Recording Activities; Broadcasting (except Internet); Publishing (except Internet and Music Publishing); Library and Other Information Services; Internet Publishing and Broadcasting. Total employment is 193,600, and according to the report, is bigger than Finance (190,600), Accommodation (97,500), Electricity supply (65,000) and Coal mining (49,600). 

Bigger than finance and coal make good headlines, but again the caveats. Live by econometrics, die by them. The Creative Arts ‘industry’ GVA is not $111 billion but $14.7 billion, or 0.8% of Australian GDP. This, the report admits, is ‘small, compared to industries like Manufacturing, or Professional, Scientific and Technical Services’.(8) If this relatively low GVA is combined with relatively high employment, then we have a problem: a sector with high employment but low value-added = low productivity. This low productivity is a well-known characteristic of the performing arts as well as the kinds of free or highly subsidised activities in museums, galleries, libraries and heritage sites. It is the highly commercialised sections of media and design (advertising, marketing, architectural services) that have the higher productivity rating (as, of course, do the ‘creative’ activities of computer systems design). 

Which is to say, using econometric statistics to advocate for the value of the arts is a high-risk business. A glance at the last three Australia Census datasets shows an absolute decline in employment in the cultural and creative industries (excluding computer systems) up to 2016. The numbers of those in cultural occupations grew, but at a rate lower than the rest of the economy – driven by design services (excluding computer systems), architecture and ‘own account cultural workers – i.e. ‘freelancers’. The BCAR paper shows a slight decline over the decade in the percentage contribution of cultural and creative activities to GDP: without computer systems design this would be a much greater decline.  

The BACR shows also that growth in cultural activities is driven by growth in ‘design’ (excluding computer systems) offsetting the absolute job losses in printing, manufacturing and related wholesale/ retail services. Other research has shown a significant collapse in ‘blue collar’ jobs in the cultural industries – newspaper and publishing, clothing and footwear manufacture, and other related manufacture. 

We might add to this the numerous reports into persistent below average and low incomes in this sector, despite cultural workers being more educated than the average workforce, and the growth in freelancing which is part of the general escalation of the ‘gig’ or ‘precarious’ economy. 

Even based on these sympathetic statistical accounts, the ‘creative arts’ is not the headline $111 billion industry employing more than finance and mining: it is a highly educated, low productivity, low waged, low job security sector, which contributes $14.7 billion or less than 1% of Australian GDP. Why then would any government even need to take note of it? 

Dying by the Sword?

A ‘jobs and growth’ industry policy, derived from such metrics is clear. Focus on Architecture and Design (including computing systems) along with broadcast and internet media. Find ways of moving high qualified, low paid, precarious workers from the creative arts to the media and design sector. Find ways of linking residual manufacturing skills to ‘advanced manufacture’ and encourage the growth of fashion retail/ wholesale rather than manufacture. The rest can be filed under ‘culture’ and ‘community’ and given over to federal and state/ territory support, along with an increased role for philanthropy. In return, these must show a contribution to R&D and innovation (art as ‘blue skies research’), community benefit and ‘health & well-being’, and achieve a certain level of audience figures or satisfaction based on a dashboard of metrics that would allow government to justify taxpayer subsidy. 

In many ways this is just what we have now. Creative industry promoters have argued for a separation of cultural and creative, commercial and subsidised, economy and community focused sectors. This is a de facto setting for many of the state and territories, who seek to split arts and culture from ‘creative’, giving this latter to economic development agencies or chambers of commerce. Art and culture are then allocated variously to community development, education (museums and galleries), or tourism (festivals and events).

This has not been the case in Victoria or New South Wales, where the existence of a relatively large and robust ‘cultural and creative’ sector indicates how difficult it is in practice to separate the two, and the destruction wrought when it is attempted. A complex ‘creative ecosystem’ involving a mix of large and small, public, private and not-for-profit, is not one amenable to ‘picking winners’ as in the standard industrial development script. Nonetheless, there is a kind of double vision, where the economic and the cultural rationales overlap or juxtapose but don’t quite coincide, policy goals flitting uneasily between them. Public policy for the creative industries is less oxymoronic than schizophrenic. It has public policy goals for culture but it is also industrial development; it seeks to provide art of the highest quality but needs to express this as GVA; it speaks of the ‘creative industries’ but the vast majority of its funding goes to public institutions in the ‘classical’ performing and visual arts, along with an array of public museums, libraries and galleries. Though it is not formulated in any analytical depth, the hope is that, somehow, what’s good for culture is good for the creative industries, and vice versa. 

Those working in the performing and visual arts, or the media, or the music business, or games development have been encouraged to see themselves as ‘creative industries’ and yet nobody really knows what this means – least of all the policy lead bodies. There is a constant verbal and conceptual stumbling between ‘cultural’, ‘creative’ and ‘cultural and creative’, with maybe ‘digital’ somewhere in the mix. ‘Art’ jumps around between all of them. In many gatherings ‘creative industries’ is repeatedly used as a self-identifier – this is after all the key terminology used by Victorian and New South Wales state governments – but everyone in the room turns out to an artist. The over- inflated claims and predatory inclusion of all sorts of activities to get the numbers up, coupled with the deep terminological confusion testify to an arts and cultural sector that has no real idea how to express its public value and even less how it should make its claims to government. 

Undoing Industry 

This is made even more frustrating when the federal government refuses even to heed the econometrics, bogus or otherwise. For at federal level, despite almost two decades of urging, the government has stepped away from the idea of creative industries. Even Labor, in their two recent terms, failed to deliver any coherent policy. Its Creative Australia in 2012 was a rather flat version of Paul Keating’s much vaunted Creative Nation, further confusing art, culture and creative industry policy. The Coalition government, elected in 2013 and still with us, displays a deep-seated antipathy to subsidised public sectors (the subsidised private sector is another matter entirely), especially in culture and education, which in part relates to Australia’s ‘culture wars’. In these, the broad consensus around the value of art and culture between 1960 and 1990 gave way to a highly politicised conflict. On the centre-left was a modernising cultural vision for the country, including reconciliation with the colonial past, a multiculturalist identity, and embracing the ‘creative industries’ as somehow emblematic of this forward-looking vision. On the centre-right was an increasing antipathy to this modernising vision, with a focus on colonial heritage and tradition (especially military), setting sport and entertainment against the ‘elite’ metropolitan arts, and simply ignoring the creative industries as a policy agenda (unlike, for example, the UK Conservative Party). 

Though the ideological opposition of the Coalition to publicly funded art and culture is widely recognised, this is less so with their dismantling of the kind of ‘industry strategy’ on which so much arts and cultural (and creative industries) advocacy has relied. The Coalition aversion to ‘industrial strategy’ is consequent on its accelerating shift to neoliberalism over the last two decades. In part this goes back to Thatcher and Reagan’s refusal to prop up industries that ought (in their view) to be left to sink or swim in the market. This was always deeply politicised, in that labour in these industries tended to be highly organised and their destruction was symbolic of a major defeat for the unions, consigned now to historic redundancy. Post-industrial was also to be post-labour movement. This was less pronounced in Australia, with strong social democratic roots and with the Australian Labor Party – anticipating Clinton, Blair and Schroeder – itself rolling out neoliberal reforms. It took the refusal of the Abbott government to step in to support the Australian car industry to fully register the Coalition’s final detachment from the pieties of protecting industry. 

However, though ‘industry strategy’ – a coherent set of policy goals and indicators aimed at framing investment and management behaviour within a broad national economic context – was jettisoned under the guise of ‘no bail outs’ and the primacy of the market, actual state subsidies only increased for finance, mining, real estate, construction and certain kinds of agri-business. ‘Extraction’ refers not just to mineral resources but also the ways finance has been used to extract value from real estate, superannuation, telecoms and utility privatisations, infrastructure development, Medicare, Centrelink and related employment services (such as cashless welfare cards), education and training, water allocations – the list is endless. These are all ‘industries’ in the loose sense in which that word is now used to mean any set of activities involving monetary transactions, but they are not ‘industries’ in the sense used in the era of ‘nation building’. This last – a broad liberal/ social democratic consensus – involved a highly resourced and professionally valued public policy body who sought to advance a range of different industries and services as part of developing the economic capacity of the nation to deliver some version of ‘the good life’ to its citizens. Those who use ‘arts industry’ or the ‘creative industries’ seek to appeal to such public policy settings, but these no longer exist in anything like the same way. 

This explains the lack of any significant investment in non-mining R&D, ‘creative tech’, renewables or advanced manufacture, the current default policy settings for most post-mass manufacturing countries. As Perry Anderson noted, outside its advanced economic heartlands neoliberalism tended to favour finance and extraction, rather than invest and plan for an expensive ‘knowledge economy’. Anderson was talking of Brazil, but this can apply to Australia too, which now has one of the least diverse economies in the OECD. It is hard to promote the creative industries as an advanced innovation system to a government which is simply not interested in such policies. Alongside the cries for simple economic recognition – $111 billion! – cultural industries bodies are deeply frustrated by the governments’ lack of basic knowledge as to how music, or the performing arts, or film, or publishing actually work. But this is not just about the cultural and creative industries. Corvid-19 has accelerated awareness of ‘supply chain dependency’ on China, and raised more general questions about what manufacturing capacity countries should attempt to retain. Some countries had already responded to the rise of China – especially its Made in China 2025 strategy – by launching a new generation of ‘national industrial strategies’ focused on technology intensive industries. But an Australian political and economic elite assembled around an extraction model will find it hard to develop the will, let alone the capacity, to deliver such a strategy; it is highly unlikely that the ‘creative industries’ would figure in any such.

The rise of financial extraction has hollowed out the public ethos of Australian governments, resulting in a combination of short-termism, incompetence and corruption (not illegality) that has accelerated in the last decade. In this context, framing art, culture or creativity as an ‘industry’ has little traction. Even Malcolm Turnbull’s short-lived ‘ideas boom’ and ‘smart tech’ fell afoul of the Coalition’s right wing. To an extent this is party political: ‘creatives’ seem less likely to vote Coalition, and in any event creative jobs are metropolitan jobs, far from the right-wing heartlands of outer suburbia and rural Australia. In part it is ideological (though not unrelated to the last point): the anti-cosmopolitan, anti-modernist, anti-arts turn in the global right has had very definite impact in Australia. Enlightenment means John Locke and David Hume, ‘Western Civilisation’ not indigenous art and cultural Marxism. But it is also about the economic interests of those in government, and the networks of personal investments, board appointments and other quasi-governmental sinecures within which their political careers are now embedded.

For outside the most high-profile media and design companies – the big newspaper monopolies cross-linked to free-to-air franchises; on-line streaming services; advertising and marketing agencies; creative real estate like We Work – the ‘arts industry’ is not worth much to them. The low productivity; the low levels and longer timescales for ‘Return on Investment’; the resistance to ‘scaling up’ and conglomeration; the complex value ecosystems and so on, mean that this industry, whatever aggregates the statisticians succeed in coming up with, is not particularly attractive or amenable to large scale financial extraction. The contrast with sport is interesting. Floating on a deep base of community participation and public money, the iceberg tip of the complex sports ecosystem is hugely profitable – venues, clubs, leagues, sponsorships, player management, TV deals and so on. It yields profits of a different magnitude than the major performing arts, museums and galleries – even the Australian music business – which are mostly used for the accumulation of cultural, rather than economic, capital. 

