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Creative and cultural work, cultural ecologies

So far in my PhD I’ve been referring to my potential participants as creative and cultural workers. This has been a ‘catch all’ way for me to give a rough indication of who I’m looking at, without committing to either creative or cultural workers. This is because, as I’ll discuss in this post, of the definitional ambiguities and confusion surrounding the terms ‘creative industries’ and ‘cultural industries’, which has implications for how I conceptualise ‘creative workers’ or ‘cultural workers’.

In a discussion of creative and cultural work, it is first neccessary to situate these terms within their wider context of ‘creative’ and ‘cultural’ industries, so i’ll begin with a brief history of both terms, including differences and criticisms, before a discussion of ‘cultural ecologies’ which I think could be a helpful way of conceptualising contemporary cultural work.

Cultural industries

The term ‘Cultural Industry’ is most associated with Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the mass production and mass consumption of cultural goods in the early 20th Century, and the absorption of culture into the economy (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979). They argued that the ‘Culture Industry’ was a tool of the ruling class and the state over the masses. This industrialisation of culture partly arose from the technological advances of the early 20th century, and the autonomy of art was seemingly under threat. According to them, this led to resistance in the form of ‘bohemian’ lifestyle choices and ‘art for arts sake’. For me, this struggle between art and capitalism appears to have parallels with the notions of self-actualisation and aspiration for ‘meaningful work’ apparent in contemporary work (McRobbie, 1999; Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005), and for artists, the tensions between art (art for arts sake) and commerce (making a living), persist (Hesmondhalgh, 2007).

Cultural work

As highlighted by scholars such as Sennett (1998) and Beck (2000) the emphasis on the ‘individual’ in modern work grew during the 1980s and 1990s as the decentralisation of work, which began with the Thatcher government, led to a proliferation of SMEs and freelancers. This also happened in the cultural industries, which became a particular object of policy during this time (Garnham, 1990). Reflexivity and entrepreneurship became important values in contemporary work, none more so than in the cultural industries. Lash and Urry (1994) pointed out how cultural workers possessed some of the traits which were valuable to the corporate sector, such ‘aesthetic reflexivity’ and an intuitive grasp of cultural trends. The inherent traits of cultural workers, particularly ‘creativity’, became more and more desirable in many sectors of work outside of the cultural industries (Ross, 2003) and this continues today with the encouragement of artistic interventions with businesses (Sköldberg, Woodilla and Antal, 2015). This emphasis on the artistic mentality and creativity took centre stage in UK cultural policy in the late 1990s.

Creative industries

The creation of the ‘creative industries’ as a policy object by New Labour in 1997 is what spawned much academic debate, centred around criticism of the term’s ambiguity, the emphasis on the knowledge economy and exploitation of intellectual property (Garnham, 2005) and the inclusion of software programming, video gaming, among many other industries not traditionally considered ‘cultural’ into classifications of the new ‘creative industries’, causing definitional confusion and slippages around culture, the economy and technology (Hesmondhalgh, 2007).  These criticisms are usefully summarised by Galloway and Dunlop (2007), who argue that the ‘creative industries’ as a policy object obscures the distinctive aspects of cultural work, particularly the communication of symbolic ideas and meanings (p.27).

Many alternatives have been proposed since, a useful summary of which can be found in pages 22-25 UNESCO’s 2013 Creative Economy report. David Throsby (2001) proposed a model of the ‘core’ cultural industries (comprising of the more traditional arts) which extends to other cultural industries (including film and TV) and then to creative industries (advertising, marketing, PR). A similar model was proposed by the European Commission (2006). O’Connor (2010) argues that these models fail to take into account the complex processes and interdependencies within the cultural sector, “and evades some of the real tensions between creative labour and the conditions in which is it put to work” (p.57).

Such criticisms and debates are the reason why I’ve waited until I can dig more into the literature before working out what I mean by ‘creative and cultural workers’. In terms of choosing my participants, my instinct has always been towards people who work in what Throsby calls the traditional, ‘core’ cultural industries: “music, dance, theatre, literature, the visual arts, the crafts” (p.112) and so far these are the types of workers I have been approaching to participate in my research. This is because, in traditional terms, the creative practice which takes place within these categorisations doesn’t neccessarily involve digital technology and the internet as much as other, supposedly ‘non-traditional’ (as described by Throsby) cultural industries may do. So, for now I am referring to them as ‘cultural workers’ and the work they do ‘cultural work’. However, in order to avoid the separatist tendencies of the models described above, I’ve found John Holden’s idea of ‘Cultural Ecologies’ particularly helpful for conceptualising cultural work in a wider context.

Cultural ecologies

John Holden’s (2015) concept of cultural ecology is based on Ann Markussen’s (2011:10) definition of the ecology of culture:

The complex interdependencies that shape the demand for and production of arts and cultural offerings.

The cultural ecology concentrates on relationships; between people, commercial and non-commercial organisations, professionals, amateurs, as well as the flows of ideas and money. It characterises cultural work as an activity only sometimes undertaken for profit, effectively accounting for consumer/amateur cultural production which has proliferated through digital and social media (Holden, 2015:12):

Cultural endeavour involves the making of meaning and the construction of social lives as well as (sometimes) the pursuit of profit. If culture is treated as an ecology, then the analytical approach becomes one of identifying cultural value, by taking into account the multifaceted and pluralistic value of culture beyond, as well as including, the economic.

Social media, the internet and mobile technology allow increasing opportunities for cultural production, co-production, self-branding, networking, and most of the work which goes into these activities is unpaid, what Terranova (2000) calls ‘free labour’. The increased capability of co-production and perceived blurring of distinctions between producer and consumer have led to what Andrew Keen (2007) and John Hartley (2009) have argued as an erosion of expertise in cultural life (as argued by Keen) and media work (argued by Hartley). This, however, needs much further investigation and interrogation and is a primary focus of my research in relation to expertise and how it is performed on social media. A talk yesterday by my supervisor Paul Long prompted further thinking about amateur cultural production and co-production which is emerging as an important theme in my research.