The ‘Creative Industries Book Club’ (CIBC) meets monthly in the School of Media (www.mediacourses.com), Birmingham City University to discuss research, policy papers and other publications pertaining to creative and cultural industries. Members are drawn from school staff and those associated with the ‘Interactive Cultures’ Research Centre and those from local creative industry agencies and indeed from the industries themselves. The group work in much the same way as many informal book groups do: a member nominates a work for all to read and presents their review at the next meeting.

The first meeting of the group took place in November. The subject then was ‘We-Think’, the latest publication from New Labour guru Charles Leadbetter. Extracts from that book can be read on his personal website.

This meeting of the CIBC centred on a traditionally poised academic work in the form of John Hope Mason’s ‘The Value of Creativity’ (Ashgate 2003). The book was suggested and reviewed by Rob Elkington of Creative Partnerships.

It is arguable in the current environment ‘creativity’ has become something of a fetish, a buzzword in Government policy, in pedagogic strategy, in the rejuvenation of plans for cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool and amongst the business community for instance, to the point where it means everything and nothing at all. This is not of course, to suggest that the word has no function or power. In such a context it is refreshing to read an intellectual history such as Mason’s which delves into the development of the word and its meanings and why this ‘modern belief’ is so particularly thought to be the domain of the arts (what else, despite the efforts of DCMS for instance, do we think constitute the ‘creative industries’?)

A sense of the scope of the book is given by publishers Ashgate who summarise it thus:

In the middle of the 19th century a new value began to appear in Western Europe – the belief that (in the words of Matthew Arnold) ‘the exercise of a creative activity is the true function of man’. This book gives an account of the stages by which, and the reasons why, this development occurred at that time. In so doing it reveals a historical puzzle, for the main factors which can be seen to have given rise to the new value – mainly scientific, technological, economic and political – were not reflected in the value itself, for that was applied almost exclusively to artistic and cultural activity.
(Ashgate Website)

The validation of the creative arts can here be linked to the rise of the market, mass society and changes in the relationship between human society and nature. In addition, this value is cemented, according to JHM, by the rise of science and technology – which free up human beings to be creative and indeed to enjoy the fruits of creative labour. Thus, the creative is an individual who, ‘removed’ from society, at the same time reflects back to it its (ideological) values in the celebration of individuality (the talent, genius), and the validation of the creative works (paintings, novels, poetry etc), at odds with the products of production lines and so on. Nonetheless, such modern trappings as copyright law and commerce are exactly the kinds of things which have cemented the romance of creative and creativity in modern life, supporting the spiritual aspects of its values with the promise of great rewards.

Exploring the ideas of thinkers from the ancient world to Goethe, Kant, Arnold, Nietszche et al (most, if not all, rarely involved in any public discussions of the creative industries), JHM teases two traditional ways of making sense or of valuing creativity. The first, or dominant tradition, is that focussing on the individuality of the creator. Usually male (and important aspect of the gendered politics of the term), the creator’s work here evokes the religious imitation of God’s ability to create ex nihilo).

Creativity here is something seen as producing harmony, order, unity and is a quality that is both utopian and ennobling. This is, perhaps the most familiar association of the term and its manifestation in our current validation of creativity as a economic and social good which lies in the linking of creative and cultural industries in so much discourse and policy.

A further sense of creativity, a ‘lost tradition’ an overlooked and less benign aspect for JHM is that of its Promethean, Epicurean origins. This is something different from the unifying, ordering sense identified above, one emphatic of ‘multiplicity’, of transgression and disorder, a quality associated with the gaining of agency. This sense lies in the vision of nature as random, existential, lacking order in which we are free to make of the world what we will. Here, the idea of creativity as a mode of significant action dates back to the Greek myths and figures such as Odysseus – defined for their daring rather than any sense of ‘morality’. More modern versions of such figures who have acted in such a manner are Machiavelli and Napoleon and perhaps too Hitler and Stalin. Seen in this way, this ‘lost’ tradition of creativity looks less unequivocally desirable.

In his provocative epilogue, which anyone interested in this value should read, JHM raises some troubling questions around the contemporary celebration of creativity. He suggests that this value – as an end in itself, desirable for all people, as a mode of self-fulfilment, is eminently selfish and divisive. It precludes and obscures any sense of a collective responsibility amongst us and indeed, as the social has become less, well social, we have less collective values with which to value the outpourings of creative work. In essence, JHM raises questions about the significance that creative work and pursuit has for wider society beyond the individual perspective (you may think what you are doing is creative, but does it have significance as such to others?). In this way he slyly raises an aspect of creative work which is often, if not wholly absent from contemporary discourse, which is one of value. This is not value as in ‘the creative industries bring in £Xbn the economy’ but the aesthetic standards which are surely at the heart of why we celebrate creative materials and which distinguish them and the talent of individuals. Here, again, slyly, JHM raises some real political issues that, despite the appropriation of creativity in contemporary political discourse (as a social, economic good), is rarely understood in such a political manner.

Ostensibly a rarefied book on intellectual history, this book raised many questions for the group who are grounded in contemporary policy speak. As such it is a useful rejoinder to contemporary hyperbole, reminding us of the social, historical and material contexts for the uses of creativity. It prompted much debate and reflection amongst the group and as we continue to meet, we’ll give a sense of these discussions and reflections in more detail.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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