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Has 'Creativity' Become a Dirty Word? On Oli Mould's 'Against Creativity'

Photo: rawpixel (Pixabay /CC0 Creative Commons)

'Creativity' in today's corporate speak requires a familiarity with the popular culture that's admired by the white and the well-to-do. It has nothing to do with actual creativity.

Against Creativity
Oli Mould


Sep 2018


We've all seen them. A job ad for a call centre Recruitment Manager seeks someone with a creative multi-channel approach towards candidate sourcing. An ad for a Wildlife Research Manager seeks someone with an "ability to develop creative and original solutions." A private marine defence contractor seeks a lab technician who's a "creative problem solver." A cannabis start-up company seeks a marketing coordinator who is not only a "self-starter... with passion and expertise for the cannabis industry", but one who is "conversant in daily sales performance", "supports execution and amplification across performance, brand and content", and of course "brings to life all in-store marketing assets, including creative." A Community Support Worker must show a "willingness to be creative in motivating/inspiring youth"; a Pest Control Technician must demonstrate "different creative ways of doing business"; a Client Activation Consultant for an insurance agency must demonstrate "creative ideas" to benefit their clients. And let's not forget the Fitness Trainer who must demonstrate "new and creative tactics" to recruit customers, the women's clothing chain Visual Merchandiser seeking someone who must demonstrate an "exceptionally creative and fashion-forward vision", or the perfume salesperson who must be able to "combine creative and technical expertise".

The world is awash in praise of, and demand for, 'creativity'. It's sought after in job ads, in college admissions interviews, in public policy-making, in civil design, in civil defense, in industry management. From beer-making to corporate law, there's a barely a field which does not now claim to celebrate 'creativity'. But what are they actually celebrating? And is over-use of the term rendering it meaningless?

In his superb, thought-provoking study Against Creativity, human geographer Oli Mould takes aim at the contemporary cult of 'creativity'. It's not anything remotely 'creative' that's actually being celebrated, he warns, but rather an effort by neoliberal capitalism to harness the creative fields in pursuit of profit, and to fragment collective forms of creativity and replace them with atomized, alienated individuals (the easier to exploit).

Mould turns the notion of the 'creative worker' on its head. We all know the image: a hipster graphic designer or web editor working off their laptop in a coffee shop, breaking off for a mid-afternoon game of hacky-sack out on the street; maybe a mid-morning pint to get the creative juices flowing. Evening brain-storming sessions and design meets over curry dinners at indie brewpubs.

If it sounds idyllic, it is. Aside from the fact that it requires access to a certain amount of social and financial capital in order to make this lifestyle possible in the first place, it's also predicated on a crushing, individualizing atomization of the work process. This trend fetishizes 'teamwork' as an innovating creative force, but even its 'teams' are not about collective effort; they are predicated on the cynical and well-disguised expectation that being put into a team will encourage each team member to drive themselves to compete and shine above the others. Today's creative teamwork is not about collective effort, but individual performativity in a group context. And of course, these collections of competing individuals inevitably retrench deeply gendered (and racialized) stereotypes and performative behaviours.

Mould interviewed management at the newly designed BBC Studios in Salford in 2012, as he was given a tour. When he asked about the new open plan office and breakout spaces, he was told that "creative industry workers are a lot like male peacocks during the mating season; if they're not constantly showing off, they're not going to get anywhere in this business." Putting them all together in the space is not so much about encouraging cooperation and synergy as it is about encouraging them to compete against each other in increasingly performative fashion.

When Creativity Really Means Precarity

There is, as an increasing number of researchers are pointing out, a certain doublespeak involved in use of the term 'creative'. It's used to gloss over the growing precarity, insecurity, and underpaid/undervalued nature of work. The individuation of work plays a key role in this process: atomized and alienated individuals working under contract find it harder to build the solidarity and unity that comes from true teamwork (and which can be used to resist exploitative working conditions).

But there's a deeper contradiction to the mantra of the 'creative worker'. What makes all this creative work truly un-creative is that it's been appropriated by capitalism not to construct new and more creative forms of society, work and labour, but to recreate the same tired old end-goals of capitalism: capital accumulation and commodity fetishism. It's been harnessed not to create and invent new forms of labour relations and social organization, but to do the same thing all forms of work have been harnessed to do for generations: produce more profit for the capitalist owners.

