Sunday, May 8, 2016

Platform Papers No 47, May 2016

After the Creative Industries: Why We Need a Cultural Economy by Justin O’Connor.  Platform Papers No 47, May 2016 – quarterly published by Currency House, Sydney.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 8

O’Connor is a professorial academic, previously in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology and currently heading up Communications and Cultural Economy at Monash University, Melbourne.  He presents a detailed politico-economic history of the ever-changing meanings, internationally as well as in Australia specifically, given to the basic terms “arts” and “culture”.  My question is, does he reach conclusions which have practical import?

The key point in his history actually occurred in 1974, the details of which are conveniently described by Mike Seccombe in this week’s The Saturday Paper  (No 107, May 7-13, 2016).  This was when the originator of the “Laffer curve”, Ronald Reagan’s economics adviser Arthur Laffer, explained to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld his theory that by cutting taxes governments would “stimulate economic activity” and find “an optimal point that maximised both the return on endeavour and government revenue.” 

This theory became known as trickle-down economics, and turned into neo-liberalism and economic rationalism, emphasising low taxes and small government.

Justin O’Connor states, “Neo-liberalism is a kind of auto-immune disease” and goes on to to say “[Once] we were citizens and patriots, rebellious and dutiful by turns. Cultural policy was an attempt to create institutions that would reflect, create or mould these roles into a functioning unity. Culture was also about self-development, it asked questions about authentic individual experience and the infrastructure required for its extension. Neo-liberalism has removed the need for all this. Culture as self-development – when not dismissed as code for elitism – [is] now best secured by cost-effective market mechanisms of distribution, choice and purchase, and we are all bound together by our aggregated acts of purchase.”

Briefly, in a 7-Chapter essay which he warns us is itself a massive condensation of history, O’Connor shows how “culture” in its many differing definitions has become profit-making for large corporations as the world economy moves from industrial production and selling of physical goods to the selling of services, accelerated by communication on the internet, and profit-taking from ‘financialisation’ of ‘assets’.

“On the face of it,” he writes, this could be “a realisation of Schiller’s [18th Century] dream of the creative society.... But is there a dark side? What if all this becomes – as it does in the creative industries argument – an economy occupied with efficiency and cost-effectiveness, vulnerable to monopoly players providing culture at the right price? In this vision, we have a recipe for the collapse of culture into individual consumer preference; one of those efficiently provided entertainment systems that used to go by the name panem et circenses.”

On the positive side he quotes Stefano Harney in “Unfinished Business: labour, management and the creative industries” (2012: M. Hayward (ed), Cultural Studies and Finance Capitalism, Routledge, London):

Art is closer to people than at any other time in history. People make and compile music. They design interiors and make-over their bodies. They watch more television and more movies. They think deeply about food and clothes. They write software and surf the net of music videos and play on-line games together. They encounter, study, learn and evaluate languages, diasporas and heritages. There is also a massive daily practice in the arts, from underground music, to making gardens, to creative writing camps ... There is a massive daily register of judgment, critique, attention, and taste.

And O’Connor quotes a recent lecture by the composer Brian Eno, commenting that Eno “paints a picture of a post-scarcity society, where robots do all the work, and we will finally have plenty of time for creative self-realisation.  ‘We are going to be even more full-time artists than we are now.’”

But the picture O’Connor gives us of recent events in Australia, from the George Brandis Australia Council de-funding debacle to examples of real estate development on the MONA site in Tasmania and the struggling attempts to “Renew Newcastle” in New South Wales, is anything but encouraging.

From a practical action point of view, all O’Connor is able to suggest is:

As with the reform of the ABC or the arts funding system, we need a knowledge of the real workings of the economy of these sectors in order to secure public value from them. It is this understanding not just of ‘the market’ but of the social, political and cultural underpinnings of this market that I prefer to call cultural economy, and it is only with this knowledge that the cultural values that are central to that economy can be secured. It is the task of public policy to concern itself with these values, and we need to begin a robust argument for them before the very space for such an argument is closed down.

Though I can’t disagree in principle, the problem I see is that O’Connor is not offering any more than the arts community has been doing for all 60 years of my adult life: trying to persuade governments that the arts and culture should be funded because they are essential to individual and social development.  It seems to me that O’Connor is saying no more than that we have to keep advocating against economic rationalism – but we have always known that and in my experience have always done that.

The information O’Connor provides certainly helps us understand better what has and is happening – and I’m sure it is important for us as arts advocates to know.  But I would expect that, even if George Brandis and his ilk read O’Connor’s Platform Paper, they would do no more than Mitch Fifield has done in response to the outcry against the treatment of the Australia Council.  And I don’t see moves from the Labor Opposition in any particular direction on arts and culture. 

Maybe the Australian Greens could be persuaded to consider O’Connor’s thesis seriously, and, if they manage to establish a balance of power position in the upcoming election, the arts/culture community may have a foot in the door.  Perhaps this is the only practical way to achieve what O’Connor asks for, which is that:

We need a new articulation of the social cohesion and individual fulfilment for which culture once so obviously stood. In this we cannot retreat into a defence of art as ineffable and its payment a matter for somebody else’s accountant. We have to recognise that it is an economy but we cannot let the value of that economy be defined exclusively by economists.