For art’s sake

The use of the word creative as a noun, as in “I am a creative”, or “creatives make it happen”, irks me.

The assumption is that a creative is someone who makes a living, or functions professionally, in the creative industry, which is booming, we are told.

The Department of Arts and Culture’s first creative economy mapping study values the creative economy at around R90.5bn per annum, contributing 2.9% to the South African GDP. Not only that, but it is apparently 50% black owned and 30% of those in the industry are young (I presume that means under 35-years-old).

But just what is the creative economy? The British Council, who were a main partner in the ACT/UJ Arts&Culture Conference which took place at the University of Johannesburg this week, provide the UK’s definition of the creative industries on their website: “those industries that are based on individual creativity, skill and talent with the potential to create wealth and jobs through developing intellectual property’ – includes thirteen sectors: advertising, architecture, the art and antiques market, crafts, design, designer fashion, film, interactive leisure software (ie. video games), music, the performing arts, publishing, software, and television and radio.”

So if you work in one of these 13 sectors, presumably you can call yourself a creative – and that includes journalists (publishing sector).

The problem is there are many incredibly uncreative people in the publishing sector, many of them with positions of significant influence, and judging by the proliferation of malls and disturbingly ugly buildings being erected in our cities, the same can be said of architecture.And what of all those highly creative teachers, mothers, gardeners, chefs, accountants, etc. who are excluded by the term.

Possibly I need to get over myself and accept this is a new world – as Dion Chang reminded us during the opening session on future trends – and new terminology is required. Among other irksome terminology continually chucked around at the conference was brands and branding, marketing and strategy. Conspicuous by their absence were the terms art and artist, and nouns such as painter, sculptor, actor and dancer are apparently archaic. They’ve been replaced with a focus on producer, developer, designer and strategist.

It’s as if, of all the 13 sectors in this creative economy, the one whose language we allowed to dominate – or the one we chose to co-opt – was that of advertising, the one sector that is focussed on using creativity to manipulate peoples’ emotions in order to promote consumption. I think artists need to be very careful of this co-option. Of the danger of art being branded and sold as product.

Art is not product, it has a value in and of itself and is not defined by how it can be consumed or how much it might be worth.What that value is depends on the value we give it. It depends on how important we consider art to be as something that fosters our humanity, that seeks expression, develops empathy, seeks truth and stimulates imagination. It also disturbs, disrupts, challenges our perceptions and structures. It is the unknown, the uncontrollable, the anarchic. It is thus interesting that we are trying to tame it by making it conform to the structures of business, of the market, of production and consumption.

Society is changing rapidly, this is a fact we cannot escape, and we have to accept that the main driver of this change is technology. How we interact with one another, how we acquire and disseminate knowledge, these things are disrupting our world. I cannot disagree with trend watchers and forecasters such as Dion Chang and Nesta senior researcher Kathleen Stokes in that regard. But we can still choose what we value in the world. Do we value technology for its own sake? Do we value money? There are many other things we can value, but I mention these two because I got the impression from the speakers at the conference, and the terminology they employed, that tech and money were of greatest importance. Especially, how to use tech to get more money. Feed anything into the grinder – paintings, bricks, plays, mielies – it didn’t seem to matter really.

A brief Twitter exchange may illuminate:
Tweeting a link to an article on Dion Chang’s talk delivered on the opening night of the conference, I noted the danger of a future in which artists are co-opted as drones to design attractive user interfaces for tech giants Google and Apple.






Chang’s response:





I don’t agree with this. Artists have an important role in society and if society valued art, which it should because it is for its own good, artists should not have to repackage themselves to suit the terms of business. It is business that needs to wake up to the value of the arts.

Thus my reply:





Not that I believe artists shouldn’t make a decent living, of course they should, especially the artists who are technically brilliant and creatively innovative, but everything seems to be skewed to artists being required to defend their own existence by trying convince society they have a commercial product. This is bollocks. Art needs to be recognised for art’s sake, not for money’s sake. Only then will artists be able to take their proper place in society and the wannabe artists, who are in it for whatever glamour they perceive the title to hold yet are unwilling to put in the backbreaking work necessary to create excellent work, will wilt away.

All the above is not to say the conference was not valuable, worthwhile, informative and a productive meeting place for people who, by virtue of the fact that they took the time and spent the money to be there, value art.

The Arts & Culture Trust, British Council and University of Johannesburg need to be commended for hosting the conference and kudos to the many people who worked hard to make it happen.
How much value you get out of a conference depends largely on you paying attention to the programme, doing a bit of research on the speakers, and taking the effort to meet the other like-minded people in attendance – and following up on those conversations. The true value of a conference is in scores, or hundreds of people with similar interests meeting in one place. The programme itself is never going to satisfy everyone, nor can every session, every panel provide insight for the entire audience. There were dull sessions, there were interesting sessions, some things we’ve heard before, some ideas followed new paths, and sometimes it’s merely a matter of discovering there are other people thinking along the same lines as yourself and you are neither as original, nor as alone, as you may have thought.

No, my main concern is the philosophical approach we adopt in discussing the creative economy. I believe we need to stay true to the concept of art, hold the artist, rather than the ‘creative’ in proper esteem, and not be seduced by corporate speak in the misguided belief it’ll lead us to riches.

There’s a tendency to be looking at art as business and turning ourselves inside out to please the corporate world holding the purse strings, but perhaps business should put art higher up their value chain and start turning themselves inside out to ensure the brave new world we’re rapidly creating is filled with the truth, the anarchic seed, and the beauty of truth art aspires to. The danger is if we don’t, our brave new world will be a tech-ruled dystopia stripped of the humanity art embodies.