‘cool’ work

There is perception that working in the creative and cultural industries is ‘cool’, pleasurable and a good lifestyle choice. It allows personal autonomy and expression.  Or does it?

The paper entitled ‘Looking for work in creative industries policy’ published in the International Journal of Cultural Policy by Mark Banks and David Hesmondalgh takes a critical look at the issues related with creative work. More specifically, they are focused on UK creative industries policy of the last 10 years (under New Labour) and the lack of research and debate about the conditions of work for creative workers. This is pertinent to my PhD research on Cultural Entrepreneurship because it questions the relationship between recent government policy and the practice of working in the creative and cultural industries. A short research study I undertook 2 years ago demonstrated clearly that some creative workers are very comfortable with the idea of entrepreneurship and enjoy the lifestyle which goes with it. Yet, to what extent have they been manipulated? Have they had the option to think and discuss their conditions of work?

The first part of the paper describes the importance of the creative industries and creative work in UK policy, particularly since Chris Smith became the first minister for the newly established  DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sports). The writers set the scene by describing the context for understanding the perception of  creative work as inherited from art and related fields. In that sense ‘creative labour’ is understood as being about the production of works with some level of originality and created in a workshop / studio environment. They also describe the connections made between the creative industries and the wider economy.

The problems with creative work and creative labour are then discussed  through the analysis of two key documents, Staying Ahead (Work Foundation, 2007) and Creative Britain (DCMS,2008) which according to the authors, singularly fail to articulate the problems about the process of creative labour. Indeed, in both cases and many other documents, there is a large body of work which presents creative work as ideal for the economy and contemporary society. Referring to Boltanski and Chiapello’s seminal work, The New Spirit of Capitalism, the authors explain the acceptance of creative modes of working by the left and the right. In this context work is presented as being about self expression, individualised and as offering fulfilling opportunities. It is this utopian view which the authors specifically want to criticise.

This vision is then contrasted with the notion that whilst artistic work has traditionally drawn from ‘much of its talent and ideas from radical or counter-cultural groups, neo-liberal incitements to entrepreneurial initiative have been skillfully tailored to fit with the still-resonant autonomy of artistic labour.’

This increasingly individualised labour is criticised for putting pressure on the cultural worker to take full responsibility for his/her own success. The lack of unions and the self-reliance nature of cultural work, results in the individual worker being solely responsible for their professional development in terms of their career prospects. The result is that creative workers appear to accept this as part and parcel of working in the sector. Furthermore, the writers refer to work by McRobbie and others which suggests that expectations of creative workers can lead to ‘disappointment and disillusion’.

The main problems with creative work, as described by the authors who are drawing from a range of studies, are that:  much of the work is project based, irregular and contracts tend to be short-term; career prospects are uncertain; earnings are usually slim; there are few benefits associated with employee status such as insurance, health and pension benefits; there is an under representation of women, ethnic and other minorities; there are few strong unions and the levels of membership to unions are dropping; it is characterised as multi jobs reflected in the portfolio careers many creative workers have and finally, requires a level of personal investment.

ultimately, the authors that in an attempt to reinvigorate the economy, policy makers have looked at the creative sector with little, if any, consideration of the nature of work and working conditions. The shift to utilising what was once cultural policy to drive the creative and the knowledge economy has important repercussions for the creative and cultural sector in terms of working conditions, of educational provision and ultimately for culture itself. Although this is not discussed in great detail in this paper, there is a sense that the commodification of culture is further enhanced through the production of the creative work in these conditions.

Finally the authors are concerned about the impact of these policies on education and the focus on skills based education to meet the perceived needs of the creative industries and of the economy. At risk is an environment in which individuals can experiment, explore different ideas and offer an ‘alternative’ including a critical view of society and the wider culture. The emphasis again is on servicing the economy with no discussion of social reform or cultural equity.

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