Provocations: Navigating The Creative Industries

Charlie Chaplin in Moscow
Still from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936)

This is the first of a new series of shorter critical interventions on salient issues. The posts will pose questions, rather than to attempt to provide answers, and they are meant to be conversation starters, and comments are welcomed, as usual.

There have been a lot of conversations here in the Caribbean, of late, on Covid-19 and the Cultural Industries, most of them online of course, making use of the dreaded Zoom or other online communication platforms. It is, as such, heartening that there is a fair amount of engagement with how the cultural sector is affected by the cultural crisis, and also that funds are being made available for various remedial projects, from local governmental and non-governmental sources as well as international funders.

Observing some of these events has, however, also been very troubling, for a number of reasons. One is that only very few have involved actual practicing artists (visual, performing, or literary – a broad and diverse group that also includes film and design) and that the discussion has been articulated, led and, indeed, dominated by policy makers, consultants, entrepreneurs, and academics in the field. The other, related concern is that it has illustrated the insufficiently questioned, but deeply entrenched focus on the Cultural Industries, at the expense of more nuanced and contextualized discussions about culture, the arts and artistic practice, which appear to have become marginalized and even ignored in the Cultural Industries debate. And that may well come from not giving sufficient voice to those who are directly involved in and knowledgeable about artistic practice, including those who operate at grassroots level, which has led for such discussions to become woefully disconnected from what should by their foundation, anchor and primary point of reference. This disconnect was certainly evident in a recent discussion on the affiliated term Creatives, on the Critical.Caribbean.Art Facebook site, where a majority of artists expressed reservations about being so labelled and pointedly objected to the “flattening” homogenization of the cultural field this involved.

I will not go into the details of how the Cultural and Creative Industries, and the Cultural and Creative Economies, are variously defined, and the shifts in meaning that occur between these terms — that has already been covered extensively by many others. But it behooves us to remember that the term was introduced by Adorno and Horkheimer in the context of a deep and concerned critique of mass popular culture as propaganda and of the role of these Cultural Industries in Monopoly Capitalism. In its present incarnations, the term and its spin-offs are rooted in the ethos of Neo-liberalism and increasingly, there is a very reductive conflation the monetization and commodification of culture as the primary manner in which cultural production is validated and supported. I prefer the term Creative or Cultural Ecology, as it is a more inclusive terms that de-emphasizes monetization as a primary goal, without disregarding it, and leaves room for and validates a variety of cultural and artistic practices that may not be motivated by profit or entrepreneurship.

The Creative Industries, in their Neoliberal incarnation, have however become the primary focus of national and multilateral policy makers, as can be seen in various policy documents and calls for proposals by organizations such as the Caribbean Development Bank and various UN organs, as well as in national cultural policy documents. And let there be no doubt, that is also how the money flows right now, in terms of incentive and project funding – most of the Covid-19 interventions into the cultural community were focused on replacing lost income from such monetization, and not from supporting cultural production irrespective of how it is socially, ideologically, and economically positioned.

The Visual Arts are at a distinctive disadvantage in this context because it is assumed that they are an elite endeavor, that is already well supported by local and international “big money” and less likely to contribute to broadly shared economic ventures, compared to, for instance, the Festival Arts. That too is a very reductive and inaccurate view which leaves cultural producers who are not, or who do not wish to be supported by the conventional art market high and dry in terms of accessing such funding support.

We have now reached a point where cultural producers are seen, and by some of the most influential decision-makers in the field no less, as misguided and out of touch if they are not interested in monetization or in positioning themselves as creative entrepreneurs. Or if they resist being subsumed as “Creatives,” along with all the other players in said Cultural Industries, irrespective of whether these are actually involved in creative work. It often appears, in the official discourse about culture in the Caribbean, that using terms such as art, artist, or the Arts has become obsolete and even suspect, and that culture is to be solely regarded and valued in terms of its actual and potential contribution to national GDPs. It appears that there is a new script, from which artists and other cultural producers deviate at their own peril.

It is time for some serious critical challenges to this reductive mode of thinking, policy-making and funding which, by the way, also leaves very little room for criticality, as only the most enthusiastic and uncritical, brokered “write-ups” are welcomed — in this context, “criticism” is merely seen as a promotional tool and not as the independent engagement and evaluation it should be. In fact, the current hyper-focus on cultural entrepreneurship threatens the ideological independence of the Caribbean cultural sector, and the autonomy of its imagination, in a historic moment when independent, contrary and critical cultural voices that are not beholden to the interests of Big Capital are more urgently needed than ever, given the local and global political, social, and environmental messes we all made.

It is time to talk back!



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