The Future of Cultural Work

The recent conference at the Open University, The Future of Cultural Work, inspired much debate and discussion amongst delegates and touched on many pertinent issues for my PhD research into cultural entrepreneurship and education policy. With many strands including capitalism and work, precarious labour, working in television and inclusion & exclusion, it offered a variety of perspectives and provocations in relation to cultural work and cultural labour. Not only were the themes appropriate to my research, but many key academics on the subject presented and attended the conference – I must admit to being a little start-struck! McGuigan talked of the relationship between capitalism and cultural work, the subject of a forthcoming paper in the International Journal for Cultural Policy and of his book Cool Capitalism discussed in previous blog posts. Hesmondhalgh and Gregg kicked us off with two provocations on the future(s) of cultural work highlighting the pitfalls and issues associated with working in the cultural, media and creative industries. Hesmondhalgh presented the idea that on the one hand cultural studies has been very critical of recent cultural policy and of the implications for culture and those working in the sector, while on the other hand there is an over optimistic (near evangelical) promotion of creativity and the benefits of working in the sector. He suggested that instead of treating cultural workers as a ‘special’  case, that they in fact have more in common with all workers in terms of needing to explore their rights and conditions of work. He talked of  unions as a potential solution, recognising the problems with unionising freelancers and the current strength of personal networks which in many ways act as a support system but without the official power of an organised group such as a formal union.

In her provocation, Gregg highlighted the relationship between love and work, in terms of the language used to describe the ideal job and a very middle class aspiration and aestheticization of the experience of work. A simple  Blackberry advert demonstrated this perfectly; All you need is Love. To further illustrate her point, Gregg referred to Steve Jobs and the language of love he expresses. This, along with our own implicit contribution to competitivess at work, and to the use of tools to make our own work and life balance increasingly blurred was contrasted with the recent suicides at the chinese factory, Foxconn which manufactures iPhones.

Of the many other interesting papers, I would like to highlight an ongoing research project by Daniel Ashton at Bath University, with media students who are making use of an incubation space rather than an ordinary class room. Ashton discussed how students described the space as more professional and how they were engaged in ‘performing’ the process of becoming a cultural worker. This process is aimed at getting students ‘industry ready’, clearly a concept which caused much concern amongst the delegates, but which for me, working within a vocational university, is a key objective whether I like it or not. The question for me is not to be critical of students, parents and others who want students to be better prepared for work (self employment or as an employee), but how to balance that while still encouraging students to be critical and independent thinkers. Despite the entrepreneurial nature of the students he researched, Ashton suggested that they demonstrated ethical concerns in wanting to set up social enterprises relating to their cultural work. A common aspiration for my students and something which did not seem to be a contradiction in my experience.

Finally, some of the other points raised:

  • Do we need to rethink the notion of self-exploitation in cultural workers?
  • How does networking actually work in all the different contexts & subsectors?
  • What are the implications for education?
  • Should we be more explicit about the idea of failure (which might not be failures) in the cultural industries as opposed to encouraging the celebrity status of a few workers?
  • Do we ignore class and the importance of social capital?
  • Is the celebration of autonomy and independence associated with cultural workers a paradox?
  • Would it be helpful in research to take a sociological and more general view of cultural work?
  • Is there a lack of interest and awareness of issues of diversity in research of the cultural sector and workforce?
  • Rather than ‘Living on Thin Air’ are we Living on a Contradiction?
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    • Paul Long
    • June 10th, 2010

    One of the most interesting things about the day was the political discussions of the assembled scholars.

    By this of course, I don’t mean something resembling New Labour’s colonisation (or construction) of the ‘creative sector’, which seems to have no been endorsed by the coalition. By ‘political I mean something far more engaged, analytical and critical of the domain of the creative-social at a theoretical level.

    Thus, the contemporary social conditions wrought by neo-liberalisam were an ongoing issue and a baseline for understanding contradictions in which we as scholars are caught up in and contributing to.

    In such a context, understanding creative labour as a paradigm of contemporary work – its promise as well as its deceits – was bound up in a critical position which prompts questions about action.

    This political framework was stimulating for the manner in which it illuminated its virtual absence from discussions within and around the creative and cultural industries themselves.

    I’ll say that again and leave it hanging as a provocation:

    This political framework was stimulating for the manner in which it illuminated its virtual absence from discussions within and around the creative and cultural industries themselves.

    In relation to this, a highlight of the day was a comment from Jason Toynbee of OU. He reflected upon the way in which many of those assembled (including your truly), taught courses which had imbibed the entrepreneurial agenda in order to galvanise students for a life of work in the creative sector (to get them ‘industry-ready’ as Daniel Ashton has it. Such preparations might be pragmatic in the circumstances, but given our collective critique of creative labour conditions – their stresses and exploitations – we offered little by way of guidance as to what to do about them. Thus, Toynbee wondered whether modules on organisation, labour law et al should be included in our curricula. That’s something I’ll be working on….

  1. You are quite right, of course, to point out the emphasis on the political nature of the discussions. Of the scholars who express their politics clearly in their work, McGuigan and Hesmondhalgh to name but a few, they seemed to be genuinely pleased that this conference was prepared to address these issues head on and start to talk about solutions – unions, curricula which explores labour laws etc… No one had a specific solution to present but there was a sense of wanting seize the moment.

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