Photo by Sean Gladwell

The arts must secede

Against the cultural-industrial complex

Artillery Row

Working in the arts, one becomes used to narratives of crisis. “Money is tight” has become the sector’s motto. Everyone’s overworked, exhausted and preparing for things to get even worse. On the other hand, between yet another economic downturn and in the aftershocks of the pandemic, some observers find hope in the end-of-empire moment: good things come from adversity. So, which will it be? 

Looking for answers, I joined a conference of two hundred arts professionals to ponder the “future of creativity” in the UK. The programme, which included artists, researchers, a museum director and even a handful of politicians, looked promising. So did the name badges sported by the attendees, with representatives of Arts Council England, the Royal College of Art and the British Council in the crowd. I hoped to hear some considered reflections on the state of the sector from its leaders, to discover new ideas that would inspire confidence in the prospects for the arts and culture, or at least to pick up some industry gossip.

Unencumbered growth in the arts came at a price

As I was told from the stage that “the creative industries are the fastest growing part of the economy”, that they would be “core to the Government’s vision for inclusive growth”, and that the arts “were vital in the fight against cancer”, my enthusiasm waned. I had heard these lines many times and knew them all to be inconsequential clichés. My heart sank when the conference’s distinguished keynote speaker put the pin in what passes for “culture” by suggesting that the musician and UK’s creativity brand ambassador Harry Styles “looks fantastic in a pink tutu”. By the time the auditorium applauded the suggestion that the arts should go all-in on “createch”, the union of technology and creative businesses that already gave us pineapple-fibre synthetic leather and methane capture masks for cattle that will undoubtedly solve all tomorrow’s problems, I felt I was in the wrong room. The creative industries contributed £103 billion in GVA to the UK economy, but that did little to lift my spirits as I waited in vain for someone to say something even remotely insightful about the nature of art, culture and creativity in Britain.

I only feign my surprise at this festival of jingoism because the monster that is the “cultural and creative industries” has been some 25 years in the making. In 1998, Chris Smith, then secretary of state for culture, media and sport in the freshly formed Labour government, published “Creative Britain”, a celebration of the country’s world-leading record in the arts and a manifesto for turning the island into a powerhouse of all things creative. It was the era of Cool Britannia, and things could only get better. The arts would be for everyone, and everyone would be for the creative industries. 

Indeed, the years leading up to 2008 and the financial crash were a veritable renaissance for the arts and their creative siblings in the UK. With New Labour came new funding for museums and galleries, a new role for the country’s art and design schools, and a new spirit of entrepreneurship that had artists and designers imagine themselves as the captains of industry. It would be unfair to deny that many of the era’s cultural policy developments, however accidental some of them turned out to be on reflection, had culturally enriching effects. Reinstating free entry to national museums, for example, doubled attendance. Cultural institutions from the Royal Opera House to the Whitworth invested in connecting with new audiences, many of them for the first time. London became a global art market hub.

This unencumbered growth came at a price, however. By turning what was once called “heritage” and “the arts” into the “cultural and creative industries” (or CCIs), these optimistic policies forced the logic of instrumental neoliberal capital on all creative endeavours. “Subsidy” became “investment”. Artists, henceforth known as “creatives”, would experiment and multiply until profitable alliances between contemporary art and materials research, dance and urban regeneration, jewellery and genetic science, or poetry and accounting emerged and paid their dues into that GVA account.

If the 2000s were the decade of the creative, they were also the time of the arts manager and the cultural technocrat, whose role was to index, research and measure the use and value of sculpture, design and even community murals so that they could be offered to the highest bidder. Despite the rhetoric of business partnerships and private patronage, this bidder was often another arts technocrat, double-counting the culture and its value in another part of the industry’s internal market. All this could have been fine in times of plenty, but when the CCIs crashed into the 2010 coalition government’s austerity programme, everyone seemed to have forgotten what culture and creativity were once for. Faced with an existential threat, cultural institutions doubled down on the narratives of market value, coproduction and social utility as though they believed that the technocratic argument would convince politicians to bail them out. 