So while the arts advocates fire stats at the government, they look back cold-eyed. The Coalition allowed car manufacturing to go under – what chance the arts? Of course, the government are keen to put out political fires, hence the interminable bickering of how far they have, or have not, supported arts and culture during the pandemic. However, and whatever, we are counting with the figures, a 193,000 ‘creative arts’ workforce is a significant constituency and the narrative of ‘we are all in this together’ needs maintaining by the government. Advocates are right to highlight the real suffering in this sector, which needs to be addressed. But aside from this urgent plea to re-direct Jobkeeper to those that need it and to find funds to support the many cultural organisations that have taken such significant hits, this line of ‘arts-as-industry’ advocacy has hit a brick wall and requires, just as urgently, a radical rethink. For what we are faced with here is not just a cloth-eared government but something far more epochal. 

Art as Economic Impact 

The use of economic metrics to make the case for arts funding began in the early 1980s, as publicly funded arts institutions, and their policy narratives, sought a new accommodation with the overall shift in public policy towards predominantly economic forms of legitimation. Arts ‘impact studies’ tried to show how such funding was not just about taxpayer spend but actually generated economic activity. John Myerscough got his 15 minutes with his use of ‘multiplier effects’, where public subsidy was shown to create employment along with direct (tickets, interval drinks) and indirect (car parks, local restaurants) consumer spending. Every $1 spent generated $X in related economic activity. Cultural institutions and precincts, events and festivals, even whole year events such as Glasgow’s 1990 City of Culture, could be shown to be good value for money. This form of advocacy metric began as an optional extra for those institutions that could afford the consultancy and wanted to enhance their next funding bid. As New Public Management ideas made real inroads into public administration from the 1980s onwards, such metrics (and many more were added) became compulsory as part of any public funding, their application to this sector at a level that could only be described as punitive. These economic indicators formed part of a general shift in the legitimation of the arts from a publicly provided service to an economic ‘sector’.

Arts and culture, the argument went, accounted for significant consumer spending (5 percent was Myerscough’s figure) and was only set to grow as leisure, income and education increased; it was thus only proper that its economic contribution should be acknowledged (and measured). Familiar themes were already in place: arts smuggled within the higher figures associated with commercial cultural industries; ‘special pleading’ (spending on the arts ignored what was not therefore spent elsewhere – the Treasury were sniffy); and any consternation that the arts were being made to justify themselves in this way was dismissed as ‘unhelpful’. The new discipline of cultural economics took off in this decade, with practitioners such as David Throsby seeking to advocate for art and culture, and address many of their challenges by the application of standard economic concepts. They came not to bury the arts but to praise them, but this now needed to be done in the grown-up language of economics. Only in this way could they get government to take them seriously, and focus public policy on some long term problems, such as the actual, often dire, working conditions of artists. Economics as the only way to address employment issues facing creatives is another advocacy theme that is still with us, as are, of course, those dire working conditions. 

Art’s economic benefit was articulated at the Australian federal level in 1994’s Creative Nation, which strongly influenced New Labour in the UK. ‘Culture creates wealth’ was one of its claims, and many have seen its imbrication of art and culture with the economy as accelerating their instrumentalization, subsuming arts organisations into standard business and marketing discourses, and promoting the rise and rise of business leaders and corporate lawyers within arts policy bodies and boards. In particular, some saw Creative Nation as introducing the idea of ‘art as industry’: ‘cultural policy is economic policy’ it proclaimed. But the modernising vision which energised Creative Nation came less from its promotion of the cultural industries as an economic sector – retrospectively overemphasised – than its embrace of democratic-popular, commercial culture as part of renewed, forward-looking identity for an Australia stepping out from a colonial heritage and finding its new place in an Asia-Pacific world. Though economic impact was clearly flagged – the arts conveniently conflated with the ‘cultural industries’ when the numbers were needed – for Creative Nation art’s economic value lay primarily in employment and consumer spend (hence the subsequent emphasis on marketing and audience research) not as an integrated set of production and distribution activities associated with ‘industry’ proper. 

In the 1980s ‘industry’ had been mostly synonymous with ‘factory’, hence the polemical juxtaposition of culture and industry made famous by Adorno and Horkheimer. By the 1990s, in the Anglosphere, ‘industry’ was uncoupled from mass manufacture in factories and made applicable to any set of activities that involved monetary transaction –everything from sex, aged care, health, racing, football, education, therapy ad infinitum. In this sense one might talk (other languages found this more difficult) of an ‘arts industry’ loosely referring to the economic dimension of its practices. 

Yet even in this sense ‘art-as-industry’ was always awkward and had limited traction: the arts never really had the numbers and it was clear to (almost) all that they delivered a range of social benefits that should be stressed over straight economic impact. So began the taxonomy years. Throsby identified multiple different non-economic values for art and culture; François Matarasso itemised the various social impacts of art participation; John Holden developed his intrinsic-instrumental-institutional heuristic. Finding ways to classify and measure these non-economic impacts reached some kind of summit in the online ‘dashboard’ of Culture Counts. The ‘intrinsic’ value of art was separated out from its social and economic value, this last designated ‘instrumental’: art used as a means to public policy ends separate to whatever ‘intrinsic value’ it possessed. This form of value accountancy now forms the bread and butter of arts advocacy: art is economically valuable (especially when it piggy-backs onto a much wide ‘cultural and creative’ sector) but it also has other values too, which can be itemised.

The ability to articulate multiple values – a dual or triple ‘bottom line’, or ‘fourth pillar’ – is seen as sophisticated arts advocacy, but in fact it is incoherent and self-defeating. It slips ‘intrinsic value’ into a black box, consigned to the oubliette of ‘art for art’s sake’ and it accepts the ‘social’ and ‘economic’ as categorical givens, each with public policy agendas to which art can contribute but in which it has little say. That art and culture might radically cut across, disrupt or even help reframe the meanings of these given categories cannot be considered because this would disrupt the evaluation matrix itself. Equally, they never set the cultural ‘goods’ against the ‘bads’ – gentrification, social displacement, hyper-commercialisation: arts evaluation matrixes count only positives. These matrixes reify art and culture, and as a consequence they reify our social life in common. Rather than being a way of softening or supplementing economic rationalism with other non-economic considerations, they are its perfect expression. 

Moreover, these multiple-value evaluation matrixes systematically mispresent the actual economic value of art, which is created by art’s ‘intrinsic’ value’. The economic weight of the ‘arts industry’ is small in terms of employment and GVA; its real ‘impact’ is located not in these metrics but in the value added to other sectors, mostly urban real estate, hospitality and retail economies. It is not that art has been ‘instrumentalised’, used for an end (creating jobs, for example) indifferent its essential quality or purpose; the arts precisely bring their own specific, ‘intrinsic’ value to these other economic practices. The glitter of aesthetics, the patina of authenticity, the energy of artistic creativity – these form the economic impact of the arts. Art’s imbrication within the generation of high value urban consumption economies is far more ‘instrumental’ and corrupting than having to write reports on bums-on-seats and car park receipts. However, most arts institutions – and most artists – have little control over the context in which they are being used and, crucially, they recoup very little of the economic value they help create. They are routinely exploited. 

Yet though they demand the metrics governments rarely refer to them when deciding levels of subsidy. Big cities especially know that developers, hotels and hospitality, up-market retail chains and those ‘footloose professionals’ whose needs are indexed by Most Liveable City lists, depend on arts and culture but are incapable of providing for it directly. Publicly funded art and culture is part of the enabling infrastructure of the contemporary city, even though, like subsidised public transport, they are regularly dismissed as a net drain on the public purse – unlike the ‘wealth creating’ developer coalitions who retain much of the value the arts (and public transport) help generate. The systematic exploitation of artists and art institutions by the consumption-driven urban development they help foster has only gotten worse in the last twenty years, the term ‘gentrification’ being a common, if crude, identifier of this process. 

In this context a more production focused notion of ‘art as industry’ has retained its appeal, as more sustainable and less compromised than art as a consumption sector. Though the growth of the cultural, then creative, industries has rightly been associated with the economic instrumentalization of art, the situation is much more complex. For a start, aligning itself with these new terminologies allowed art to insert its ‘intrinsic value’, its own specific qualities as art, within a wider economic context, and in ways that go beyond brute metrics. This is exemplified in David Throsby’s highly influential concentric circles model of the creative economy, which places the arts at the ‘creative core’ of a wider set of cultural and creative industries, as privileged providers of key skills and know-how, creative ‘R&D’, arts-driven innovation. As the idea of the cultural and creative industries took off in the late 1990s, the arts were able to present themselves less as an inert statistical bulk and more as the dynamic base of the creative ecosystem. In the UK and elsewhere the arts not only borrowed the numbers from the cultural and creative industries, but also their access to the zeitgeist; the economic future was creative, and the arts were indispensable to it. 

In Australia, the end of the Keating Government just two years after Creative Nation, and the installation of John Howard’s retro-Australia, meant the cultural industry agenda fizzled out. Launching a conservative vision of Australia against the cultural modernisation of the Whitlam-Frazer-Hawke-Keating era, the ‘culture wars’ saw the Coalition progressively abandoning ‘culture’ as a field of contestation. They did not have a conservative cultural policy; they simply stopped having any cultural policy. Or rather, they felt their way to a cultural policy in which the arts were mostly peripheral. The cultural industries, on the other hand, resurfaced in Queensland in the late 1990s, as ‘creative industries’, with a strongly anti-subsidy, anti-art and pro-commercial inflection. Consequently, for two decades in Australia ‘the arts’ and the ‘creative industries’ have taken different paths; the latter became increasingly about innovation systems and digital technologies, the former left stranded as the creative zeitgeist seemed to leave it behind. 

The uncoupling of art and creative industries, and the governments lack of interest in either, have given the arts an air of pious irrelevance. They had to work hard to hitch a ride on the zeitgeist – Australian stories as soft power, creative occupations as resistant to AI and so on. Finding the future again– a different kind of future – is an urgent task for the Australian arts, but it will require a radical break with the impasse to which these various forms of economic impact arguments have led.

The Wasteland

There’s a coda to the Australia Institute report. After the acknowledgement that the economic value contribution of the creative arts was ‘relatively small’, we are told they have a greater economic impact than their production value alone: 

Art makes a significant contribution to shaping people’s individual tastes and preferences. The core theories of economics stem from the idea that each individual has a set of preferences that decide what goods and services they will consume. Yet these theories are silent on how such preferences arise. Clearly culture and art play a large part in this process of shaping individual preferences, and aligning preference across individuals, and subsequently indirectly shape major investment and consumption decisions that are based on those preferences. 

It is hard to know what to make of this, from a left of centre think-tank trying to make a case for the creative arts. During this pandemic it has been routine to argue the economic value of the ‘arts industry’ followed by a supplementary plea for how it makes life worth living – especially whilst we are all at home watching streaming services. This is different: art shapes and aligns people’s individual consumption preferences, and thus shape subsequent investment and consumption decisions. Are these preferences good or bad, or simply neutral facts to inform future investment? In the next passage the report seems to suggest that these preferences are part of the ‘cultural norms’ which art helps ‘transmit across generations’, so perhaps (depending on what kind of art and what kind of norms we are talking about of course) this is a ‘good thing’? What we have is a justification for the arts based their behavioural contribution to the coordination of consumption economies, with some residual contribution to ‘cultural norms’. 

