Sunday, 18 January 2015

Postcard from Perth 38

Art and Creativity

1.    The Jargon of Creativity

‘Creativity’ is the new buzz-word in arts funding, sponsorship and administration, as well as in other spheres of government, business, education, training and personal development.

A recent piece on Arts Hub entitled ‘How to Have Creative Conversations’ tells us how to ‘spark creativity and collaboration’ (another buzz-word), citing a study by ‘the Social Psychological and Personality Science (SAGE)’ alongside ‘author and journalist Myke Bartlett’, who ‘points out that all kinds of art are essentially a conversation’ and talks knowledgably about ‘the creative process’ before proceeding to instruct us ‘how to add a dash of creativity to your next conversation around the water cooler’ (which I’m sure will be of great interest to all those artists out there who spend their time around a water cooler).

Another recent essay on Arts Hub by Professor Dan Hunter (Dean of Law at Swinburne) on ‘Why Cash and Copyright are Bad News for Creativity’ begins by conceding that ‘creativity is a tricky thing to understand’ before going on to claim that ‘one thing we do know about creativity is that a really good way to make people less creative is to pay them’. Professor Hunter bases this claim on ‘a series of studies’ by motivational psychologists allegedly showing that ‘primary school kids don’t learn to read if they’re paid to, artists produce their worst work if they’re paid to produce it, and people get worse at solving puzzles better if you reward them for creative solutions’. Perhaps the findings of motivational psychology need to be handled with a little more caution when it comes to art, arts law or business ethics. Motivating children to read or adults to solve puzzles strikes me as being of dubious relevance to artists; and I’m sure Michelangelo would be interested to learn that he did his ‘worst work’ on commission.

The jargon of creativity is now well-established in the language of arts bureaucratese. 2013 saw the launch of the long-awaited (and short-lived) ‘Creative Nation’ cultural policy document by the previous Labor federal government. The same year saw the launch of Creative Partnerships Australia, which according to its website aims ‘to innovate giving to the arts in support of creating sustainable and robust creative industries in Australia’. Meanwhile the Arts Victoria website announces that ‘on 1 January 2015 Arts Victoria formally transitioned into Creative Victoria, a new State Government body dedicated to supporting, championing and growing the arts and creative industries’. Rumour has it that the WA Department of Culture and the Arts is shortly to follow suit.

The phrase ‘creative industries’ generally comprises advertising and marketing, fashion and design, toys and games, software and computer games. Indeed the term ‘creative’ began being used as a noun in the 60s in the advertising industry, presumably in an effort to dignify the latter with connotations of artistic merit. With the increasing corporatisation of the arts, this usage has since returned to haunt the theatre industry, where it now applies to the director and design team – though significantly not the actors, who as skills-based artists are presumably not deemed ‘creative’ enough to deserve the title or bounce ideas off each other in ‘creative meetings’.

2.    Art and Creativity

In philosophical and psychological terms, art is to be distinguished from creativity and the imagination. As Kant pointed out, the imagination is a faculty that performs an essential synthetic role in all thought and experience. Under this faculty, the capacity for aesthetic contemplation may be further distinguished from creativity, the latter being what Kant’s contemporary Schiller also identified as the capacity for play.

However, while everyone is at least in principle capable of imagining, contemplating, creating, playing or watching others play – and by extension enjoying or even making art – it doesn’t follow that everyone is an artist (or even a critic). Alongside a heightened capacity for imagination or creativity – which may or may not go on to manifest itself as a particular talent or gift for a specific activity like drawing, writing, singing, dancing or indeed looking or listening – to become an artist (or critic) requires time, effort and discipline in the acquisition of skills, technique, knowledge and experience; and perhaps even the development of a unique and original personal vision – in other words, having something to say, as well as the means to say it. This is a far cry from simply being ‘imaginative’ or even ‘creative’.