It didn’t. In the following years, state support for the arts continued to shrink. Whilst the financial lot of museums and orchestras worsened, the technocrats noticed that industry sectors like film, gaming and software were doing just fine and were more than paying for themselves. What happened to the creative cross-fertilisation that promised to bind culture to commerce? How do the arts make Britain richer when arts graduates are some of the worst-paid workers in the economy? There were no good answers. Culture had become a third wheel, and the CCIs quietly dropped their leading “c” to become simply the “creative industries”, which are today so ready to embrace the opportunities of “createch”. 

Cue bad jokes about STEAM powering the next industrial revolution

Nobody told the arts about this new regime. Judging by the contributions to last month’s future-gazing conference, the galleries, dance companies and individual artists are still trying to catch up with the regime of market measurement and evidence-based investment. This has made them vulnerable to the crudest forms of ideological manipulation. Speaking about the arts’ “fundamental role in combating climate change”, a consultant boasted that 70 per cent of publicly funded arts organisations produced artworks about the crisis. Both the National Gallery and the National Grid have commissioned “creative content” about heat pumps, proving that the arts’ claimed criticality can be suspended whenever the technocrats demand. Another speaker invoked art’s ability to “strategize imagination and hope” which itself should, presumably, be industrially strategized. Everybody chimed with calls for investing in arts education, and a few smirked at Rishi Sunak’s plan to expand maths tuition. Yet it is the arts that have crowbarred their A into STEM, the already Frankensteinian alliance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Cue bad jokes about STEAM powering the next industrial revolution.

This picture is depressing: in becoming an industry, the arts have forgotten what and who they are for. It’s a pity, because even in the dictionary “industry” was once a good thing. “An application of skill, ingenuity, or cleverness” never hurt anyone, whilst “diligence or assiduity in the performance of a task” are outright praiseworthy. Yet these meanings are, according to the OED, now obsolete. Somewhere between the competitive funding bid and the risk-reward curve, the practice of culture fell into a deep identity crisis. The arts gave up on their capacity to reflect on what it means to lead a good life and are instead busy chasing the doctrine of consumer choice, which has sustained their only meagre existence in the market economy of industrial creativity. What’s tragic is that funding politics notwithstanding, this is largely a self-inflicted predicament. 

There lies a small hope: the sooner the visual arts, dance or music realise that they must fend against the industrial exploits of giants like gaming or streaming, the higher the chances of them finding and articulating their purpose anew. The arts must secede from the creative industries. They have done this before; “secessionism” is an art historical trope. Vienna even boasts a grand art gallery called “Secession”, founded in 1898 by a group of artists like Gustav Klimt and Alphonse Mucha in a break from the Association of Austrian Artists.

Indeed, arts’ quest for autonomy characterised much of the 20th century, but the past two decades have been a step back. Today’s version of ars gratia artis should mean the end of mindless pandering to the demands of other interests at the cost of producing meaning. This is easier said than done, of course, because the liberal political sensibilities of today’s arts world make it hostile to non-instrumental creation. The dogma is that art practices must be emancipatory or at least socially useful. Even that could be fine, however, if it didn’t come with the fanciful demand that the arts also become the engine of economic growth. 

Given that, as the conference panellists reluctantly acknowledged, most artists are already poorer than their 19th century Bohemian archetypes, the arts have little to lose from “going their own way”. This may already be the norm in some art forms. Painting, for example, seems to be enjoying another rebirth, with exhibitions like Simon Grant’s expansive, 40-artist The Moth and the Thunderclap unashamedly concerning themselves with non-strategic frivolities like nature or abstraction. In literature, a plethora of independent publishers like Morbid Books or Infinity Land Press have been carving out spaces that are impossible to colonise. Practices that depend on people coming together tend to be heavily dependent on state funding, however. Even the Viennese Secession building was bankrolled by the steel tycoon Karl Wittgenstein, the philosopher’s father. I leave that last fact to today’s patrons of the arts, who seem as keen on bogus impact metrics as the cultural-industrial complex.

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