It would be wrong to pick on some heinous argumentation from one report, were it not for the fact that this kind of ‘advocacy’ is so widespread. The title (rather bizarrely for a report claiming to advocate for the arts) is ‘Art versus the Dismal Science’. This is a common trope amongst economists who like to show that economics, dismal and hard-headed as it is, is quite capable of determining the value of art and culture. Indeed, best leave this stuff to the economists anyway and don’t worry your pretty little head about it. Beneath the specific problematic of an Australian government mired deep in corrosive extractivism lies a forty-year long ‘revaluation of all values’ in the name of economic reason.

Art, and the cultural values it animated, had been opposed to that reason – often hypocritically, blind to its own multiple complicities – since its inception at the end of the 18th century; its progressive accommodation to that reason over the last forty years has been nothing short of catastrophic. Art-as-industry – which could in the 1920/30s or 1960/70s work as a salutary reminder to a smug, elitist art world that its roots lay in the material world – has now become a key source of its ‘social license’. What we witness in this war of statistics is not a gauche advocacy rhetoric gone awry but a withering of our ability to recognise and articulate the value of art and culture. Whilst the world desperately needs a sense of shared meaning and shared future in the other bigger emergency to come, arts advocacy has spent the time talking about employment statistics. As an economist might say, this was a major ‘opportunity cost’. 

Alison Croggan, talking of the collapse of federal funding for the arts in Australia, described the process as ‘desertification’. The point is well made but perhaps a more apt image might be the landscape left after a catastrophic process of land-clearing, of the kind which Don Watson describes in The Bush, stretching back to the first years of white Australian history. Not the sparse but still complex ecosystem of a desert but stumps and scars and mudslides and dead animals. Like some injured Joey stumbling across the floor of what was once a magnificent rain forest, ‘art helps shape individual preferences’, seems the best we can come up with. ‘Art-as-industry’ has not only failed to convince the current government in Australia, it speaks to the wider crisis of cultural value, a gaping vacuum created by the metastasis of economic reason from useful instrument to humanity’s foundational raison d’être. ‘The art industry is worth $111 billion’ is less special pleading from all those workers, companies and organisations left to swing by this government, more a cry for help from a culture sinking slowly into nihilism. 

Yet becalmed in the doldrums, far from the zeitgeist, Australia culture has gradually discovered a very different temporal order, amongst a group who would never for a moment consider calling culture an industry. Australian art’s growing acknowledgement and connection with aboriginal culture is one of its greatest gifts, a small flame in the kindling. This is where we should look for the future, rooted in a different past.


Art and Culture After Covid-19

The Experience of our generation: That Capitalism will die no natural death. 

Walter Benjamin, 1935

Business as Usual?

All around we hear ‘let’s not go back to business as usual, after this crisis we must do things differently’. A ‘people’s war’, there is talk of 1945, Beverage and Attlee, Curtin and Chifley, popular sacrifice making it impossible that we go back to what was before. We hear that ‘we are all in this together’, with Churchillian overtones from national leaders, though the absence of the US and Russia from the new global wartime coalition is telling. But underneath the war rhetoric, humanity united in the face of a common enemy, is a sense of deep systemic crisis, putting us more in mind of the Great Depression and the geopolitical catastrophe that followed. Business as Usual, the enemy vanquished, let’s get back to normal: if this is a systemic crisis, then C-19 is more than a test of our defences, it says something much more fundamental about who we are and where we are going.

Unlike the Spanish Flu, which appeared as a gratuitous death-bringer in an age already awash with slaughter and destruction, C-19 is much more central to this systemic crisis. There is evidence that the growing frequency of cross-species viral mutation is closely correlated to intensive farming and concentrated population growth, as well as the specific socio-economic and environmental disruptions which have led, in this case, to the intensification of the hunting and storing of wild animals in South China ‘wet markets’. Intensified agribusiness, rapid urbanisation, accelerated interconnectedness of global mobility. This is the revenge of Gaia, a reminder of our dependency on a terrestrial life-support system that is not ours simply to ‘master’; this is a dress rehearsal for the challenges of climate change to come, a shot across the bow. The systemic crisis comes from the sense that it is the capacity of a whole social system that is being probed, and that the enemy is within.

The crisis has highlighted a general reduction of the state’s own capacity for action, along with the public services it provides – a reduction damaging in the Global North but catastrophic in states of the Global South, systematically dismantled in the 1990s. The ‘small state’ thinking of Neoliberalism is dead, we are told. At the same time, ‘bringing the state back in’ is also the ‘rediscovery of the social’. Boris Johnson, like Scott Morrison, announcing unprecedented stimulus/ survival packages, burns 40 years of economic orthodoxy – ‘there is no alternative’, ‘there is no magic money tree’ – announcing that, after all, ‘there is such a thing as society’, thereby bringing to a close the period opened by Thatcher and Reagan in 1979-81. But though the Right squeal ‘socialism’ – as they did during the New Deal and WWII – this is no reason to take it at face value. The return of the state is not necessarily socialism, nor even Keynesianism. Similar squeals also accompanied the bank bailouts that began in 2008, though not for long. Then, the state also came roaring back in, the ‘free market’ now revealed as utterly dependent on it: but the result was a new accommodation between neoliberal financialisation, rising inequality and the state. Not only did things not get better, they got worse.  Whatever is happening now with the renationalised private hospitals, or airlines, or other ‘essential services’; with the underwriting, via employers, of wages and income; with the eviction freezes, free childcare and expanded payments from Centrelink (itself undergoing some kind of re-nationalisation) – these need careful scrutiny. This frantic action by states, whose capacity to act has been compromised, might be delivered by emergency de-commodification – a ‘holiday for exchange value’ – but is likely to be skewed in its targeting and, through the corporate agents with which it works, entrench us more deeply in a malfunctioning Business as Usual.

So too, though we hear stories of human solidarity, rather than the Zombie apocalypse we constantly watch on Netflix, the ‘return of the social’ comes after 40 years of arguing that this very ‘social’ – give or take the residual, grimly administered ‘safety net’ – was nothing but competitive market individualism. Old habits die hard, especially when the economic, cultural, institutional and administrative fabric of that ‘social’ has not so much been allowed to go threadbare but woven around other principles. It is not at all clear that we know what this ‘social’ actually means anymore – or who is included in it, some leaders (think Trump, Bolsonaro, Orbán) tempted to set ‘the base’ against those ‘others’ suspected of bringing infection. After all, ‘social’ media is a highly ambiguous term, built on a networked view of society not just analogous to the cybernetic ‘information processing’ model of Hayek’s neoliberal market, but now, as ‘platform’ or ‘surveillance’ capitalism, deeply enmeshed with it. In fact, since the shock of 2008, and the social discontent (amongst non-bankers) to which it gave rise, the neoliberal state has seen government as a kind of ‘platform’, where ‘nudges’, Big Data and algorithmic predictions are now the stuff of public administration.

Before celebrating the return of state and social as a version of Polanyi’s ‘double movement’, a re-assertion of the human and the social against the fictitious and abstract ‘market’, we should also remember that in his account we first had to go through the fires of totalitarian Communism and Fascism, and of world war, before we got to 1945. Since 2008, (financial) markets and the state have had a partial reconciliation (or interpenetration), and the post-austerity shift to ‘populism’ has brought back the ‘social nation’, the new Right flirting with nationalisation and protection of ‘our’ environment. If the social has crept back in then, any ‘left’ political consequences have been strongly policed. The Right have not only ramped up the culture wars, setting a popular nation against metro-cosmopolitan elites, stridently denouncing ‘globalisation’ along with any accommodation with Communist (now no longer ‘transitional’) China. As in the McCarthy era, an attack on an external Communist threat serves to sever any resonances between that project (however degraded, or distorted) and transformative politics at home. Expect calls for the repatriation of manufacturing, a National Capitalism to combat the global export of Communist State Capitalism that has been going on, ‘under our noses’, for a couple of decades. Underneath this rhetoric, and impelled by the viral emergency, the re-tooling of social governance around surveillance, big data and algorithmic nudge – the social stripped of any sense of effective participatory democracy – is likely to go on apace (in both systems), if left unchecked.

Responses to the crisis will be, inevitably, contested and multiple – strong state intervention, laissez-faire (‘let it rip’), decommodification, mutual aid all in the mix. States will learn things, ready for the next time, but how far this learning will go beyond enhanced crisis capability to address systemic issues, is an open question. Rather than waiting for neoliberal capitalism to die its natural death, state and society marching back in after markets and individuals, we need to think very clearly and urgently about what is systemic in this crisis and what needs to change at the end of it. This is not just about what it needs to survive this crisis, nor only how it might re-think the principles of its organisation, but also what value does it represent for society and how might this be articulated. This systemic reckoning also demands we address how far art and culture have been deeply entangled with the system-in-crisis.

Art and Culture?

It is perfectly understandable that the first response of the arts and cultural sector has been to seek state protection for its livelihood – income for the part-timers, casuals, recently laid-off and self-employed – and to secure on-going organisational capacity and business viability for the bigger companies and ‘sector organisers’. Arts and cultural events and venues were amongst the first to be cancelled and closed, and no doubt, will be amongst the last to re-open. Other forms of cultural production – film and TV, regional newspapers – have been suspended along with the rest of ‘non-essential’ services. The sector has been the hardest hit; arts and cultural workers are in dire need – bare life – and need support immediately and until the ‘recovery’ is well underway.  This has been forthcoming (to various extents) in Australia, UK and across Europe. In Germany – at Federal and state (Länder) level – support has been made explicitly for arts and culture, ‘essential to our democracy’, at a time when their ‘creative courage’ is needed, artists being ‘indispensable’ and ‘vital, especially now’. Australia cut their funding. For the rest support for cultural workers seems to be delivered primarily as part of a general package for similarly affected workers. We can’t yet give an assessment of how successful these various schemes are for the cultural sector, and they need to be closely monitored as they too will affect the post-virus landscape. What we can say, if anyone was still under any illusion, is that the widespread impact of the emergency on arts and cultural workers has shown them neck-deep in the precarity of the ‘gig economy’. After the crisis, many are asking if getting back to Business as Usual is what we need – especially as this crisis comes at the end of a long period of declining income and conditions.

Lead organisations from the cultural sector have made a case for immediate need – as with any group of vulnerable people –and for the wider importance of the sector. In some cases, this was a re-application of the arguments from the last twenty years – “the sector is worth $xxx billion, compared to that one which is only worth $xx billion, and thus we are deserving of support as an important industry”. This argument, given decades of funding cuts, has failed to make any impact on most governments up until now; let’s hope this time it will fare better. Perhaps there will be a ‘creative industries’ argument, that the sector will be vital for our economic recovery; after the 2008 crisis we heard a lot about how the creative industries had proved to be amongst the most resilient sectors, leading the rebound. I suspect that this time, ‘not going back to business as usual’ would have to mean that the accelerating precarity of the cultural sector – AKA ‘resilience’ – must be reversed. This would involve a whole set of new labour regulations – applicable to the ‘gig economy’ generally – and maybe a Universal Basic Income. But must we accept the inevitability of the ‘gig economy’, with its intensification of anxiety and fragmentation of work, and the complicity of the arts and cultural organisations, who have promoted and normalised it? As Bruno Latour suggests, once we begin to ask questions about how we might fix the things we think are broken, we get into the kind of radical territory of the New Deal and post-1945 settlement. Maybe more so….

