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“.

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