Mould notes the obvious, but an obvious that's still glossed over in contemporary management/ organizational double-speak: there's an idealized norm associated with the 'creative worker'. He is male, white, able-bodied, and young, among other identity characteristics which might vary from context to context. What this means is that in order to pass as a successful 'creative worker' one requires certain identity traits in order to get in the door, despite all the claims cutting-edge industries make about embracing diversity and about creativity being 'post-identity'. It's not, particularly insofar as being creative requires a certain versatility with the very specific socio-cultural traits on which creative riffing is desired (by its capitalist backers). It requires a familiarity with the popular culture that's admired by the white and the well-to-do.

This has important consequences, resulting in a state of affairs where 'creatives' often steal their ideas from others, especially those who don't have the traits needed to conform to the creative worker norm. Brilliant ideas often emerge from marginalized communities, but it is those with financial and social capital who appropriate the ideas and profit off them. This can be traced as far back as 1932 (and probably much further), notes Mould, offering the example of the popular board game Monopoly. Charles Darrow, the person often attributed as its creator – and who eventually made millions off it – stole the idea off Lizzie Magie, a woman who remained in poverty.

Mould also explores how disability intersects with creativity. Insofar as the experience of 'disability' – or 'diffability', as Mould puts it, combining the terms 'difference' and 'ability' – requires markedly new and innovative ways of engaging and experiencing the world from those normalized by the mainstream, and insofar as these give rise to entirely new experiences of culture, society and subjectivity, persons with disabilities and cultures rooted in disability are in fact among the cutting-edge of society's creative expressions. Yet the inherent creativity of these individuals and communities (for instance, 'deaf culture') is either ignored or discriminated against by a mainstream society which seeks to make those persons conform to normatively-abled people's expectations of being-in-the-world, for example through surgical interventions or the use of medical technologies. By seeking to change those people—sometimes against their will—to conform to mainstream society's expectations, and by ignoring or discriminating against the individual and social ways-of-being that they present, society is losing or ignoring some of its most creative people and innovations, Mould warns.

Creativity and Austerity

The appropriation of 'creativity' discourse is not limited to people, but even extends to regimes of ruling. There is, for instance, the politics of austerity to consider (as Mould does, ably combining art and aesthetics with an analysis rooted in political economy). Governments, impoverished as a result of their willing transfer of wealth from the public treasury to corporate bank accounts in the form of tax cuts and other mechanisms of neoliberal capitalism, have undertaken austerity budgets as a way of cutting public services and welfare rights. They have couched this transfer of wealth from the public purse to private profit (and from the poor and middle classes to the rich elites) under the veil of 'creativity', blaming the ensuing misery on the public's lack of creativity in failing to innovate new ways to fund and operate public services without money. 'We simply need to learn to be more creative,' they say, when the public complains about diminishing access to public services. There's nothing creative about this, Mould observes, beyond the fanciful ways in which governments and corporations try to obscure what they're really doing.

But there is a creative response to this, he says. It doesn't lie in finding new ways to stretch budgets or bring in private financing, but rather in developing alternatives outside the capitalist system. He explores how communities facing neoliberal austerity have begun experimenting with new and localized currency forms, barter and exchange networks, and other forms of self-organizing outside of the capitalist system. Such initiatives are small-scale and not always successful, he admits, but they are more truly creative than what government is now calling 'creativity', which is basically a label for looting the public purse for private profit.

The False Promise of Creative Technologies

Mould deploys a similar critique against the so-called 'creativity' of the tech sector. Immense technological strides have been made in recent years, from 3-D printing to algorithmic computing. Yet what is almost embarrassing about our society's technological creativity is that instead of directing it toward improving society, it is being overwhelmingly directed toward making money. Algorithms that could be used to improve health care are being used to generate online ads. 'Sharing' apps that could be used to improve collective social experiences—housing, neighbourhood improvement—are being used to make a few dollars on Uber or AirBnB, initiatives that in fact undermine existing structures of work and wage-labour relationships, and render people worse off. Humanity's finest technology is being wasted under the technological appropriations of 'creative' capitalism.