The demands for immediate support, and the recognition of cultural workers’ shared material condition of precarity with other workers, previously marginalised and dismissed as ‘low-skilled’, is important. Health and aged care, cleaners, transport workers, farm labourers, supermarket shelf-stackers, delivery riders, all are now recognised as indispensable, at least for the duration of the silence left by the suspension of the rat race and its ‘bullshit jobs’. But there are important caveats, as there always have been when ‘creatives’ are lumped into the general ‘precariat’, the self-employed illustrator with the hotel cleaner. Any effective sense of a shared fate, one which might help the arts and culture sector re-position itself after C-19, needs to register the differences as well as the similarities.

In the meantime, we hear that cultural workers, like these other devalued workers, also need better recognition and acknowledgement.  ‘We in the cultural sector produce all those things – books, games, TV shows, music, streaming entertainment – that make life in and out of quarantine bearable, enjoyable; but we also provide a sense of belonging, of human connection, of social cohesion that will be crucial for a time after neoliberal competitive individualism’. This social indispensability certainly means ‘decent wages and conditions’, and, as with Health for example, the state needs to reverse its ongoing funding cuts to culture. These cuts, as to Health, were symptomatic of the hollowing out of the state whose deleterious consequences we are now facing. In these claims culture is not just a victim of small state austerity, it also needs to be an essential part of any expanded ‘social state’ provision of collective services whose post-emergency retention, for many, would be the most beneficial outcome of the crisis. Not Business as Usual for arts and culture would require a restoration and expansion of state funding for culture and, necessarily, a renewed acknowledgement, by government, of art and culture’s importance for any liveable post-virus society.

Trouble Ahead

 Well, before we get to this, let me suggest that the cultural sector is not yet in any place to make these sorts of claims, on public funding or on a reinvigorated social purpose, until it has come to terms with its own complicities with the last twenty-five years of neoliberalism.

Let me start – more or less at random – with an Open Letter to the EU from Culture Action Europe, which argues that the EU emergency funding package should, under the ‘Cohesion and Values’ heading, be extended to arts and culture:

Culture is the foundation of who we are as human beings. It grounds our collective life, binding us together, nurturing our feeling of belonging. Without the explicit recognition of the European project’s cultural dimension, the future of the European Union as a common endeavour is difficult to imagine.

This is laudable of course, but its claims are weakened if we acknowledge the current situation of Europe, where ‘cultures of belonging’ have also gone in a ‘blood and soil’ direction, and where the ‘culture of belonging’ to Europe and its ‘project’ is itself deeply compromised. Compromised, that is, by the EU’s capture by the neoliberal project, one whose link to rising inequalities within and between member states is clear now for all to see – despite its other valuable progressive social, democratic and environmental aspects. In short, to what, and in what ways, are we being asked to belong? This applies equally to calls for a national belonging: is it about social solidarity, or putting our collective backs into a national economic recovery, or maybe keeping the borders closed?

The call for a re-invigoration of culture’s role is also compromised by the ways in which many in the cultural or ‘creative’ sector, especially at the leadership levels, whilst acknowledging the growing inequalities all around them, have failed to acknowledge how these inequalities are actually deeply entangled in their idea of ‘culture’. We have witnessed the shocked disbelief of many urban, educated ‘creatives’ – the majority of whom are by no means rich – when their compatriots or co-Europeans embrace blood and soil nationalism, and seek out other ‘retrograde’ ‘populist’ forms of cultural belonging. What we have seen, since 2008 certainly, but starting well before that in the 1980s, is a growing divergence, on multiple registers, between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The ‘cultural and creative sector’ may identify with the latter – ethically, politically, and sometimes materially through its own participation in precarious labour – but in significant ways it is aligned with the former.

This is not an argument about the ‘elitism’ of the arts, nor of the lack of representation – women, ethnic minorities, working class – within them, to be rectified by various forms of ‘positive discrimination’ and diversity programmes. I am suggesting that what the cultural sector sees as universal – the possibilities opened up by culture and creativity – is in fact highly circumscribed by class chances (intertwined with gender, ethnicity and regionality). That is, it is no longer so much a question of the content of culture being ‘elitist’ – those battles fought by Cultural Studies, by Bourdieusians, by pop culture warriors – but that the chances of participating in cultural production or creative labour as a viable career path, is now closely circumscribed by class, as refracted above all through education.

Over the last thirty years the primary policy justification for the cultural sector has become an economic one. Beginning with ‘arts impact’ studies in the 1980s, then its identification as ‘growth sector’ in the 1990s, culminating in its systematic integration as catalytic economic driver within a wider ‘creative economy’ – culture, in the form of the ‘creative industries’, sought to move itself away from the periphery of ‘the arts’ and towards the powerful centres of economic development and innovation. This happened in Europe and Australia, extended across Africa and Asia, and is revving up in South America. ‘Creative economy’ is now used by international agencies such as UNESCO and UNCTAD, as well as diplomatic agencies such as the British Council and the Goethe Institute, as the main legitimating discourse for the adoption of ‘modern’ cultural policies by governments, and ‘creative cities’, across the globe.

Clearly there are other strands, some older, some emergent, that weave their way through this, but it is indisputable that ‘creative industries’ or ‘creative economy’ has become the central organising concept for contemporary cultural policy in many areas of Global North and Global South. It is not as simple as ‘economic impact’ and ‘multipliers’, a line used by arts organisations from the 1980s. It is rooted in claims for a more epochal shift, where the practice of symbolic creation, of meaning-making, was to be part of a wider transition from an industrial Fordist to a Post-industrial economy. The transformative potential of art and culture no longer lay in its complex symbolic, meaning-making function but, rather, in the possibilities it held out for meaningful work and the realisation of individual creative potential in a post-industrial world. This was set within an ‘imaginary’ of creative social (though mostly metropolitan) transformation which validated the aspirations of educated young people, able to identify themselves with a viable and desirable future. This creative transformation would be, in turn, be recouped by government gaining a ‘key economic driver’, expressed variously in increased GDP, innovation, soft power, development, modernisation, progress and so on.

This creative ‘imaginary’, I would suggest, was running out of steam even before the C-19 crisis. It was an aspirational future, an economically framed historical narrative of transition from one form of production (industry, mass, material) to another (information, knowledge, individuated, immaterial). In this there would be winners and losers, people inevitably left behind as others – the educated young especially – made the transition to the new economy. The ‘cultural and creative industries’, if I may use that term, overwhelmingly employ educated people, at higher rates than other industries. Since the arrival of digitalisation this has accelerated, the sector has been staging its own internal de-industrialisation, losing huge swathes of ‘blue collar’ jobs in printing, publishing, textiles, ceramics, and the wholesale, retail and distribution of physical ‘creative goods’. The famous 1998 definition of creative industries, as those based on ‘individual creativity, skill and talent’, with a ‘potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property’, worked to combine the heroic struggle of the avant-garde artist  with the amoral ‘creative destruction’ of the Schumpeterian entrepreneur. The creativity mythos effected a trade-off between individual creative fulfilment and collective social justice.

This is the story told by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, who chart the emergence of ‘creative capitalism’ in the growing separation between the younger white-collar workers looking for ‘quality of work/ life’ and the blue-collar workers seeking better pay and condition in the older trade union manner. The ways in which the former, over the 1970s, became re-attached to a new form of creative capitalism, whilst the organized working class was systematically marginalized, is a complex one, but the rise of the ‘creative economy’ is clearly entangled with it. This story re-appears in Richard Florida, who blithely consigns the industrial working class to economic, social and cultural irrelevance. Thomas Picketty’s new book charts the consequences in detail. The parties of the Left become the parties of the educated (‘Brahmins’), those of the Right of the (educated) wealthy (‘Merchants’). Left outside, disenchanted, are the (disorganized) working class. The acceptance by Brahmins and Merchants of an educational meritocracy, and the abandonment of redistributive policies as futile or undesirable, has had deleterious political consequences, as we know. The ‘creative industries’ are set deep within this ideological formation.

This has not served ‘creatives’ well. The transformative potential of the creative economy gave way to new forms of exploitation and labour discipline; the financialisation of the ‘new’ economy meant public services that used to be free or state subsidised – health, education, social insurance – were now transmuted into private debt. Public housing shrank, gentrification ripped through urban real estate, above all in ‘creative’ cities, and younger people were locked out of the housing market. Young (and not so young) creatives (along with their educated peers) have increasingly resembled the losers, the uneducated precariat, stuck endlessly in low paid work rather than temporarily paying their dues in Bohemia. It is less and less likely that they will join the ‘progressive’ middle aged, middle class (“Gen X”) who benefitted so much from the ‘third way’ social democracy of the 1990s – let alone the now infamous “Boomers”. Piketty’s work points to some of the baleful consequences of this age of galloping inequality, within and between countries and regions. But already we can see how precarity drives cultural workers into the bigger cities, a necessity in order to make a living across multiple employments, pushing up rents and pushing out the older ‘blue collar’ workers to the urban outskirts. Inequalities explode within and between cities, between cities and countryside, between region and region (take a look at the Brexit map).

How this will play out in this crisis nobody knows, though already the armature of inequality is showing through the skin of ‘we are all in this together’. What seems clear is that it will accelerate further the exit of cultural workers from the ‘creative imaginary’, its promises now hollowed out further. Though it still appeals to aspirations to self-fulfilment within an imagined global modern, the dissonant juxtaposition of this imaginary with deepening inequality and ecological catastrophe is becoming difficult to ignore. If this crisis really means Not Business as Usual, with some form of a return of ‘state’ and ‘social’ focused on social justice, solidarity and re-embedded markets then, possibly, we might emerge with a different configuration of culture and society. But for this to happen it will take more than just saying ‘see, you need culture now’; what that need for ‘culture’ actually is no longer seems clear, and the growing discontent amongst those inside and outside the creative imaginary currently finds no collective articulation.

The legacy of this last 30 years will be hard to shake off. A full recognition of, and accounting for, the entanglement of the creative imaginary with exacerbated global inequalities will be difficult.

In the last two decades governments and cultural agencies in both Global North and South have presented creative economy as vision for equitable and sustainable growth and development. It has not been that; there is little evidence, outside of China and South Korea, of any creative economy shift to the Global South, and non to suggest that this new ‘economic’ driver is less – rather than more – inequitable and exclusionary. The creative economy discourse has become increasingly self-serving as cultural agencies refuse to register any of the downsides for fear of getting thrown out of the meeting room, not allowed back to the top table. The desperate bid to promote culture through its direct association with economic development – jobs, exports, innovation, branding – has had a corrupting effect on those international agencies. Its altruistic illusions of culture being a universal ‘good’, able to deliver greater equality, social mobility, gender equity and sustainability, have shielded the promotors of the global ‘creative class’ from acknowledging their complicity with ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ – its investment in an educational meritocracy of ‘talent’, its caving in to an economy-centred vision of human progress, its lip-service to the disenfranchisement of those left outside – the rural migrants, the old and the new working classes, the vast precariat. Always presenting itself as the ‘clean’, sustainable development option – what resource is more ubiquitous, inexhaustible and cheap than human creativity? – creative economy’s association with unsustainable urbanisation, gentrification, resource extraction (‘no copper, no digital’), the diffusion of the languages of entrepreneurial self-improvement and of endless, insatiable consumption – this is all firmly locked away in the attic.

