Some thoughts on cultural innovation and cultural policy, via the Victorian election

I’ve been away from the blog for the last little bit, but the break has given me the opportunity to do some sustained reading and thinking about some of the bigger philosophical issues that revolve around the ideas of “new work”, originality and innovation, and what these might tell us about cultural policy and the everyday experience of creating and experiencing art.

Rather than mount an entire academic paper’s worth of argument here, I’m going to take things from the particular and work my way back to the general … which might well be putting the cart before the horse, but should chart a course for you (and me).

Let’ s tart off with a bit of real-world cultural policy: today’s announcement by the Victorian Labor Party that it plans to amalgamate all of Victoria’s “cultural” agencies into a new mega-department called “Creative Victoria”:

“Under Creative Victoria, cultural organisations and industries currently overseen by Arts Victoria and those relating to screen, digital games and design that reside with the Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development will be brought under the one banner.”

Those who’ve studied a bit of the recent history of cultural policy will know this is thoroughly reminiscent of the formation of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport by Tony Blair’s government in 1997 – the administrative move which is generally considered to have started the whole “creative industries” ball rolling.  There is now a pretty deep literature about the DCMS, it’s lofty intentions, actual actions and the sociological and theoretical underpinnings of the move. A few of the best papers have even been covered here in this blog – Phillip Schleshinger’s paper on think-tanks, Justin O’Connor’s literature review, Toby Miller’s anti-creative industries critique, and Nicholas Garnham’s “From Cultural to Creative Industries” paper of 2005.

As Garnham observes in his paper,

… the use of the term “creative industries” … draws its political and ideological power from the prestige and economic importance attached to concepts of innovation, information, information workers and the impact of information and communication technologies drawn from information society theory.

Garnham puts his finger on the critical point: that creative industries policy is a political idea that can be traced to ideas championing the economic value of creative innovation. Richard Florida and Australia’s CCI centre, while they would not see themselves as fellow-travellers, are indeed partly responsible for promoting to policy-makers these ideas.

Innovation is one of the key terms here, because it the mechanism through which this school of thought connects creativity to economic growth. A case in point is Paul Stoneman’s recent book Soft Innovation. A ‘soft innovation’ is roughly an aesthetic innovation that can be fitted into existing neoclassical concepts of ecocnomic innovation, such as the so-called “technological, process and product” (or “TPP”) innovation defined and insitutionalised by bodies such as the OECD. Stoneman is an economist, and his project aims to carve out a meaningful space for aesthetic innovations in the cultural industries (like books, films and games) in the existing economic theory of innovation. (This poses a few problems, because his models are neoclassical ones which assume things like perfect comeptition, rational consumers and markets that always clear … that doesn’t sound much like the music industry in the era of The Pirate Bay to me.)

Another line of research comes from the CCI’s Jason Potts, who sees the creative industries from an evolutionary economic perspective in which the act as a kind of meta-industrial economic cluster that provide transformative innovations to the broader economy … a sort of storm-cell generating constant gales of Schumperterian creative destruction, if you will.

Both Potts and Stoneman are interested in innovation in a specifically economic sense, which is interesting in itself. They are not overtly interested in, for example, the social consequences or preconditions of cultural innovation, and you would be hard-pressed to fit them into any kind of sociological understanding of innovation such as the social production of art or the social reception and consumption of art.

This matters, because by the time these ideas get bowdlerised and compressed into an election promise, cultural policy begins to force ideas of art and culture into a highly reductionist framework. As they are understood by governments, the value of the creative industries then begins to look like large matrices of employment and income data, and probably of a less-nuanced nature than the gold-standard data like that collated by Peter Higgs.

What we could expect in Victoria under this policy, then, is some sort of gradual skew of cultural policy away from ideas of participation and access, and towards economically-validated special pleading for various well-connected organisations and firms within the creative sector, much as Garnham described happened in Britain. Festivals and “flagship” performing arts organisations are probably best-placed to benefit from this skew, because of their media profile and the social capital they enjoy amongst well-connected board members. Paradoxically, independent artists and small collectives might also benefit, perhaps, out of a general realisation that they provide essential seed-beds of start-ups necessary for the generation of “innovation” – understood as bringing a cultural product to market, of course. Community arts organisations and service agencies may not find the new paradigm as easy to manage.

I’m going to sketch out some more ideas about what I think are some of the problems of innovation theory as it is being applied to cultural policy in a future post.

Foremost among them will be the contention that we need to rescue the idea of innovation from the economists, because the creation of new ideas and artworks often occurs outside markets, for anti-rational reasons, and produces harms as well as benefits. Indeed, there is a strong case that can argued in analogy from theories  in science and technology studies that ideas like “innovation” and “new work” are themselves socially constructed and open to contestation, resistance and subversion – one reason perhaps that Rosalind Krauss famously described “the originality of the avant-garde” as a “modernist myth“.

3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on cultural innovation and cultural policy, via the Victorian election

  1. Absolutely, there are problems in leaving innovation to the economists and there are legitimate criticism of the DCMS example in the UK but don’t be too pessimistic it was not all big institutions successfully lobbying for $ when they moved from one pot to another. Similarly – innovation – was not quashed by the bean counters and had a major impact and generated innovations that were very much about the social production/reception of art
    In the museum sector:
    1. The GLLAM report and the impact of renaissance in the regions on local government
    2. The work taking place at Leicester University under the direction of Richard Sandell
    3. The success of Museums and galleries Scotland in supporting their 400 constituents with some highly innovative results
    4. The V&A’s social inclusion work
    All of the above were outgrowths of the receptive policy and funding environment that was created by the DCMS structure. They innovated in several ways – allowing institutions to re-think their publics to facilitate access to collections and the development of collaborative programming that was very much grounded in the social production of culture.
    Research and University:
    Beyond Museums work like that being done at Durham University in Medical Humanities or at Manchester Metropolitan University on arts and health has seen ‘outcomes’ from innovation that would not have been generated without the policy framework of the DCMS.
    Closer to home the work being done by Vic Health
    Modelled on the UK approach, this has had significant impact in driving innovations in the arts and health that reaches well beyond the definition of ‘innovation’ that is tied to outcomes by bean counters (but that those same bean counters can understand and justify funding). These models supported (and continue to support for a little while anyway) community arts organisations and were used by them to good effect.
    Yep, it’s a social construct and yes “the creation of new ideas and artworks often occurs outside markets, for anti-rational reasons”. We should question the institutionalisation of innovation and be wary of it’s use by politicians but there is a role for policy in supporting and creating environments that allow institutions and individuals alike to explore and create new ways of practicing (innovation).
    Meanwhile, keep the bastards honest this weekend and Ecrassez l’infame!

  2. indeed. Innovation should be kept well away from anyone with a calculator. Arts and other cultural festivals are also hotbeds of innovation where collaboration and social interaction provide artists with the environments they need to develop “the new”. I observed this at length in my Masters thesis – a shortened version appeared here.

    Click to access mackellar.pdf

    I think many govt planners still struggle with this concept and will for as long as they are asked to show some stats to prove the success of anything.

  3. Pingback: The canary in the coal mine, the Victorian Election, ‘soft innovation’, and the Arts in Australia.

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