The difference between art and creativity is not merely psychological or ontological but also social and historical. The terms ‘artist’ or ‘critic’ (or even more specifically, for example, ‘actor’ or ‘theatre critic’) imply a socially and historically determined activity, occupation, profession or vocation like teaching, law or medicine. In short: ‘artist’ or ‘critic’ are social categories, with an attendant history that cannot be reduced to the psychology of personality. The first time I called myself an actor was when I was in my thirties and filling out an arrival form on an international flight. It was the simplest way to describe what I do, rather than being a profound statement about what I am.

None of this in any way implies a value judgment that elevates artists or denigrates the work of amateurs. It is simply to recognize the difference between Haydn and his patron Prince Esterhazy (who was also an accomplished string player, but had other social duties to perform as an aristocrat that prevented him from spending his time on pursuing a career as a professional musician). This difference becomes less pronounced as society itself becomes increasingly de-differentiated (foreshadowed by the disappearance of the very class to which Esterhazy belonged).

Again, this is not to insist on social hierarchies or the division of labour. As Marx wrote, in an ideal world we would all be able to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, raise cattle in the evenings and philosophize after dinner. In the meantime however, like most things, having artists and being an artist in our society involves making a sacrifices and comes at a cost. Otherwise (as Marx also wrote) ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

In the ancient world, creativity and talent were viewed as external forces or gifts from the gods; in the Middle Ages they were regarded as being divinely inspired and directed by God. During the Renaissance this changed with the emergence of the cult of the individual artist, and the process was further secularised by the Reformation and refined by the Enlightenment. The notion of ‘the creative genius’ became a central feature of Romanticism, and largely prevailed throughout Modernism up until roughly the Second World War. With the onset of postmodernism in the post-War era, the notion of ‘genius’ begins to evaporate, and with it the separation between artforms and the distinction between art, entertainment and other forms of industrial production. Enter Andy Warhol and The Factory.

Perhaps it’s no accident that in the age of de-differentiation the affect of indifference or ‘cool’ becomes the dominant aesthetic style and form of response. This indifferent coolness is accentuated as artistic production, distribution and consumption become increasingly organised along industrial lines, and are increasingly divorced from the body or physical presence of the artist, artwork or audience with the advent of digital technology and the ubiquity of the screen in postmodern society.

If the process of professional differentiation was characteristic of modernity, then perhaps a generalized de-differentiation of all spheres of human activity and identity is characteristic of postmodern globalized capitalism (with a concomittant regression from what Durkheim called ‘organic’ to ‘mechanical’ solidarity as the binding agent of community and culture – which in the language of the internet is now euphemistically called ‘connectivity’). In place of specialization we now see a simplified division of labour into three classes: the owners of the means of production (governments and corporates working hand-in-hand in ‘creative partnership’), their salaried managers (bureaucracy and administration) and a contract labour force (which includes ‘creatives’). Meanwhile difference between one form of industry or organization and another begins to disappear. Such a regression in social terms is analogous to a de-differentiation of biological cells in organic life. As such, artists are reduced to being little more than fungible ‘creative’ stem-cells that can be successfully cultivated and grafted into the body-politic of an increasingly de-differentiated labour market.

3.    Artforms, Cultures and Communities

Recently the Australia Council has also restructured itself along more ‘creative’ lines, scrapping the old separate art-form-based boards, funding ‘silos’ and assessment panels in favour of a more flexible new model which (again according to its website) will allegedly ‘make it easier and simpler to apply for grants’ (as if the challenge for artists was in applying for grants rather than actually getting them). The ‘new model’ is meant to address in particular the emergence of interdisiplinary and multi-artform projects that don’t fit the old traditional categories. The emergence of hybrid and multi-media work certainly needs to be accommodated, but one can’t help wondering whether this wouldn’t be better served by designating a new board, new funds and a new peer assessment panel of experts in the field, rather than trashing the old model completely. 

This also applies to regional diversity, community access and participation, which was surely better served by maintaining distinct regional and community arts boards, funds and panels. Instead the Sydney–Melbourne nexus inevitably tightens its grip, as most of the applicants are from within those communities and their work is familiar to most of the panellists, who are now assembled on an ad hoc basis in response to each round of applications. In the name of ‘flexibility’ and ‘responsiveness’, the dissolution of art-form-specific and community-specific funds and assessment panels threatens a loss of collective identity, expertise, knowledge and memory from one funding round to the next. As with ‘creativity’ and ‘collaboration’, terms like ‘regional’ or ‘community’ become buzzwords that apply everywhere and to everything under the sun. The risk is that actual regions, communities and artforms begin to disappear off the radar and wither on the vine.