Thirty years of chasing neoliberalism’s tail has left the established voices of the cultural sector mute. Their self-positioning as willing servants of culture as economic development, modesty ensured via the fig-leaf of ‘sustainability’, has left them unable to articulate anything like a critical purchase on the current global situation. Without this reckoning, avoiding Business as Usual will be impossible. If the ‘return of the state’ or the ‘social’ is to mean simply more funding for arts and culture (itself still a distant hope), then all this will simply continue unabated, feeding resentment of the ‘metropolitan elites’ and the growing disaffections of the ‘age of anger’ which now apply as much to the ‘creative precariat’ as they do to the uneducated excluded.

Learning to Speak Again

It might come as a surprise, to somebody who has not had a steady salary for a decade nor managed to earn more than $40k a year in that time, to be told they are ‘complicit’. In many of the most socially devasted areas of our cities, towns and rural areas, the shoe-string funded arts and cultural projects, barely surviving cinemas, struggling book shops, occasionally functioning music venues, underfunded local museums and galleries – these represent some of the few signs of hope and life. In the last decade the shift to non-commodified production and exchange, mutual aid, co-operatives, socially embedded cultural projects have gone on apace; it is just that these register as the ‘not-for-profit’ part of the creative economy ‘ecosystem’. These everyday life-worlds make up the ‘social factory’; or the ‘dark matter’ of local art practice sustaining the glittering art world; or act as an assemblage of non-commodified labour, integrated nonetheless into capital’s global supply chains, like the Matsutake mushroom pickers at the ‘end of the world’. That all this might, in fact, represent something very different from the organising narrative of the creative economy, built on a different organising principle, a different way of seeing the future, is barely registered by cultural sector leaders. Whilst this sector represents the most vulnerable workers who require urgent support, in seeking ‘creative justice’ we might also look for the beginnings of a different way of organising arts and culture outside the imaginary of ‘creative economy’.

Calls now for a return to social values, with culture as its ‘heart’, ignore how deeply the cultural sector has absorbed the language of neoliberalism. The ‘creative economy’ was always about horizontal networks, the state ‘getting out of the way’, albeit after it had invested heavily in research and capacity-building. It was about entrepreneurship plus markets, set within a distributed social innovation system. The consequences of such ‘network sociality’ have been well documented. The reality of the creative industries – winner takes all, supply chain domination, platform oligopolies, massive financialisation, aggressive free trade and Intellectual property legislation – was something very different, as were the actually existing ‘big industry’ policies of countries such as China and South Korea, the US and Japan. The less industrialised arts and cultural sector developed its own economic impacts, as ‘core R&D’, generators of tourism and essential to city branding. They also had a ‘social impact’ which, suitably metricised, justified state subsidy framed as ‘market failure’. Not a failure of the market per se but rather culture’s failure in the market. The positioning of art and culture as ‘welfare’ worked to cow its leaders, as they, along with all those who took hand-outs, were reminded that their dependency on benefits would only be tolerated by taxpayers if they showed themselves to be deserving. In accepting this mendicant position, and the need to fill in the ever-expanding forms detailing how money was spent and with what results, they also accepted the right of a certain kind of economic theory to define not just ‘the economy’ but also the whole purpose of public administration, and indeed, society as a whole.

The period since 2008 has accelerated critiques of neoliberalism, about which we now know much more. We also know that it stubbornly persists. In Australia, even though the Rudd government bought in a stimulus package after 2008, heralded as a ‘return to Keynesianism’, it was vehemently attacked by the opposition Coalition, who attempted, when in power, to bring in the ‘austerity’ that was sweeping the UK and EU. This stimulus did little to change the basic acceptance of (soft) neoliberal orthodoxy within the Australian Labor Party. The massive spending in this crisis, completely dwarfing that of the ALP (and of 2008 globally) is not a return to Keynesianism but something else, about which little is known, and which will require considerable parlaying. What seems clear, is that, outside the secure firewalls of the current emergency, the basic settings of economic rationality, as established at the heart of treasury and economic development departments across the globe, remain locked firmly in place. It is the market not the state which delivers efficient growth, and all values are, ultimately, expressible as a numeric economic value.

So too, the language of public administration has been re-written in these market and metric fixated terms by the New Public Management of the 1980s, which in turn had roots in the cybernetics and logistics of the ‘military-industrial complex’ (remember that?). The cultural sector finds it difficult to see beyond this, thoroughly internalising its position as welfare recipient whose value-for-money must be accounted for to taxpayers in a set of metrics. In this logic, as Terry Flew writes, it is its economic contribution that ‘demonstrates the social license to operate of the cultural sector’. The reality of the massive on-going transfer of state revenue to banks, hedge-funds, mining, real estate, airlines and so on, is completely ignored in this kind of account. More damagingly, the memory of an older form of public administration, based on need and addressed through a professional public service corps responsible to indicators of success set by its substantive value-laden assessment of that need – this has evaporated. The history of how this economic rationality utterly transformed public administration – its ethos and that of the polity it served – is retrieved only with difficulty from the recesses of a collective amnesia.

If the state and society are to come back, along with a re-invigorated role for culture within these, then a lot un-forgetting needs to take place, and not just at the abstract theoretical level either; our everyday language is sodden with the common sense of economic rationality. We may point out how ‘efficiencies’ in public administration have hollowed out the state’s capacity to act efficiency in this emergency, but still economists stubbornly claim the high ground of ‘hard’ rationality. Prioritising saving lives is ‘sentimental’, economists must think with the head not the heart: when this is over the efficiencies must begin again. Choice of lives and livelihoods is indeed very hard, but that hard choice rests squarely on ground of a shared political ethics not sub-contracted to the death-rattle calculations of our economist-actuaries.

The ‘social’ which we hope to bring back has also lost much of its capacity under the onslaught of this economic common sense. When we have been told that acting rationally means taking individual responsibility for our own life choices, maximising our opportunities whilst the market aggregates this into statistically expressed ‘social outcomes’; and that public administration must use informational levers (‘signals’, ‘nudges’) built around the rationally optimising individual; then it is difficult to ask people to self-isolate, and take a significant cut in income in order to save, not themselves – “it’s not a plague for God’s sake, calm down” – but somebody else, over there, with whom they have little connection. Altruism is a social capacity. There is no need to idealise or mystify, but the capacity of many Asian countries to act with collective solidarity in this emergency is something to be taken seriously. Especially when the global hegemon has gone AWOL: for, propaganda aside, this is the first global crisis since 1945 that is being faced outside any US attempts at leadership.

Culture’s ever-growing reliance on economic impacts, and the social metrics that accompany this, has not only undermined its sense of its own value but has blinded it to the fact that the values culture claims to stand for are at best surplus to requirements and at worse, threats to be contained. ‘Culture employs more than agriculture, as much as construction; music adds millions to the economy, the tourism industry is unthinkable without art’: the failure of these arguments to cut through, then and now, should indicate that the burial of art and culture under a mountain of metrics is not just part of the collateral damage from New Public Management.  It is purposefully punitive. Culture must be (seen to be) put to work in the creative economy, its residual values eradicated or de-fanged (or taped to the wall of an art gallery). Neoliberalism is not (just) some outbreak of hyper-instrumental rationality, spread by ‘bean counters’: it is part of a long counter-revolution set in motion at the end of the 1960s against the culture of that epoch. Culture must be made to pay for the temerity it had to challenge – however symbolically – the fundamental values of a modern capitalist society. For those parts of culture than cannot be moved wholesale to commercial distribution, where the only ‘intrinsic value’ that matters is that which results in a purchase, there is a long slow death by reporting, that expands in inverse proportion to the amount of funding.

The success with which economic rationality has colonised ‘common sense’ can be in the way evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience replaced sociology and psychoanalysis in the popular imagination. The ‘selfish gene’ responds to informational signals, from which the ‘blind watchmaker’ constructs the edifice of creation. Networks of individual neurones, responding to electrical signals, produce a subject with a set of behaviours, responding to external (or in the case of drugs, artificial internal) stimuli. ‘One day’, Matt Ridley promises, thinking of Romeo and Juliet, ‘some scientist will know exactly how the brain of a young man becomes obsessed by the image of a particular young woman, molecule by molecule’. Enter art as serotonin. And the promise of Big Data, after all, is that it allows us to go ‘below’ culture, directly accessing the real, aggregating its vast data outputs through computational power rather than a wet-wear based symbolic system. Culture is not needed in a world of algorithmic governance.

As with universities, reporting to metrics is not about ‘bean-counting’ but control. They dissolve any form of participatory democracy – collegiality, peer-review – and replace crucial occasions for substantive judgement by robo-scheduled data input. Art and cultural workers, taking the money, are bound by contracted deliverables not the mutual trust of partnership. In the face of such an onslaught art and culture diligently offers up its metrics as down-payment on its social license to operate, though it continues to clutch an ‘intrinsic value’ like an orphan with a crumpled photo of her parents. That this ‘intrinsic’ value is precisely its social, its human value, rather some residual self-indulgence, barely rates a mention.

Others have valiantly tried to add ‘cultural value’ as a ‘fourth pillar’ of development (economic, social, environmental) or adapting the ‘triple bottom line’ (the phrase is telling), adding culture to economic, social and environmental outcomes. What these ignore is that art and culture’s job has always been to give meaning to the world, a world that includes within it what we call the ‘economic’ and the ‘social’. It makes no sense to identify ‘economic’, ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ outcomes unless you have already previously separated the world into these distinct categories. The ‘four pillars’, as viewed from government, are grotesquely asymmetrical, the pathetic stump of culture overshadowed by the tower of economy. In fact, buried inside the black box of ‘intrinsic value’ culture’s ongoing challenge is that to organise the world in terms of the absolute priority of individual and collective economic advantage is a disaster. It is culture’s job to protest that the sheer preponderance of ‘economy’ can only lead us to a catastrophic social and environmental nihilism. It is art’s job – along with the other natural, social and human sciences – to help articulate how we might inhabit the world in a manner that might promote human thriving not its extermination.

From Not Business as Usual to Another World is Possible

Not Business as Usual, where culture regains its role in a post-neoliberal state and society, cannot just be about more funding. It is also about how this funding is allocated and distributed, along with a clearer articulation of the grounds on which that funding is given and for what purpose. This is crucial, for without it more funding will come with more metrics, expanded ‘dashboards’, more triple bottom line KPIs.

We must think how we organise the economy of culture – how public funding is given (the conditions of acceptance, reporting and judgement), but also how commercial and state agencies produce cultural goods and services. Crucially important is to start the long haul back from a default system in which advertising and marketing not only represent the main source of employment for cultural workers – what a crying waste of creative time and energy – and the only socially acceptable form of funding for some of the most crucial parts of our political, social and cultural life. We are currently living with the disastrous consequences of giving over the public sphere wholesale to private sector companies – not just the late evolved forms of FAANG but also older reptilians, such as News Corps. Just thinking how to organise all this, outside of ‘let the market decide’, will be a huge challenge. Not many in government have this capacity, and the accumulated knowledge of public broadcasting and cultural administration have been allowed to dissipate.

