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  • Ally Castle

Creativity is a two-way exchange

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Transactional Creativity and how every idea needs an audience - even those which aren't about making money.

Through many years of work in public service broadcasting, I've often encountered creative types who feel very strongly that their art is not a commodity, but that it serves a higher purpose.

There is a perceived (and unspoken) hierarchy between those who make television, for example, for the public good rather than for shareholders' financial gain. Meanwhile, on the commercial TV side there is a sense that having a bottom line allows creatives to attribute a real-world, literal value to their work, compared to public service colleagues who are making content, the true worth of which can never quite be measured. The implication for that is simple; that the value of programming which doesn't make money is by definition lower, and that is therefore easier to do.

It's a tension that has long existed: are creative endeavours valid in and of themselves, or do they have to have a value attached to them, do they need some kind of utilitarian benefit or financial impact? If you paint a Rembrandt-like masterpiece in a forest and nobody sees it, was it a masterpiece at all? In other words, for art to matter, does it need to make a difference?

For me, the debate around value is a red herring. I think it actually comes down to this straight-forward question: does creativity need an audience? I think the answer is yes.

Artistic expression has long been pragmatic. The purpose of prehistoric cave paintings is thought to have been to communicate practical information or religious values, rather than merely being decorative. After all, most of the caves they were found in weren't lived in, and were often fairly remote. Then, from the ancient Greek plays of Euripides and Sophocles to the parables of Jesus and the teachings of Buddha, didactic stories and performances dominate our earliest cultural histories. These were creative works which served a purpose outside of themselves, and carried important messages or abstract spiritual concepts. But in order for these ideas to be delivered, they needed an audience to receive them.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and the technology of interactivity and dual screening means that digital storytellers can collaborate with, and personalise for, their audience. Not only this, but those audiences have the means now to tell their own stories and deliver their own messages all around the world and available forever, with just the click of a mouse. As the over-used saying goes: we're all creators and publishers now.

But taking a step back to more traditional media for a moment, even our most popular TV shows today require millions of viewers to vote for their favourite singer/dancer/washed-up celebrity in order for their narrative to play out. They may not carry the weighty moral wisdom of Aesop's Fables, but in relying on their audience as they do, these reality shows say something quite significant about us and our current social values. The oft-quoted (but no doubt disputed) 'fact' that more young people vote in Big Brother than they do in the general election might well be cited in generations to come as a reflection of the priorities of our times. These TV shows need an audience in order to tell their story.

Let's be honest, most artists want an audience. They want to communicate something - a feeling or an observation, if not an explicit message. And they want a response. They want to provoke, to challenge, to reassure, to entertain. I call this 'transactional creativity'. Creativity that is an exchange. A call and an answer, even if that answer is dislike or ambivalence. The artist exposes their audience to something - an idea, an emotion, a story, an opportunity - and the audience reacts. I think it covers most creative endeavour. Yes, there is pleasure and value in the artistic expression for the creator themselves. But the creativity has a life beyond just them. Because it has an audience, it is an exchange. It is transactional.

So what does transactional creativity mean for those of us who are in the business of ideas? For me, it's about not being ashamed to acknowledge that there is someone else out there, on the receiving end of our creativity. That we very rarely do art for art's sake, or for our own sake. That there is an audience. And so, that there's no harm in thinking about them - understanding what makes them tick, discovering how to best meet their needs, or deliberately planning ways to expose them to our ideas.

I think we need to remove some of the snobbery around this, especially for those who are not (or like to think they are not) being creative for financial gain. I don't mean we need a robotic, Big Data-driven approach to creativity that treats it as a painting-by-numbers exercise. But I think we should more readily and openly recognise that there is a benefit in ensuring our artistic endeavours reach more people and have as much impact as possible. We don't need to please these people all the time, but we do need to prompt a reaction in them.

Because it's having an audience that really makes us artists.

(c) Ally Castle

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