This is in no way to decry the development of national, international, multicultural, multimedia, new, hybrid, ‘nomad’, interdisciplinary, interactive or participatory art. Nor is it to insist on a return some kind of ‘identity politics’ in terms of artistic form or content. It is simply to avoid a situation where everyone and everything becomes the same, while individual artforms, traditions, cultures and practices are lost in a manner that parallels the loss of biodiversity in the natural world – or are preserved only in recordings, archives and museums.

The reality of course is that the new funding model is partly the result of having inadequate funds to go round, as a reflection of political and corporate priorities. However it also reflects the logic of de-differentiation which is characteristic of postmodern culture and society.

4.    Conclusion

So what is to be done? Conceptually and discursively, we need to distinguish between terms like creativity, art and industry. Creativity is a psychological faculty that belongs to everyone; art (like athletics) is a social category based on cultural tradition, individual talent, and physical and cognitive skills that can be innate, taught or learned by experience; and industry belongs to the sphere of economic activity.

We also need to distinguish between individual artforms, industries, cultures and communities: performing arts, visual art and literature; hybrid and multimedia arts; community and regional arts; the various arts industries and other creative industries like games or advertising. These terms and distinctions aren’t mutually exclusive: for example, creativity and artistry are both required in the advertising industry; creative marketing skills are required in the theatre industry; and all three (creativity, artistry and marketing) are required by a particular community or culture if it is to thrive. But they need to be distinguished in theory and practice in order to be applied properly and done well.

In the spheres of arts policy, funding, law, education and employment, these distinctions are of critical importance. Creativity cannot be legislated, funded, taught, bought or sold: like the imagination, it can only be freed, and freely applied. With regard to the arts, artists, audiences, arts organisations, arts workers and arts industries, however, the function of the state is precisely to nurture, protect and enable them to thrive through acts of legislation and funding, from copyright law to the establishment and support of art-form-specific and community-specific institutions and activities.

Without this kind of specificity, we are at the mercy of the market, which means that market-imperatives alone hold sway, while individual artists, artforms, cultures and communities are diminished, suffer or disappear. It’s the same for the arts as for the natural environment, ecosystems, species and individuals: governments exist precisely in order to nurture, protect and enable them to thrive.

And finally, we need to reassert the role of the body and physical presence at the heart of aesthetic experience. Technology and mechanical reproduction are no substitute for the creation and reception of works of art in real time and space. The ubiquity of the screen as a platform or device does not displace the specificity of the page, the stage, the canvas, the hand, the body or the voice as instruments or media of expression. Otherwise we lose not only our art, but our humanity.


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  2. I wonder if the problem lies with a tendency(that you'll be familiar with) in the culture of late modernity, or "post-modern globalised capitalism", to assume that any and all communication is aimed at producing action rather than understanding (not the case here, naturally).
    The difference between organisms and mechanisms is the former's ability to adapt. And in that spirit I don't think you should be so dismissive of the notion of "artist as stem cell". It evokes all manner of lucrative corporate employment possibilities. I'm sure the Australia Council would fund a strategic market analysis.

  3. Thanks Ingle! You're right of course to imply that the shadow of Habermas looms over my own tentative analysis. However I wonder if his critique of the instrumentalization of reason in 'late modernity' wasn't primarily shaped by the context of the 60s and 70s, whereas something further takes place in the 80s that starts getting called 'postmodernity' (and which Lyotard analyses in terms of the collapse of 'grand narratives' – including Habermas's own 'grand narrative' of enlightenment, ideal communication and the evolution of society – and Baudrillard in terms of consumer society, the media and simulation, especially in the digital era). This is what I'm groping towards with the idea of a generalized de-differentiation which I think can be resisted by artists (though the corporate and funding possibilities for an instrumentalized strategic marketing anaylsis are indeed tempting). Best, Humph