This must go hand in hand with a new settlement with art and cultural workers, not only refusing the inevitability of the gig economy but also extracting them from their association with ‘creative entrepreneurship’. We must look instead at promoting greater de-commodification, through forms of direct public funding but also co-operatives and community-based enterprises. Why try desperately to call the thousands of underpaid musicians in break-even venues ‘an industry’, when we could see it as a fantastically enlivening collective enterprise, for musicians, venue managers and audiences alike? Rather than paying for music industry masters’ programmes we could facilitate a thriving network of co-operatives and community-owned music venues. So too an increase in cultural funding must come with a new conceptualisation of public funding as accountable not to metrics but to the full range of participatory democracy, from Porto Allegre-style budgeting to peer review based on substantive judgement not generic KPIs – including cultural worker representation  on high level decision-making boards (rather than just bankers and lawyers).

Think of the energies such a radical rethinking might release! The chance to reframe the way we think about funding, producing and enjoying culture together, outside the ideology of market efficiencies. To re-embed the economy of culture in the social life of those it serves. And while we are at it, we might want to use the words ‘art’ and ‘culture’ again, giving the term ‘creative’ a well-earned and extended holiday.

This would also help us reset relations with those excluded from the educational meritocracy of the creative industries. There can be no conception of a new equitable social state that does not include strong re-distributive policies; this also means a reassessment of the accelerating credentialism, bringing with it crippling debt, over-qualification and the corruption of the university system that willingly supplies them. Re-investment in ‘technical’ or ‘further’ education not only financially but in social recognition – valuing differently skilled education for those performing crucial social tasks, not underfunded job training for career market losers. For the cultural sector, this might herald a reappraisal of all those making skills which have so rapidly diminished or disappeared, buried under a narrative of progress in which immaterial creation supersedes material making.

We also need to reset our relationship to the ‘audience’, to establish a different language, a new way of talking, that can re-centralise culture’s role in our public life, and articulate how these relate to our collective conception of ‘the good life’. To reframe the public beyond ‘bums-on-seat’ metrics, or digitally enabled audience feedback dashboards. To fundamentally rethink what ‘public’ actually means– more diverse, more active, more adept but also more united than ever before. Something like this happened in 1945; it happened again, more chaotically, in the 1960s and 70s, but rolled back over the course of the 1990s, reduced again to the mass of consumers after the brief frisson on the ‘digital revolution’. Such a reframing did not happen after 2008, social solidarity extending only to the bankers, with culture (and social services) taking a massive hit. I think some kind of reframing of the social will have to happen after this crisis, but which way will it go? To some new post-neoliberal authoritarian ‘Big State’ with an expanded social reach and firmly policed borders, or a social state, operating within an expended democratic participation, whose common values are expressed, amongst others and in appropriate fashion, by art and culture?

In this crisis it is not just the organising narrative of the global hegemon that has absented itself, so too have the routines and infrastructures of everyday life. This is a global experience, involving a dimly imagined community the like of which I do not think we have seen before. Many have tried to call this community into being in the face of global climate catastrophe, to limited avail. Now we are all locked up together, and we all know it.

What words do we use for such a collective experience – neither trauma nor celebration, neither war nor world cup? It is less the spectacular stopped moment of Diana’s funeral, perhaps more the collective, slightly unsettled leisure time of the 1968 general strike in Paris. What words will be used – an interruption, a glitch, a void, an interregnum, a pivot, a birth?

What we have is a momentary [Pause]. For those of us whose time is not overshadowed by hunger, domestic violence, debilitating isolation and precarious anxiety, the question is: what do we do with that time? In the [Pause] brought on by this crisis will we, who are concerned with art and culture, find the time to think and reflect, and then the will to plan and act, in a way that will allow art and culture to come out and take their rightful place in the debates about the future of human society on the planet, our common terrestrial life? For this is what comes next, the virus being just a first global red light – though there are whole rooms, buried or locked away, full of such desperately flashing red lights.

The cultural sector might have jumped last into the new world order that grew apace from 1980; it is currently looking like the last one out too. Political debate is aflame, as are dissident economists, feminists, ecologists, philosophers, and artists and cultural workers too: but, like the global hegemon, the cultural leaders are missing in action, ready for Business as Usual, with a bit more cash to splash around, some new ‘post-virus’ KPIs to add on the end of their funding applications, some more creative economy programmes to mop up the unemployed.

We do not only have to have a [Pause], we can also have a [Reset]. This could be to the default factory settings of Business as Usual; it might brutally delete years of hard work in an unequal ‘now we have to pay for it’ austerity; or it might connect the return of the social state to the need for the systemic reforms exposed so brutally by C-19. Art and culture are there to help show us how another world is possible.

Why should we expend our collective creative labour on keeping afloat the rusted hulk of a catastrophically dysfunctional system, when we could be diving for pearls?

 

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Title Photo: In Good Company

 

Goodnight and Good Luck: A Letter to My Colleagues

I wrote this when I left a job at a university. It has been published by Memefest but here it is also on this site.

 

I’ll be leaving formally at Midnight January 6th.

Contrary to popular rumour, I did not decide to leave in order to escape the health and safety training sessions, nor to avoid my turn taking the section meeting minutes. At least, that was only part of it. The decision came from a realisation that my basic understanding of how universities, faculties and schools actually worked no longer applied. My pretty crude working model was one in which growing student numbers fund new members of staff, who then begin to form a research concentration, which then attracts more students, and the growing student numbers allows a certain amount of research funding (conferences, visiting speakers, an RA to help organise things). In my case I thought that a masters’ program, which should have around 120 students next semester, most of whom pay international fees, would provide the basic engine for that kind of growth. This, I have been told in no uncertain terms, is not the case. With no meaningful connection (we simply have no say in it) between the teaching we do and the money this generates, or how this money is spent, any strategic vision a school might have is pretty much dead.

Our school is now caught up (and I must keep repeating that we not alone, just ahead of the curve) in a management system, one of the biggest and most highly centralised in Australia. Schools do not set their own research budget lines anymore, these are allocated by Faculty, line by line, each one demanding fragmented micro-justifications using financial planning models drawn from the corporate world (from where most of our senior administrators now hail). Any sense of disciplinary/ school autonomy has evaporated. Teaching too is now determined in its basic framework by Faculty, on similarly mindless financial metrics. And when I say ‘Faculty’ I don’t mean Faculty; that collegial entity has effectively disappeared (the professoriate met once, never to be heard of again) leaving just a shadowy set of grumblings and rumblings around the edges of the blaring management publicity machine. No, Faculty means the Management of the Faculty. So for me the virtuous circle of student income-new staff-research funds is broken. Teaching and research are disconnected and distributed across different managerial functions with different priorities. Schools no longer have much say in this, spending their time managing the commands from above, supplying the necessary compliance and metrics. Academics simply respond to these in fragmented fashion, each task now embedded in IT systems and compliance metrics. Digital Taylorism.

Research strategy does not involve academic staff in schools or sections trying to find and develop synergies and shared ambitions, building a common narrative or group of narratives around intellectual purpose and broader academic profile. Research is about metrics, and metrics are about money. Teaching income is always the biggest source of income. But whilst we have three very successful masters, bringing in many millions a year ($20 million?) in a way that puts all research income into the shade: well, that’s nothing to do with research but teaching and so we’ll take that thank you very much. School research strategy then becomes about how best to facilitate the accumulation of metrics that can speak to the requirements of senior management, following the priorities du jour. It’s like an ant hill. Thousands of tiny little outputs and impacts, all sourced and carried by tiny little ant-metrics, carefully put together into a narrative shape that bears very little relation to what you actually do. If you look closely you can see fragments of your work – a nose, a toe, a scrap of text – but they are broken up and glued back together by the narrative secretions of whoever is charged to do this. So, input your outputs onto the [insert name of research capture machine here] and let the ants do their work with them. You can rest content that your KPI/ Professional Review metrics have been satisfied.

But, you’re only as good as your last metric. And every day, over the loud hailer, we hear of massive pig-ironCat. 2/3 targets being met and overshot, unheard of millions coming in from sources nobody ever thought possible. Are you doing your bit? Why are you stood there whilst somebody else has just landed a contract with Sewers Victoria?

Meanwhile there is teaching (and learning). It must be clear to everyone now that the business of universities is to sell courses to students who (think they) need a qualification to get a job. It’s clear to the students, who have been told this by everyone, including universities. It is clear to the policy makers, who can’t see why they should pay for it if it results in students getting a higher paid job. And it’s clear to the teaching and learning people, who are relentlessly vocational. If only it was as clear to the academics.

This is what the student-consumer wants, but as the neo-classical economists have it, theirs is imperfect or asymmetrical information. The perfect consumer knows the value of what they are purchasing and has access to the information about all the other goods on offer. Not so here. Many students (or more often their parents) simply do not know what a job in a creative (or not so creative) industry sector looks like, let alone what skills it requires, or which program offers these in the most effective way. But that the main purpose is to get a job is never in doubt, because that is what is sold to them. At point of sale the focus is not just on the superficial aspects that marketing likes – the bright young things with cameras, the investigative journalist, the digital entrepreneur, the TV Newsroom presenter – but the practical, the experiential, the hands-on. It sells to ignorant consumers.

I’ve been teaching masters programmes almost continually since 1995. In my experience, the only practical outcome that matters – getting a job – comes from a set of understandings and skills that involve creativity, deep knowledge of the field, critical thinking, ability to work across different areas. Getting a job demands a sense of purpose (even if not quite focused on a specific job) and a resilience that comes from a sense of self-worth. These are not acquired via ‘practical’ or ‘vocational’ elements alone. The conflation of the ‘practical’ learning outcomes with the practical outcome of getting a job is a huge category mistake with long lasting consequences for Higher Education. It is a disastrous mistake that is not confined to glossy websites and Twitter feeds of the marketing departments – of course they sell practical outcomes with promises of practical skills, as asked – but it has permeated deep into the rationale of universities.

In the contemporary Australian university it is an undisputed truth that academic knowledge is of little value other than to other academics (echoed by the current government but also in large parts of the Labor Party). If universities are to make people ‘work ready’ then it is a zero-sum game between the practical and the academic. This has resulted in the collapse of the very sense of self-worth of universities. I might even go so far as say they basically engage in self-hate. ‘Academic’ is a cipher for the redundant and self-indulgent, especially amongst those who have left their peer-reviewed paper days behind and now travel on Platinum Cards and are welcomed in the First-Class Lounge. Well yes, we need to do that stuff for the research metrics and the promotions and the prestige but please, keep it well away from the students. A very senior faculty manager suggested that universities are not about ‘pushing content’ in lectures – they can get all that on Google – but rather about ‘experience’. Not only is this a complete misunderstanding of what Google is actually about (which of the 10,379 answers are actually the content we need?) but of education itself. Students are not perfect consumers, they don’t know things and we are there to help them do this. This is a moment of trust, and one that has historic roots, whether Socratic or Confucian. To guide students from a state of relative ignorance to something like knowledge, which is also self-knowledge, is our job. It is not our job to give them second hand practical skills, all tied to identifiable learning outcomes, each of which is part of the commercial contract with the student (though basically unenforceable, the University will always win), and which will be redundant in a few years.