Image: GDJ (CC0 Creative Commons / Pixabay)

A prime example of the wastage of creative potential is the 'sharing' economy. It's been pitched as a creative way to provide goods and services in an innovative, informal and accessible way. But all it really does is financialize hitherto free goods and services. Spare rides, spare rooms to crash in people's houses, a neighbour's driveway to park in, used goods that might otherwise be passed on to churches or food banks, are all now monetized and sold or rented for profit. If anything, the 'sharing' economy has reduced true sharing, rendering access to vital goods and services less accessible for many. The only thing creative about it is capitalism's creativity in harnessing hitherto communal or communitarian goods and services for profit. "[I]t serves only to deepen the precariousness of work except for all but the very privileged few," writes Mould.

This is true even with art – one of humanity's original forms of creative expression. Art has always had an economistic dimension – all those medieval artists producing private masterpieces for their rich patrons. Yet it is the subversive, anti-establishment, resistance dimension of art – an important counter to the patronage of the wealthy – that has been targeted by capitalism in recent years. Mould offers a vital analysis of 'art-washing', or the use of art and manipulation of artists to generate profit, for instance by spray-painting graffiti in gentrified neighbourhoods to make them seem more hip and trendy (and thus raise rents), or converting old buildings into art galleries not for the sake of art but so that creative-minded, well-paid hipsters will descend on a neighbourhood and gentrify it, again raising rents and driving out the original (much less well-to-do) community members. It even extends to commissioning artists to live in neighbourhoods or apartment complexes, establishing in-residencies, not for the sake of the art but so as to lure in the wealthy by making an area seem culturally trendy (the limits of the artists' ability to freely produce art can be witnessed in the examples Mould provides of artists who have been muzzled or evicted as soon as they try turning their art toward a creative critique of their own conditions of exploitation).

There is another danger, warns Mould. The capitalist appropriation of art and its financialization, which turns art from a basic expression of innate creativity into a tool for generating profit and a weapon for gentrification, risks generating a backlash against art and artists for their complicity in this process. There's nothing new here: artists have often been castigated by publics for being perceived to be effete elites who believe themselves entitled to an existence separate from the gruelling workaday realities of those consigned to the so-called productive economy. Artists have long struggled against this economistic reductionism, seeking to demonstrate to a growth-consumed society why creative work is integral to the expression and purpose of humanity. Yet this new phenomenon – of artists buying into the rhetoric of business capitalism by trying to demonstrate the dollar value of their creative work – means that as society increasingly turns against neoliberal capitalism, artists risk being condemned along with the other elites to whom they have tied their fortunes. In a populist world that may finally be turning against neoliberal values, there's an opportunity for art to finally be recognized for its effort to give soulful expression to humanity. Yet at precisely the wrong moment, many artists are allowing themselves to be appropriated by neoliberal capitalism and to be used in furthering its ravages against society.

"That is why so many people, groups and ideologies are against creativity," warns Mould.

Is there no way to be truly creative? No form of creativity that hasn't been co-opted? Mould offers hope: there is, but it consists of creating new ways to invent art and society that exist outside of the precaritizing, profit-seeking capitalist mold. It means producing art that is not in service to capitalist models of gentrification and profit-generation. It means re-thinking what is meant by the idea of a 'creative person' and recognizing the creativity inherent in so many bodies and ways-of-being-in the-world around us, enacted by people who are often ignored or marginalized. It means trade unions that don't simply try to shore up the rights they are losing, but that imagine new forms of organizing; new rights to be won and new ways of winning them. It means technologies that are produced not just to sell a service or object for profit, and which we must then struggle to assert democratic control over, but technologies that are created in response to the question of how can we live our lives more equitably and democratically? It means creating new ideas and objects not just in service to capitalism's demands, but in service to an inventive new world we can only begin to imagine. Such work and such art is what would truly be creative.

"Creative work, despite its evangelists, does little to question the norm of capitalist accumulation: indeed it catalyses it. To break from this norm, and realize alternative modes of organizing societies and economies, is what creative work can allow us to do – it just needs to be 'released' from the vernaculars in which it is currently embedded. Rather than 'releasing the inner entrepreneur', creative work can, and should, 'release the inner revolutionary'," writes Mould.

"[A] radical, revolutionary creativity shows that there are alternatives, if we only know where and how to look...creativity is about searching for, giving space to, and trying to realize the impossible."


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