Why creativity can’t be left to the market
The great and the good might acknowledge that creativity is necessary for the market to flourish - but is the market necessary for creativity to thrive?
The current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has gained quite a reputation for speaking into contemporary social issues and not just sticking to the more traditional topics of faith and spirituality. Whilst some think this is beyond his remit, I’m of the opinion that a) the church should have a point of view on how we live in community and treat one another, because this is where faith and values come to life, and b) he is an interesting man with plenty of sensible things to say.
In February 2015, for example, he gave a speech at a parliamentary event entitled The Good Economy. He argued (as I have also done – great minds, Justin) that creativity is a basic human function, but also that a good economy is one that enables creativity to happen.
“The market”, he said, “is an extraordinarily efficient mechanism of distribution in a complex society and hugely liberating of human creativity.” In other words, creativity is the driving force of the market and that the market is a good thing for creativity.
So, the market needs creativity. It must be true, the Archbishop said so. But does creativity need the market? Should creativity - particularly our corporate creative endeavours and expressions - be subject to market forces or supported by the state?
In an earlier blog, I explained my concept of transactional creativity. This the idea that creativity needs an audience, that it is an exchange. It has a life beyond just its creator, but is a call and an answer - even if that answer is dislike or ambivalence.
In their bestselling non-fiction work Freakonomics, the authors Levitt & Dubner argue that economics is, at root, the study of incentives. What is an incentive if not a motivation in anticipation of a gain or reward? A benefit from achieving some kind of connection with an external party. On that basis, then, in my theory of transactional creativity - of there being two parties involved for creativity to be of true value - there are economic forces at work.
But I didn’t necessarily mean there should be a financial transaction involved; those economic forces don’t have to be market forces. The value exchange doesn’t have to be on those terms – although it can be expressed in that way. But as well as being monetary, the exchange can also be intellectual, social, emotional, or spiritual, for example. So, the economics of creativity isn’t measured in pounds sterling and dollars; in fact, we would absolutely lose the point of it if we only saw it in that way.
To answer my own question, then, I don’t think that creativity needs the market. Or at least, I don’t think it should. And I’d like to suggest that I’m in good company.
Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” To freely participate, enjoy and share in creativity and innovation. Meanwhile, one of the mantras of the ANC as they fought against and defeated Apartheid in South Africa, as articulated in their Freedom Charter (there’s that word again), was: “the doors of learning and culture shall be opened!” I love that image of the doors being flung open, and the implication of long-suffering crowds finally being able to burst through. A fantastic picture of universal access to arts, culture and creative expression.
But this is a dream which can’t be realised if there are financial barriers to entry, if you always have to literally pay to get through that door. This goes for both enjoying the creative expression of others and participating in it yourself, whether privately or corporately. If you have to pay a fee, not everyone is going to be able to get through. And as South African playwright Mike Van Graan has been clear to point out, this then places an obligation on government to provide access to infrastructure, resources and education in the arts so that people can exercise these right, these freedoms.
But if creativity becomes subject to market forces not only does it become inaccessible, it also loses its scope. It becomes about popularity and profit margins and returns on investment. If it is entirely funded from private sources and only carried out by those who can afford it (or have connections to those who can), then it grows narrow, insular, exclusive. It becomes less open to possibilities and difference. In short, it becomes less creative.
Creativity needs to be able to take risks, it needs to be able to fail. But when it becomes subjected to forces outside of itself, rather than exerting a challenging or enlightening force on things outside of itself, then it loses its reason for being. And, as writer, cultural commentator and broadcaster Ekow Eshun has put it: “The purpose of art isn’t necessarily to please everyone”. But it might well become so, if the transaction gets reduced down to one that is purely financial and subject to market forces.
Yes, there have been and will always be, rich philanthropists and benefactors who will invest in the arts, according to their personal tastes. And there will always be those with disposable incomes wanting to spend their money on their own or others’ creative endeavours. Let me be clear, there is nothing at all wrong with the commercialisation of creative expression. The creative economy in the UK is strong, and long may it last - both for those of us who make our living in the industry and the wider economy. But it can’t solely be about private investment and personal financial gain; there should also be state intervention in the same way as we have in the UK for health and education.
For creativity to be a corporate experience and a human right, it needs to be accessible. It shouldn’t be reliant on the market, even Justin Welby’s good one.