That moment of trust – where the student-consumer is in the dark and where they must rely on the seller (caveat emptor) to lead them – is something to which most academics adhere and they take it very seriously. Because we were all there once. We do it in our spare time, and off workload, and out of a sense of commitment. But that bond of trust, and the spaces in which it is fostered, is utterly anathema to university management and has been rooted out with a vengeance. The everyday administration and organisation of teaching, which used to be based around a school, has now become a management prerogative. Not just the enrolment systems, where instead of a pastoral advisor the academic is now like one of those powerless check-out support people at Coles: “oh, credits not come through and you can’t enrol? Have you tried taking the bag off the scales and putting it back on? Well, I’ve got a swipe card but I’ll just call the supervisor”. Not just timetabling, which continues to be a nightmare of its own making, simply to save money (KPMG see empty rooms as a wasted asset) with not the slightest thought about student/ staff experience. IT systems have efficiencies but administratively this means we now spend time doing the inputting and learning how to input. Our lost time is their efficiency saving, as digital machines extract all previously untapped slack time, like fracking technologies on previously useless gas fields.

Our actual carbon-based school administrators, who have been absolutely brilliant and who have saved (or cleaned up after) a million messes and disasters, and who sit in hot offices talking to confused academics with politeness and grace: they have gone. Sorry people, we apologise for any inconvenience caused. This loss of people who know how things work and can really help you solve problems is the clearest indicator I know of how little the management care about academics.

Not just those systems but the framework of every unit, the nature and spread of the assessments, the content – yes, it is now down to that – of each unit, is thoroughly gone over by T&L enforcers. Though that is increasingly about self-censorship I suspect – we avoid anything that smacks of ‘pure learning’. Look at us, we do video essays! As one V-C made clear a few years ago – academics don’t own units, the university does. You are interchangeable. We are Borg. Lectures are systematically undermined not just by live-streaming (you can watch it in the bath!) but by students being told BY THE UNIVERSITY that they are redundant. Without any evidence – indeed ignoring the evidence to the contrary. And with thousands and thousands of overseas students thinking – why I am actually here then? It’s not about lectures vs. flipped classrooms, Moodle content and so on. Lectures are good, bad or indifferent; same with ‘task based’ assessment and video essays. You chose the form that suits you/ the content/ the class. It is not about this or that form or technique: the symbolic assault on lectures speaks to a deep sense that academic knowledge is worthless. We should tend the T&L check-outs.

One question I’m always asked is why would the university want to do this, to make its academics feel worthless and tell its students that only in the vocational/ experiential can practical advantage, and any real worth, be found? Senior management declared war on academics (‘content-pushers’ to the last) a couple of decades ago. Simply put, the idea of a profession cuts against the logic of the corporation. If the university business is to sell things to students, it needs people who can deliver but they must do so on the terms set out by management. Academic autonomy, teacher-student trust, the commitment to knowledge for its own sake: these are values which have no place in the modern university.

This is all well known, a hundred papers, books, newspaper articles tell us this. They tell us we are de-professionalised, that Higher Education is a commodity only, and that students are beginning to cotton on to grade inflation (see the recent reports coming from the UK), rip-off fees, craven marketing and a life of debt. Any ‘industry’ which, like universities, has put their own profit margins (or salary pay-rises) above the interests of those it is supposed to serve is in big trouble. A ‘banking royal commission’ for universities is long overdue. I spoke to somebody who was about to leave this university who said something that cheered me up: “someday somebody is going to have to put this whole mess right”. I left feeling happy that somebody thinks they actually can and will be put it all back together. Maybe they will, but only external political forces will be able to do this. Management is so deep in they are lost; academics are utterly defeated.

I’m saying nothing new. What I learned here (again, we are not alone) was how people work and live in totally alienated environments. Alienated not: ‘lack of well-being? Please sign up for school mindfulness classes’. Alienated: to see the products and process of your labour– not just the teaching environment or the research metrics, but the whole life investment we all have made in what we know and try to pass on – utterly taken out of your control and used against you. These are psychological damaging places. I am sure that behind closed doors there are groups of scholars and teachers who know and respect each other, and can feel open and engaged in what they do together. I do see that all the time. But what I also see is that outside these small circles, intimate academic protective bubbles (in the Sloterdijk sense) this is an alienated workplace, perhaps the most alienated I have encountered.

It’s tough to say this, but stepping out of the confines (de facto if not de jure) as I have in the last few months, I think we have all been frogs in the water. Do the frogs not notice, or do they think, hang on, it’s just a passing phase, the temperature will drop? Or do they just not know how to scream? I witnessed the collapse of any democracy in the school, that strange hierarchical democracy of academia that is so often dysfunctional but, you know, it’s our dysfunction, not that of a senior management far away on a distant planet. That gave way to the efficiencies of a corporate hierarchy based on willingness to do the bidding of management. Of course, like many professional attributes, the academic based hierarchy was not so much abolished as co-opted. The academic hierarchy was an odd mix of respect and fear, but it was kind of rule-bound because ultimately it was based on a collegial group who were committed to it. Hierarchy is still hard-baked into the system, but it is no longer governed by the school, by collegiality. It is metric based, performative, disciplinary and divisive. It has left academics fearful and without respect, though it does have better conditions than working for UberEats.

In conditions of fear and alienation it is hard to cope. I have seen how little micro-grains of administrative (no longer ‘service’ but ‘leadership’) authority lead to a hyper-identification with power. I am finally in control of something and so am aligned with all the heads and deans and pro-vice deputy associate chancellors all the way up the chain of power, to the Big Other herself. It is a good feeling, one we have all shared, being aligned, head-patted, off the hook. But takes a lot of vigilance for that not to become a path to doing onto others that which has been done to yourself, a pattern familiar in authoritarian states. And universities, in case you need telling, are essentially authoritarian institutions. I came to understand more the endless performance of public congratulations – grants, awards, SETU scores. Yes, it is pig iron production figures and employee of the month notices. It is also a craving for real collegiality and solidarity and for some shared sense of purpose and recognition. Yet one does not need to read Adorno to see how distorted a form of collegial respect this has now become. Such public congratulations reminds me of Shostakovich talking about the Second World War: finally we were allowed to cry openly in public.

What is happening in Universities of course reflects the wider world. The possibilities opened up by mass participation in higher education; the cultural shifts that have made the fearful hierarchies of the past less acceptable; the breakup of the cannon into multiple cannons and the proliferation of voices blossoming in the realm of formal knowledge; the promise of the digital, liberating knowledge and teaching from older forms founded on scarcity and analogue. And the existential challenges we face as a country and a species. What brilliant, committed fun we could all have, if we were just allowed to get on with it, set our goals, with the technology and the facilities, the freedom, and the culture of multiple proliferating students from all over the world. Where we could all feel happy about going in to work on a Monday, a spring in our step, really enjoying the challenges ahead. Not the slow dread of Sunday email-checking, the deadening meetings, the affectless communication, the sense of never-ending tasks over which you have no control. We could be lighting up the world. Instead we are pissing away the institutional memory and ethos of learning and teaching in the service of a corporate machine which – we all know don’t we? – will hit the buffers sooner rather than later. Instead of introducing students to all the possibilities that they might become, and the world with them, we are cheating them of that profoundly vital space between childhood and work which, at least since the 1960s, have been the most fecund and creative moment in our lives. Now we go from school to work, via that simulation (simulacra) of work called the vocational university.

You may say that I am leaving, jumping on the last stage out of Dodge/ helicopter out of Saigon. Maybe it is less cowardly to stay, and try and salvage respect and meaning, for yourselves and for the project of university education. There are many in the school and faculty doing this, and doing it well. What is being done to universities drives me to anger; maybe I should learn the self-control displayed by people like Gillian Triggs, Christine Blasey Ford or (God help me) Hilary Clinton who, under relentless pressure keep their cool. There are people fighting the good fight, better than I could. So in this sense I leave feeling like a failure. Whatever the case, I do think you all deserve better, because you are the ones who pull everything out of the fire, who actually deliver what the university is selling. You make up the gap between the marketing hype, whose job is done when the dotted line is signed, and the reality of learning about the world, yourself and how the two fit together. You are the value-creators and every management strategy sets out to remove control of this value and to make you forget that it is you who create it.

You deserve better. And I do think there are changes with positive, green shoots afoot. But I’m not going to be around to see these, and so, with all due respect I wish you good luck.

 

 

Wake in Fright

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Ten years ago I arrived in Australia. A bit like Columbus I was looking for China, but drifted south. A job in Brisbane, I thought, was just down the road from Shanghai, where I was spending a lot of time. Well, it is, kind of. Ten hours flight, but then again, no jet lag. I did not know anything about Australia, other than accumulated images and ideas, trapped like the shreds of grey plastic on the barbed wire of my inattention. Cricket commentary around the Ashes. Tennis players from old. Some vague notion of right-on surfer conservationism. A sense of tough independent guys, who did not take wimpy poms seriously. Some frontier mentality mutated into hard-assed social democracy?

Australia did not wake me up, but I woke up in Australia. Many people never went to sleep, and others still dream on. I think of the opening of Man with a Movie Camera.

Open your Eyes!

Image result for Man with a movie camera

Escaping the Lockdown: Misreporting China

 

Last July I was in Shanghai as the city, with the same population as Australia, introduced a tough new waste recycling regime. Backed up by trained volunteers, fines, and a huge waste processing network, one of the world’s largest cities took an important step towards sustainability. Good news, one would have thought. Yet the Guardian’s headline was ‘A Sort of Eco-dictatorship’, replete with grumbling residents, fines as ‘coercion’, and all dismissed by an ‘expert’ as ‘mere window dressing’. A shift to sustainable waste management on a vast scale, a pilot for the largest country on Earth, was simply put in the ‘authoritarian China’ bin. This at a time when Australia was still working out what to do in response to the Chinese ban on landfill waste export two years after it took effect (and they’d had warning). This kind of reporting resurfaced in January, led as always by the vociferous China hater Bill Bishop, as the Corona Virus began to make news. That is, an immediate locking down of China as authoritarian regime, now exporting its mistakes to us.

This was to be Xi’s Tiananmen moment, the Communist Party’s Chernobyl, its failure to protect the public revoking the ‘mandate of heaven’. A Guardian podcast, in the middle of this crisis as 1.4 billion people were confined to their homes, discussed initial cover-ups (a fair point) but then suggested this maybe the end of the Communist Regime. Reports of someone out of curfew being handcuffed to a lamppost elicited discussion of ‘the struggle of the Chinese people against the Chinese state’ and the question ‘why are people not in revolt on the streets’? These predictions – as anyone who knew China would tell you – were utterly ill-founded, and yet they filled the headlines and op-eds of the mainstream press. They built on a growing international relations literature in the US and Australia which had pivoted from a realist view – how do we deal with the rise of China – to a ‘woken’one – China has been given a free run at our expense and to our detriment. The Thucydides trap is inevitable, so better spring it now whilst the US and its allies still have an edge. This aggressive pivot and the reporting to which it gives rise has not served Australia – or the West – well in this crisis.

In its desire to see the demise of the Chinese Communist Party – in this view the only viable option – it deludes itself and others as to the CPCs capacity and its wide support in China. These writers are keen to make a distinction between the Chinese government and the Chinese people, but they talk of ‘regime change’ as if this meant the same as ousting Morrison or Trump. What they mean is a large scale political, social, economic and cultural transformation of China into something acceptable to the West. Not only is this not on the cards but it has zero support in China. Reform yes, but not regime change. This failure had serious consequences.

