On the Threshold of the Creative Industry

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

We define the creative industries as those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.  This includes advertising, architecture, the art and antiques market, crafts, design, designer fashion, film and video, interactive leisure software, music, the performing arts, publishing, software and computer games, television and radio.


Capitalism is often confused with the production, circulation and consumption of good, either material goods, services or in recent Capitalist discourse 'experiences'. Since the end of the war, the so called consumer society, or the false consciousness   of material happiness that hides the 'truths' of the distribution of wealth in society, has become so central to the critique of Capitalism that it is now almost impossible to distinguish between them. Max Weber's classic study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , however, sums up the "peculiar ethic" of Capitalism as "the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself."   In other words, Capitalism is about expansion, an uninhibited, uninterrupted growth. The uniqueness of American Capitalism, which is the dominant economic form of our time, is for Weber the fact that this unlimited expansion, "the earning of more and more money"   is also "combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life". Thus, Capitalism is pushed further and further away from the actuality and finite material nature of goods and into the realm of pure information, where it is allowed to grow exponentially, uninterrupted. A huge part of the money generated in the world today is produced by the circulation of 'speculative options' of future mergers which often never materialise: nothing is produced, marketed or consumed, yet wealth has been created.

Culture, as Marx remarked in The German Ideology , serves as a mirror image of the true conditions of the market. Unsurprising, then, that as Capitalism becomes more and more abstract and its protestant origins, as identified by Weber, hide physical work today in the darkest corners of the globe and as far as possible form the clean, glass offices of the brand generators which repackage this hidden work as "experience", the art market heads in the opposite direction. The commercial value of art works in galleries, museums, authentication boards, art fairs and other institutions is still determined by a set of old fashioned romantic ideals. Instead of the multiplicity of Capitalism, the art market still relies on the values of the singularity of the artist-genius, the irreproducible work of art, the unrepeatable performance, the unseen video which is kept in the museum vaults for eternity. This what Satcchi means by the Triumph of Painting : the art market is to the spirit of Capitalism what Albania is to the European Union - a deserted island of yesterday's bankrupt ideologies. The reverse values of the art market, do not mean, of course, that it is not totally dependant on the constant movement of Capitalism outwards, but in many respects art institutions confuse this reactionary, elitist position with real critique. But the art market lags behind as the landscape of contemporary art allows itself to be shaped by competing models.

In 1884, William Morris complained that most men's lives were burdened with the necessary evil of work due to the false worship of commerce. To commerce Morris opposed Art, through which labour could be recovered as a source of pleasure and meaning. Today, Art is no more. We live in the age of the creative industry, which has usurped Art's name in academic departments throughout the UK and to which the government declares supreme allegiance with numerous initiatives launched to turn Britain into the world's 'creative hub'. Curiously, in endorsing the creative industry, the governments pronouncements take on the familiar tone of the ethos of Capitalism, as outlined by Weber: 'the potential for wealth and job creation' is a defining feature of creativity, parallel to Benjamin Franklin's generative discourse on the accumulation of money. Where Franklin saw it as one's duty to allow one's money to procreate, the government now sees its job as assisting creative individuals in exploiting their talent and skill. So are we living in the age of liberated labour envisioned by Morris, where work is defined by creativity, or has the present state of the creative industry collapsed the opposition between art and Capitalism to the extent that it is both meaningless and futile to attempt to differentiate the slavery to commerce from the pleasure of creativity?

It would be tempting to dismiss Morris as an old Romantic, a reactionary whose views we can now safely and progressively distance ourselves from, and adopt the newspeak of new labour Capitalism, under which individuality becomes a highly sought commodity and the conflict between art and commerce is eradicated. If work and leisure are the same in the post industrial experience economy, the Utopian aspirations of Socialism to unite them are superseded and become redundant. Ironically, though, the conflation of artistic and Capitalist endeavour appears to be based on a mutual misunderstanding. Viewed   purely in economical terms, fine art, as Hans Abbing points out in his book Why are Artists Poor? , is not a profession, but a hobby. While big sums might circulate at the higher end of the creative industry, the entire spending on art in the UK is less per year than the budget of a single blockbuster films. Most artists work second jobs, with which they finance their art, effectively making it a consumer activity. Yet, following from the challenges of the avant garde, pop and neo-pop/post pop/yBa (or Marcel Duchamp's readymade, Andy Warhol's Factory, Jeff Koons' replications and Damien Hirst's investment in property and business), artists today cannot but think of themselves as entrepreneurs, on penalty of being considered throwbacks to antiquated notions of authorship. With technical skills demystified by mechanical reproduction, art students are encouraged to think of their practice in terms of networking, organisational activity and small business management. And since the market still places a high premium on the idea of genius and singularity, operating in these ways can actually appear to be a critique of the art market at the same time as embracing modes of work more often associated with the Capitalist market in general. At the same time, traditionally commercial areas of design, entertainment and even non-'creative' industries like information and communication technology providers and manufacturers have begun to consider creativity as an essential employee asset, restructuring their organisation to incorporate the kind of 'fun', 'creativity' and 'individuality' promised by television shows like Ally McBeal, with its all-singing, all-dancing staff of lawyers. Meanwhile, reality shows like The Apprentice trade in the idea that a certain personality traits could make you successful, America's Next Top Model parading endlessly interchangeable 'quirky' special girls and eliminating all but the blandest. The illusion achieved, in a world of unstable work conditions, pension crises and short term contracts, is that the job market rewards those who stay true to themselves, instead of work being the random progeny of the flow of Capital. To be on top in the age of the creative industry is really just to be, the artist's creativity having finally found its role in realising its industrious potential and its loyalty to Franklin's utilitarian duty.

