A cultural studies take on cultural entrepreneurship

Over the last few months I have been reading several academic papers which all take a critical perspective on New Labour creative industries and the implications for cultural work.

The focus in the papers is on a critical analysis of New Labour policy and the impact on the individual cultural worker, on culture itself and on education policy. For my research on cultural entrepreneurship, I am interested in taking a critical view of my practice as an enterprise educator for vocational courses in Art, Design and Media. Knowing first hand, some of the difficulties with setting up as a cultural producer and having taken an entrepreneurial approach to my own work, I am keen to explore and problematise recent UK government policy. The rhetoric associated with New Labour creative industries policy and influential writers such as Charles Leadbeater has a utopian and suspiciously overoptimistic tone. In contrast, the authors whose papers are discussed below, tend to work from a cultural studies or sociology context and are able to reflect on the shift in policy and culture by putting recent developments into a pre New Labour context. Broadly speaking the reference points go back to Thatcherism and the period leading into the 1997 New Labour’s landslide election win, a year before the publication of The Independents by Leadbeater and Oakley. This seminal booklet is critical to my study of cultural entrepreneurship and cultural entrepreneurs as it pin points a key moment from 18 years of right-wing government to the left of centre New labour government. The study, undertaken during the final years on John Major’s premiership, articulates the nature of cultural work by describing the type of work being done; the characteristics of the workers and of the organisations; the significance of this work in relation to the local environment and to the wider economy. Baring in mind that at the time, cultural work of this nature would not have been taken very seriously by general business or economic departments, this attempted to state that the cultural sector should not simply be understood as functioning as the traditional arts nor should they be underestimated in terms of their wider contribution to society, the economy, social justice, regeneration etc. It is important not to underestimate the sense  that, at the time, some of those involved in cultural production wanted to be taken more seriously and wanted to be seen to be more commercial and/or entrepreneurial. In that context, The Independents started to make the case for the sector to be reviewed, to be taken more seriously and eventually for more public funding which came when New Labour set up of the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sports) and as a result of further studies such as the Mapping Documents.

The issues this raises is that there is a danger that culture itself, which tends to come from a radical left field perspective, reflecting our world back to us, has been subsumed by a neo-liberal imperatives in which are more concerned with opportunities in the market place than with counter cultural movements. In my own small studies based on Birmingham practitioners, I have identified a generational difference between the enterprising and highly politicised work developed by groups such as the Film and Video Workshop movement (1979-1991)  in comparison with organisations set up in the last 10 years. The later, externally publicise a sense of being counter cultural in appearance and yet they work hand in hand with local funders,  meeting complex and bureaucratic government priorities set by funding organisations such as the Arts Council, the screen agencies or local authorities. There is little evidence that they are utilising culture as a means of highlighting issues of social justice but are more concerned with the notion of ‘cool’ as discussed by McGuigan in his book ‘Cool Capitalism’ and in my previous blog post.

This leads me to ask questions such as to what extent is our culture and cultural workers manipulated by the policy environment in which they function? What is the impact on cultural workers themselves? What are the expectations of education?

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