The concern to force China into a ‘dictatorship versus the people’ narrative meant that the lived experience of the virus emergency in China went under-reported. The ‘human interest’ stories we saw in Italy or France barely surfaced, though they were there to be seen. Many people in Wuhan– undergoing what we all now might have to go through – saw themselves as saving their fellow citizens, and the rest of the world. A Chinese colleague mailed me to say that they felt proud of what their country had done to earn the gratitude of the world. I tried not to deflate her. This all contributed to the ‘othering’of the virus, as something that could only happen in China, a backwards country not able to deal with it as would an advanced democracy. It also suggested that China’s strict methods, which gradually gained some grudging admiration, could not be implemented in the West. They were needed as in China no-one trusted the government, whereas in democracies we have open information. There is less of that now.

This is not to excuse the Chinese government of its mistakes. Ok, the virus was unknown, and it threatened the lunar new year holiday; but all mistakes reveal the qualities of the system that makes them. In this case risk averse local officials not wanting to put their head up first and sitting hard on those that did. But who now globally, after a crucial month of highly visible health warnings was wasted, is able to keep on casting stones – other than those who blame China for exporting its mistakes. The Chinese response, when it got going, was ruthlessly efficient. It will require some serious investigation, by health professionals and epidemiologists, to determine what they did well, what not, and what could be done differently. But there is also a political reckoning, and it will be a hard one.

China has shown that it possesses a certain state capacity that has been seriously eroded in the West, especially the Anglosphere. Political scientist Christopher Hood suggested thirty years ago, that ‘new public management’ was imposing cost-efficiencies at the expense of commitment to ‘honesty and fairness’, and the capacity for ‘reliability, adaptivity and robustness’. He asked presciently, ‘whether the emphasis on cost-cutting, contracting-out, compartmentalizing and top-slicing is compatible with safety culture at the front line. Some answers are now forthcoming – from the health services to the NBN. At bottom, there is an erosion of trust in government. It is not just the obvious decline in the capacity of states to deal with this crisis, but also of the social capacity to work collaboratively with trusted state authorities. China has both capacity and this trust; so too do the democracies of South Korea and Taiwan. A country does not need to be ‘authoritarian’ to act competently, but nor does being a ‘democracy’ guarantee that it will do so.

Underlying the hollowing out of the state has been the extension of the market to every nook and cranny of social, cultural and political life. It is now held as the very essence of the rational. In the China narrative the progress of ‘free’ market capitalism and democracyare as one; that things have not turned out as planned shows that these markets – state capitalism – cannot really be free. What this occludes is the growing sense in the West that capitalism and democracy are not always happy bedfellows. In fact, capitalism is quite happy to dispense with democracy when circumstances require. The current global crisis raises questions about every state’s (lack of) capacity to ensure the basic welfare of its citizens. This crisis thus connects us to China, because there too people are asking about how the system can be made more responsive to their needs, able to listen to their voices. This, it should now be clear by now, is not guaranteed by the bare mechanism of a party electoral system. A new compact between state and citizens is required, in both the West and China, and this challenge takes us beyond Us and Them.

For right now the Thucydides trap has mis-sprung. It is China that is a global health leader, the capable state to which one might consider turning to for help, as the US fumbles its way into disaster. And the Party has made propaganda capitalout of it – right back at that coming out of the US and Australia. The task now is surely to step outside this binary and refuse to be told what our core values are by those who would wage cold and hot war against China. The world faces some profound challenges and China has its contribution to make, as do we.

Three Grand Fugues

Lyon Opera Ballet: 6th March 6pm

Adelaide Festival Theatre

Lucinda Childs' Grand Fugue.jpg

Though attending classical music concerts since I was 16 (late night buses back from Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in the rain) I have not watched much contemporary dance. I remember Clive James once writing that this was the last art form he had come to appreciate. I had a colleague in Helsinki, semi-retired in his early 60s, who had recently discovered a passion for contemporary dance – definitely not ballet – which he now pursued with a vengeance. A long-term cultural activist friend, plunging into the Amazon twenty years ago to do Theatre of the Oppressed, now works there exclusively in music and dance. I do though remember vividly a Michael Clark performance of The Fall’s I am Curious Orange in the mid-1980s, and a silent (other than grunts and heavy breathing) performance by DV8 in Gothenburg over a decade ago. At a time when dance shines as one of the few beacons of hope over the blasted heath of Australia’s publicly funded art landscape, perhaps my time has come at last. If it has, then I can’t think of a better place for it to have started than with these Three Grand Fugues.

What struck me immediately was the lack of much reference to Beethoven’s music in the free handout (I never buy those 30 Dollar souvenir things) – it was about the choreographers and the company. Which is fair enough, given the astonishing CVs of these three women – Lucinda Childs, Anne Terisa De Keersmaeker, Maguy Marin – nearly a century of work between them, and the dancers’ physical labour about to be expended on the stage. Though calling this ‘an unforgettable evening of exclusively female work’ seemed a bit much, given the number of male dancers and, well, poor old dead white Ludwig himself. It made more sense when I realised that the music was not live but recorded – and (not having thought this through in advance) how could it not be? A quartet playing the Große Fugues three times, or three different quartets? I also realised that for me the dance was to be an accompaniment to the music, whereas for most of the audience, I suppose it was the other way around.

The first piece, by Lucinda Childs, had Beethoven played by the Lyon Opera’s string orchestra, a choice which only made sense as the dance progressed – or rather, didn’t progress. The dancers were dressed – the programme again – ‘academically’ in grey, befitting the ‘purely academic vocabulary’ deployed by Childs. Responding to the art world of New York Minimalism in the late 1960s/ early 1970s, Childs eventually worked with two of its great musical names, Sol LeWitt and Philip Glass. Using basic figures, repeated with simple variations, and replacing the ‘organic’ growth of traditional classical music with increases of speed and volume, Minimalism, opened up a quieter space, away from the shouty expressionism of the 1960s. In its cool concern with pattern and variation it could connect with a certain idea of the fugue. Child’s set, ‘a structure of luminous lace’ recalling ‘Indonesian fretwork’ also makes that connection, of intricate patterns repeated, inverted, doubled, mirrored. The dancers moved in formal patterns, for the most part coupled man-woman, like a courtly dance. At times it approached what my Finnish friend would call ballet.

One of the problems Beethoven faced was that the fugue and classical music mix with great difficulty. A Fugues is a baroque form, moving through the various keys as you would look up to contemplate a great cupula, gradually swivelling to take it all in, finally returning to where you started. Classical music moves through keys as if travelling to different landscapes, a journey through space-time. This has been linked to the very idea of ‘Progress’ which emerged at the same time, though German Romanticism also made it a personal journey of the soul. Beethoven put these together – think of the ‘Fate’ motif in the 5th symphony, and Adorno hearing it as the rise of the revolutionary bourgeoise. By the time of the Große Fugue these two – the personal and the political, as it were – had come apart somewhat. But for Beethoven there had to be progress, a growth of the soul through struggle. How was this to come through a fugue which was about uncovering and displaying the multiple patterns of a fundamentally ordered universe? The answer is in this frantic, angular, chaotic and angst-ridden music.

In the 1980s and 1990 a ‘classical Beethoven’ appeared, having none of the dark-browed romantic, stressing instead his continuation of formal, balanced, restrained order. Fugue demanded technical counterpoint, which was something of a lost art retrieved from under the chordal progressions of the classical period. Child’s piece was about this formal ordering, the complex patterns of the music finding echo in the intricate arabesques of the dance. Yet to find such classical academicism in Beethoven’s most chaotic work is less a distinct reading and more a deliberate muffling. The Minimalist techniques were there: the fugue’s first quiet passage, where some kind of humanity is found still alive after the catastrophic collapse of the opening fugue, is marked simply by reducing the dancers to two couples, as you would the number of instruments. Less volume not a different world. The string orchestra itself softened the angularity of the music, taking it into a less frantic, neo-classical space. As Judith Mackrell wrote in her review for the Guardian just after its first performance: ‘there are moments when you hold your breath in disbelief as the dance rides out the most tempestuous passages of the score’. Indeed. When the dance ends, Beethoven’s music calling closure if not quite apotheosis, I felt we had not been taken anywhere. Perhaps like minimalism itself, which finds it difficult to end, as unlike Bach, it does not believe in the fundamental order or the universe, just the bad infinity of repetition.

With Anne Terisa De Keersmaeker – after being interrupted by a pretty redundant interval – we are back with a four-person string band (the Debussy Quartet), its individual voices now revelling in the agonistic struggle with each other, with the world. Twelve dancers, two women, all in black suits. There is no coupling, they barely touch each other. One woman does her own thing, walking around the stage looking on as the rest try and copy. The first one to take her jacket off, she’s a free radical, leaving an asymmetrical four and three to cope. We are right into Beethoven’s off-kilter fugue. The dance is squarely contemporary, street styles distantly referenced – Beyoncé stole her moves, allegedly – and sometimes a sense of a hip-hop competition. There’s an intense physicality here, bodies throwing themselves to the floor, writhing, but it’s no celebration. The dancers are disconnected, though aware of each other, a social landscape of fear, desire and distrust that somehow reminded me of her Belgian compatriots, the Dardenne brothers. The quiet passage here is one of exhaustion and respite, the dancers lying on the ground in a row. And when Beethoven introduces his unexpectedly joyful motif – almost a melody – half-way through, there is real elation in the group. As the relentless fugue grimly starts up again, the free radical taps the guy next to her, hey! And they smile and start dancing. At the end, after all that, they are a group, a gang, somehow holding together, looking forward, ready for it.

A non-interval, like a false hand-clap, where some get up to go but are hurried back in: and it’s dark. Another string quartet (Quartetto Italiano) starts up in the black, four voices instantly sounding more angular, isolated. The fugue’s opening unison statement of theme is obscene: it cannot be shown. As the unison gives way to the individual string voices, starting their fugal struggle for the third time now, the lights go on, and what looks like Bedlam appears. Maguy Marin’s four women in red, each occupying some kind of self-referential, psychotic space, with Michelangelo’s insane eyes occasionally flashing out to the audience. Beethoven has to keep his chaotic voices together, though his academic counterpoint quickly runs to the precipice and stops. These four dancers are radically apart, and apart from us. If there was a precipice left for them, they’d be over it in a flash. The post-fugal human section of the music gives some respite, but (as I recall) it is only as the joyous near-melody starts up, that they begin to move together or in sequence. There are times when the four dancers and four musical voices seem to mirror each other, though not in any obvious instrument to dancer way. Little patterns flicker across each of them, and they pick it up, and notice each other. And they are back in the fugue but somehow also together, and at the end, with some kind of resolution – in the sense of being resolved to do something. Judith Mackrell ends recalling Beckett’s The Unnamable: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Beethoven doesn’t resolve the fragments he set in motion, but, yes, we must go on. It’s a different kind of order to that of Bach, but also to the infinite patterning of Minimalism. Marin and Keersmaeker’s pieces date from 2006, Child’s from 2016. An ordered universe now seems the preserve of the non-human; we might face extinction but evolution, that cathedral assembled by a blind watchmaker, continues for other species, those that survive. We can look up and admire the cupola, but it’s off-centre, like Child’s lacework set, askew, extending over other, unseen, horizons. We might have to console ourselves with this at some point – cathedrals replaced by mausoleums to sex and death such as MONA. But to me, making the patterns mean something, finding out how they can bring us together – whether in those mean streetscapes of the social, or the dark recesses of the personal currently being eviscerated by ‘social’ media – this is Beethoven’s hope, animating the bodies of those young dancers on the stage.