Published in THE CREATIVITY newspaper, Amsterdam, in association with the myCreativity conference, November 2006.
It’s a cliché that the currency of the creative sector is cosmopolitanism. The artist who sells hundreds of paintings through the commercial gallery system can be snubbed at the fancy opening, in favour of the artist with critical cachet who has just returned from exhibiting at a Biennale in Venice, Taipei or Sao Paulo. And while the visual arts is notable in its disavowal of the financial capital that enables it, this paradigm nevertheless exerts an influence on the more commercial strands of the creative industries. The designer and the film director, no matter how mainstream, will feel some anxiety about the “quality” of their work, and their position within an aesthetic hierarchy. At the end of the day, everyone wants to be cool.
What constitutes being cool is an ever-elusive prospect that consumes the minds of both the finest and highest-paid cultural analysts. But there’s no doubt that a key part of being cool is cosmopolitanism, of being able to transcend one’s social location to be “at home in the world”. Returning home with tales and trinkets from afar has long been a role for a particular class of the upwardly mobile. To be cool, you know what makes a good caipirinha, and are a regular at the new Vietnamese restaurant before it gets reviewed in the newspapers (by which time, you’ve found a cute new Thai-fusion joint). These displays of taste will give confidence to your collaborators and employers that your aesthetic is contemporary, in the zeitgeist.
It was while teaching in an art school that I realised how often the development of the creative cosmopolitan was based on a disidentification with one’s cultural environment. The paradigmatic art school student (like that other cosmopolitan, the academic) is one who never quite fit into their peer group while growing up, who was forced to retreat to a world of the imagination, expressing creativity from a kind of cultural exile, sending aesthetic remittances back to the homeland.
In his essay “The Class Consciousness of Frequent Travellers”, Craig Calhoun states that most cosmopolitan versions of theory “share with traditional liberalism a thin conception of social life, commitment, and belonging”. What non-urban creative type didn’t dream, at some stage, of making it in New York, Mumbai, Osaka, Mexico City, or Milan? Of packing it all in to find the imagined community of similarly exiled others, gathered happily in urbanity and escaping the small-mindedness of their immediate environment?
I don’t mean to cheapen the cosmopolitan ideals that have been my own survival strategy in a sometimes hostile cultural environment. However, cosmopolitanism has always raised interesting contradictions for national arts policies, because it is in unavoidable tension with cultural nationalism, and the production of national culture has been the policy justification for arts funding support by the state. During the expansion of Western economies – largely built on colonisation – cosmopolitanism played an important role in opening up new markets and providing aesthetic narratives of globalisation that were recognisable at home: one saw one’s nation making it on the world stage. But during periods of economic decline, the creative cosmopolitan seems less tolerated, as they become a reminder to citizens that only a select few have the opportunity to move to where the action will be in the future.
Deep down, even ardent nationalists realise that a discussion of “culture” always exceeds the nation-state, and to closely investigate one’s own cultural history uncovers relationships to many different peoples and nations. The very existence of diverse cultures within the nation-state attest to its potential undoing, its artificiality. No surprise, then, that the discussion of culture so often raises discomfort, and that while many desire the worldliness of the cosmopolitan, they are also aware at a visceral level of their own inability to be as cosmopolitan as they might wish, due to a lack of economic, social or cultural capital. For those less able to move, the cosmopolitan represents a privileged elite who at the same time might be perceived as not sufficiently local or out of touch with the wishes of the ordinary person.
The shift of the creative sector’s “policy shelters” from cultural nationalism to creative industries seem to be at least partially in response to these problems in mandating a static, official culture. By transferring the supposed “public benefits” from the content to the economic returns, these tensions can be suppressed. “Listen taxpayer, you may not think that this film should be representing our people, but it’s making money, so who are we to judge?” After all, there are few more patriotic statements than the acquisition of wealth in the country where one lives.
But the success of an economic sector is increasingly tied to its export potential and so, in a roundabout way, the linking of culture with global capitalism only increases the problem. Even though creative industries exports might be promoted in the name of the nation’s economy, the reality is that to be a good exporter one has to know one’s market, and have experience outside of the nation. Exporting is not a vocation for the culturally insular. Perhaps for that reason, the cosmopolitan traders and creatives can be treated with suspicion: the exports of capital and culture open the gateway to potential cultural contamination, of the flows being reversed along the two-way trading streets.
This suspicion of the cosmopolitan who claims national economic development as a justification for governmental support of their sector might be well-founded. The rhetoric supporting development of informational industries like the creative sector emphasises the threat of the manufacturing sector’s migration to developing economies of cheaper labour power. But as Christopher May has noted, informational markets are highly competitive, and informational occupations are more subject to occupational ‘task migration’ than non-informational work. If Hollywood can hire creative talent working in your city, there’s a good chance they can also hire it somewhere else, and the factors structuring this decision are based on factors largely outside the control of policy.
Every country would like to believe that its unique culture and creativity will be recognised and could form the platform for a new economy. In that respect, the optimistic glow of the creative industries economic development advocate is not unlike the freshly minted fine arts graduate who believes their talent will get them a successful art career. It might happen, but you sure want to have rich parents and a good backup plan. And as the famous art “agony aunt” Mark Kostabi makes clear, in the arts, talent is only the price of entry into the game: more important are relationships that are based on how sexy and interesting you are to those with control of distribution channels.
The same is true of the creative industries. It might be possible to support development of creative sector SMEs, but how does a nation develop multinational, vertically-integrated production and distribution systems, which can make the financial decisions on where and how creative production occurs? Answering that question probably requires a different kind of research into the sector than mapping scale and growth in “hard numbers”. And to gain political traction outside the cosmopolitan classes, our creative industries advocacy will also require a more sober account of the street level socio-economic impact of a highly informationalised economy – particularly among those not enrolled in frequent-flyer programmes.