The creative industrial complex

  • Themes: Culture

At a time when society is divided and all aspects of life are deeply politicised, art should be the final refuge of neutrality.

The Ringtheater fire in Vienna on December 8, 1881.
The Ringtheater fire in Vienna on December 8, 1881. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Culture is Not an Industry: Reclaiming Art and Culture for the Common Good, Justin O’Connor, Manchester University Press, £14.99

It was the fag end of a long Conservative administration that had run out of ideas. The arts world was pinning its hopes firmly on Labour, which it was convinced would prioritise culture, be generous with funding, stop disparaging actors and musicians as ‘luvvies’, and generally be the answer to its prayers. 2024? No. 1997.

For a while, everything seemed rosy. The British film industry was booming, fashion designers became celebrities, and rock stars posed outside 10 Downing Street, but gradually it started to dawn on the arts world that genres such as opera, ballet and serious drama were not quite so favoured by New Labour. Not only were they harder to reconcile with the ‘Cool Britannia’ brand, but they sat ill-at-ease with a key New-Labour concept: the ‘creative industries’, a bold new economic strategy that would exploit fashion, design, film, TV and video games to generate wealth and create jobs in the post-industrial age.

The obsession with the creative industries was handed down seamlessly from New Labour to the Coalition and then to the current Conservative government, and it would be naïve to imagine that a future Labour administration will drop it. Indeed, in 2024 the creative industries are having a renaissance. British universities are rushing to launch creative or cultural industries courses, in a bid to show that the arts – to the extent that such courses are really still about the arts – are just as worthy as STEM subjects because of the contribution they make to GDP. Many people running theatres, museums and orchestras have adopted the same mentality, because as Justin O’Connor explains in his new book, ‘anyone familiar with the arts and cultural sector will know its hand-to-mouth, cunning pragmatism, where one renders unto Caesar whatever Caesar wants if it means getting that grant. The grant you need to survive’.

The arts sector in the UK finds itself in a desperate state today, in the wake of Covid and the vicious funding cuts inflicted by Arts Council England (ACE). O’Connor is right to rail at the general neglect of culture in today’s bleak, uncertain political landscape, to deplore the fact that universities are being run as business, to lament the way in which new modes of cultural consumption have led to the closure of cinemas, and to note that the whole ‘creative industries’ bandwagon has failed spectacularly in its job-creation ambitions. His desire to ‘reclaim art and culture for the common good’ by decoupling it from the idea of ‘industry’ and realigning it alongside healthcare, education and social welfare seems compelling at first glance. So why is this book so thoroughly depressing?

The problem with the creative industries concept is not, for O’Connor, simply its utilitarianism, but the fact that it has ‘represented a massive de-politicisation of culture’. Believing, as so many academics do, that everything is inescapably political, he advocates harnessing culture to a specific, radical political agenda. Strongly influenced by the cultural theorist Raymond Williams, O’Connor’s starting point is that creativity is ‘part of the “long revolution” towards a democratic, socialist society’.

O’Connor is a professor of creative economy and his book is effectively a manifesto for a whole new way of life, where capitalism and profit-driven growth will be abandoned and a benevolent government will provide everyone with a universal basic income or at least create umpteen new well-paid cultural jobs. The trade-off will be that we will be expected to consume less, restrict our needs, live on very low incomes, and be subject to the whims of the ‘citizen assemblies’ which will draw up a radical reform agenda – whatever that might mean – for arts and culture.

Cue flashbacks to those zany fantasies that circulated on social media in lockdown about a utopian (or, depending on your perspective, dystopian) ‘new normal’, in which life as we knew it would never return and everyone would simply accept the fact. Though heavy on theory and as jargon-laden as any policy document from a government quango, O’Connor’s book is light on details as to how his vision might actually be brought to fruition. And what does giving people ‘cultural citizenship’ and the freedom to participate in ‘the emancipated cultural life of free self-realisation’ mean anyway?

It seems to mean taking a participatory role, in some way or other. Today we must all be ‘do-ers’, as ACE’s ten-year strategy, ‘Let’s Create’, exhorts. There seems to be little place in its vision, or in O’Connor’s, for people who want to be arts consumers (whom we might more positively call ‘appreciators’): people who derive meaning, spiritual fulfilment or even good old enjoyment from listening to classical music or going to an art exhibition. You can guess why.

While critical of the creative industries project, O’Connor sympathises with its conceit that art is elitist, arguing that ‘a democratic cultural policy is a “bottom-up” act of taking back “art” from its highfalutin autonomous realm and returned to the community where it belongs’. His thinking owes more to the community arts movement of the 1970s, when theorists such as Su Braden railed against the arrogant middle classes imposing ‘their art’ on the working class, than to the meticulous historical work of scholars such as Jonathan Rose, author of the classic The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, which presents the arts as something that belonged (and belongs) to everyone.

O’Connor’s squeamishness about the arts, sniffiness about traditional ‘patrician’ models of subsidy, hostility towards large arts organisations, and suspicion of meritocracy become easier to understand when you realise that his definition of art may not be the same as yours. Cultural relativism rules, and O’Connor defers to Brian Eno (treated here as a sort of guru) who says that the word ‘art’ can be applied to perfume, sports cars, graffiti, tattoos, slang, poodles, apple strudels and boob jobs. Art, by this measure, is everything and everywhere, nothing and nowhere. Culture, meanwhile, is defined by O’Connor as many things, most opaquely as ‘the name we give to the collective patterning of our material and spiritual freedoms, patterns based not just on communication… but on symbolisation, forms of speaking, about what we ought to do’. Decipher that if you can.

Talking about the arts and culture in this sort of highly abstract and abstruse manner seems no more helpful than reducing culture to an ‘industry’. You will find plenty of fuzzy talk in Culture is Not an Industry about equality, social change, wellbeing, community, environmental sustainability, and ‘identity’ – the language, in other words, of the bureaucratic funding application form. Look for any concrete, sustained discussion of art, music or literature and you will hunt in vain. ‘Culture has gone missing at the moment it is most needed’, O’Connor writes at one point. Too right.

Some types of art are deeply, consciously political, but not all of it is. At a time when our society is so deeply divided, and all aspects of life are deeply politicised, wouldn’t it be great if the arts could be one last refuge of neutrality, something that brings people together rather than pushing them still further apart? Co-opting culture as the preserve of the far left and using it to advocate for a pie-in-the-sky quasi-Communist revolution is surely not the answer to our problems.


Alexandra Wilson