The result of this misunderstanding, a kind of new meeting point on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella, is a partial convergence of art and Capitalism, art - like Carey Young's motivational presentations - toying with mock corporate action, the same way that Hewlett Packard might suggest it is in the business of engendering creativity. However, this overlap is merely tactical. In mimicking the structures of Capitalism without adopting its function, much contemporary art remains purely representational. Tactically, there is no reason why art should not adopt the operations of the market at large to which it inevitably belongs, on the contrary - this is a way forward from the distorted mirror values of the art market and after all, as de Certeau writes, tactics are the tool of the weak in resisting the hegemony. But it is on the strategic level that art should position itself in relation to Capitalism, setting up its own institutions to counter the neutral flow of Capital's expansion.

A good illustration of the problems involved in positing a strategic relationship between art and Capitalism is American alien invasion series Threshold . Like many contemporary sci-fi shows, Threshold follows a small group of experts working for a governmental agency and following a strategic plan written by the female lead, who are constantly battling to save the earth from a sinister alien plot to mutate the human genome - bioforming the population, and the environment - terraforming the earth. Infectees are compelled to pass on the mutation by any means possible, using pre-existing skills to transmit the alien signal: as a frequency sampled in a DJ set, organic mutant tomatoes in a farmer's market, a television broadcast to the nation, and so on. Those exposed either change, becoming super strong - 'improved' - and as protein hungry as a bunch of ravenous Atkins disciples or implode, leaving behind deformed corpses for the show's special effects team to relish. Just like on the X-Files ten years ago, the protagonists of Threshold attempt to piece together evidence from isolated incidents in order to understand the extent of the aliens' conspiracy. But there is a crucial difference between the two shows. X-Files ' agent Mulder maintained a deep suspicion towards the federal institutions in which they operated and which were gradually exposed as corrupt. Their co-operation with the 'system' was purely tactical, to share some information and keep a close eye on the people who hide the 'truth' from the American public. The long term strategies, or end goals, of the FBI and of the X-files project were always the cause of friction: the bureau aimed to protect the public by hiding, manipulating and double-crossing, while Mulder worked to reveal, to illuminate, to touch the true essence of things. It is not difficult to see Mulder as a kind of romantic artist, working in opposition to an oppressive society, heroically attempting, and tragically failing, after finding himself time and time again entangled in a thick net of shadowy hints and myths, to grasp this essence. A traditional Marxist reading would interpret the shadowy presence as the unseen forces of Capitalism -   shaping, controlling and mediating -   that can only be seen through the distorted ideological prism of culture. As emblems of Clinton era liberalism, the governmental institutions, are, despite good intentions, forced to co-operate with the deeper, darker currents of Capital.

Threshold , on the other hand, presents a different picture. The members of the secret ring of specialists are all left wing liberals who find themselves at the very heart of the institution they are supposed to oppose, and yet, despite some ethical difficulties, decide to operate within the system. Unlike the X-Files , Threshold allows us to look through the eyes of the traditional 'baddies' who spend as much time trying to cover up their operations as they do fighting the alien threat. Read again, as a representation of Capitalism, the aliens are here in a much more complex relationship to the institutions of the state. Certain elements immediately welcome the mutation as a new evolutionary stage. Ultimately, even the members of the taskforce have to question their mission. The viral nature of the alien signal, its rapid mutation and expansion and its flexibility and lack of any concrete plan (at least in the first season) beyond this infinite drive for expansion, all suggest that the horror it evokes lies in the shapelessness and flexibility of the global market today. But rather than position themselves as outsiders looking in, the protagonists of the show work out their differences in an open dialogue, following individual agendas as well as state directives and not always seeing eye to eye with one another. The alien threat is practically unstoppable, inevitable. Humanity as we know it is literally on the threshold of extinction. But resistance remains a negotiation, both in relation to the infection and within the system of institutions and between the individuals that make them.

By maintaining a position within the market that is at once sceptical, or critical, and co-opted, functional or viable, artists run the risk of being reduced to employees in the creative industry, and the line is fine between Tracey Emin's bed and Tracey Emin's new line of bed linen for the masses, a branded commodity on a par with Laura Ashley tea towels. But it is in running the risk, confronting the alien invasion and accepting the job on the taskforce, that art regains its value outside the confines of the artworld. Instead of saying no to the market, artists need to set up their own institutions and strategically place themselves in the system positively rather than by exclusion. Art is being terraformed as we write, turned into this alien industry and incorporated into foreign discourses. Perhaps we too will be improved, stronger with the virus of Capitalism flowing through our veins. For now we would like to stay on the threshold, writing our own strategies. Operating beyond a certain scale - financial or literal - it is possible for work to lose any meaning beyond the beauty of the machine, the thrust of Capital. Yet seeking the truth from without, we remain as small as Mulder and Scully, forever in search of an unknowable unknown, seven seasons in with no hope of ever glimpsing the mothership.