The Creative Economy, Art and Design

© Donald Richardson, December, 2007


'The creative economy', 'the creative industries', 'the knowledge economy', 'the creative workforce', 'the cultural industries', 'creative communities' and 'smart industry' are terms that are much bandied about these days. Cleary they do not all mean exactly the same thing but, collectively, they refer to what Professor Stuart Cunningham, director of the Queensland University of Technology's Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI), describes as 'the large amount of both business literature and economic policy that calls for enhanced "creativity" in the workplace', the aim being economic growth and full employment in this 'post-industrial' 21st century. The CCI, in partnership with the Australia Council, recently released a well-researched report - Educating for the Creative Workforce: Rethinking Arts and Education - which imparts some much-needed rationality to what has hitherto been a somewhat pie-in-the-sky concept.
The easy assumption has been that, if industry could harness some of the creativeness of the country's artists, the economic millennium will ensue as a matter of course. This is not a new principle: it is just that industry and governments have recently discovered it. It was aptly expressed by George Bernard Shaw as long ago as 1902 (in Man and Superman): 'the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man'.
The Blair government in the UK adopted the concept as policy ten years ago and, although there are reports of a replay of 'swinging sixties London', the policy is criticised for reducing the arts to handmaidens of industry. Much the same has occurred in this country where the federally-funded Australia Business Arts Foundation (AbaF) restricts its patronage to 'partnerships' between major companies and already-successful, essentially conservative arts organizations.
And, Objective 4 of the South Australian government's Strategic Plan - Fostering Creativity and Innovation - aims at developing 'a vibrant intellectual and artistic culture' related to the fostering of creative industries. There are similar movements in other states.
Both the UK and SA initiatives take their principles from the much-vaunted book by Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class. But all three fail to make a crucial distinction: that between pursuits like fashion, computer games and film-making - which may truly be designated 'creative industries' - and the general run of product manufacturers who desire simply to widen their markets and increase profits. And one must question the ethics of a major investment of creative resources in things like entertainment when there are real problems we should be bending our creative minds to tackling - water, pollution, graffiti, education, public transport and health.
In Adelaide earlier this year, the Department of the Premier and Cabinet sponsored a series of Creative Industries Network Forums to bring together artists, bureaucrats, economists and business advisers. The sessions had titles like 'Creative Industries: Business or Arts?' and 'Commercialising Creativity'. And Adelaide University is currently conducting a study into the concept of the creative economy.
But, it is naïve to think that funding business people to lecture to artists will, of itself, bring us material prosperity. For one thing, it is factually wrong to assume that the community's stock of 'creativity' is vested exclusively - or, even, mostly - in its artists. Certainly, artistic expression may be its most obvious manifestation - the tip of the iceberg, perhaps - but there are varying amounts of creativity in every one of us. It is not even that this potential lies latent in the average person because he/she is too shy to parade it. In fact, it is evidenced all the time in the garden, the kitchen, the boutique, the hairdresser, the car salesroom, and many other places (as well as in artists' studios and galleries). In all these locations, normal people are creating things and situations and/or exercising practical and aesthetic choices daily and hourly. Not great art, of course, but certainly creative behaviour.
And the call for harnessing creative and divergent thinking - the staple of artistic life - for economic gain, shows a complete misunderstanding of the true nature of both art and industry. Industry only manufactures things for which there is an established demand. Artists operate in no way like this because no-one can know in advance what an artist is going to produce, so there cannot be a pre-existing demand for the product. This basic principle cannot be gainsaid: art is unique - and neither business nor industry.
Very few artists show much interest in the concept of the creative economy probably because they realise that, if the process works, they will be the last to reap any benefits. We could hardly expect them to cue up to work in factories! And no-one seems to ask just what sort of osmosis will transfer artistic creativeness to profits in business and industry.

But the most important failing in the theory is that it does not recognise that the majority of creative activity in any community relates to functional things - things that contribute materially to our lives (what used to be called 'applied art' or 'art in service') - not to art per se. Functional thing are created by designers, not artists. Designers draw on the same creative energies that are the stuff of artistic creation but apply them to making things like cars, clothing and buildings. Artists cannot - or don't want to - do this.

One of the Adelaide sessions featured John Dawkins, who - as a minister in the former federal Labor government - destroyed the concept of the art school by having most of them subsumed under universities. His message was a simple one: just find out what governments want and do it. Not very profound, and he did not realise that what he was talking about was design, not art.

In the 1930s, in the Bauhaus, the innovative German design academy which - thanks to Hitler, who forced its principals (mostly Jewish) to flee - brought about the post-war Industrial Design movement in England and America. Its director, architect Walter Gropius, employed artists like Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky to teach student designers and building artisans. This has long been proven as the way to create a creative economy. And the evidence is there for government to see: contemporary manifestations of the Bauhaus - Ikea, the O-bahn and the architecture of the late Harry Seidler (himself one of the escapees from Hitler).
And two recently-announced innovations are also in this tradition: facing half the seating in passenger aircraft backwards to allow more leg-room and the self-driving passenger car. But, they are the work of designers and technologists, not artists.
Actually, the CCI/Australia Council report found that there is very little evidence that arts-trained employees have any effect on the operation of industries; instead it recommends that employers look to the workforce itself to improved productivity. It is a fact that the great innovations in industry - the stump-jump plough and the Ridley Stripper, to name just two South Australian examples - have usually resulted from revisions of process or product suggested by observant and creative workers involved in production, not artists. They have occurred in industries which practiced a different kind of 'flexibility' than that which the former government sponsored.
And - importantly - the report notes that there is no agreed coherent definition of the concept of 'creativity' anyway. The term is, in fact, a 'hypothetical construct': a concept that is inferred as actually existing although it is not observable or measurable. While 'creativity' may have a function in talking about the arts, a government would be advised to be extremely cautious before basing policy on it.
The report does, however, find indications that 'a prolonged or habitual interaction with the arts' in adolescence creates adults who have a wide variety of 'social or "non-cognitive" skills, from self-confidence to communication skills' which have a more general application in employment. The clear inference here is that a surer way for government to achieve its aim than haranguing artists is to restore the arts to the 'core' curriculum in schools.