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Creativity in Solidarity, Economy and Institutions - Statement by Michael D. Higging TD

Statement by Michael D. Higging TD
Labour Party President and former Minister for Arts Culture and the Gaeltacht

Creativity in Solidarity, Economy and Institutions

Address to Celebration of 25th Anniversary of First Arts Officer
being appointed to a local authority
Thomond Park, Limerick
Thursday 25 November 2010

In discussing creativity, it is important to clarify whether one sees it as a personal gift or achievement on the one hand, or something, on the other hand, that is socially defined. How one answers that choice defines cultural policy and in turn issues of citizenship. These connections are, I suggest, inescapable. A further issue is a policy one.

Culture, I suggest, cannot be allocated a residual status to economic growth, nor can it be regarded as a mere component of such growth. The cultural space, I have argued consistently since my time as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht from 1993 to 1997, is wider than the economic space. I made this point as President of the Council of Cultural Ministers of the European Union in 1996, and while I received a warm welcome I cannot see any tangible results in terms of policy.

Culture is not central in any of the founding treaties of the European Union, and indeed in the Universal Declaration of the United Nations, its status as a right is not significantly present. The evolution of thinking in that institution in relation to culture has barely got as far as recognising the importance of architectural heritage.

Now a renewed interest in creativity has emerged. Creativity is presented as a contributing factor to innovation, itself linked in its importance to the internationally traded market economy. I suggest that creativity is not only socially defined but that it is at its most powerful when located in culture and evaluated in terms of its contribution to citizenship.

Yes, it is true that creativity is what contributes to enhancing our national reputation abroad, and it does this in a consistent way through performance in the cultural area. It is also true, that at European level, 5.8 million people work in the cultural area, and this is an area which is growing while other areas of employment contract. Nearer home, the Western Development Commission’s research has shown that just short of 5,000 creative businesses employ more than 11,000 people, producing a turn-over of €534 million, and €270 million into the regional economy.

There is much that can be done to secure and expand these numbers, but I would like to concentrate on the more general importance of creativity and culture and their importance for an inclusive, intellectually open, flexible and nourishing citizenship.

We are told again and again in Ireland and by the OECD that our future demands that we be functional cogs within what is termed the ‘knowledge economy’. This, it is suggested, is to make us ‘competitive’- to ensure we have a capacity- a facility to compete with other zones of economic power. This may be true in the short-term but the risk it carries, in terms of skills and capacity is that it could be, a recipe for obsolescence

More fundamentally, the problem with this view is that it is reductionist. It limits us all to some degree, because it reduces citizens as social beings to an existence as alienated individual consumers. Citizens with personal stories to tell, and narratives to share, and roles to fulfill, are turned into a succession of square pegs. It lessens the possibility we have to be persons in the fullest sense, to be citizens in a creative society with a diverse past and future.

The way in which our world has been structured, by the neo-liberal economic paradigm which has delivered such disastrous consequences globally and locally, places the economy in first place, to the detriment of all else. We need a re-evaluation of this. This is both an intellectual and indeed a moral challenge. Other aspects of human solidarity and creativity must also be brought to prominence. Part of that, surely, is the need to emphasise our cultural and creative natures. Culture, it must be repeated, and then repeated again, is central, not residual. Without culture, the vitality and creativity of our society is deadened.

This re-evaluation needs to be brought about in real terms. Culture must be used as a prism through which we can see the society, as well as, for example, the economic. There must, for this project to exist, be a space of contestation, and culture is that very space. It is the centre where the value of creativity is made real. It has the capacity for a new renaissance and the ability to bring into being the creative city of interdependent and compassionate citizenship, and a rural society that bridges indigenous wisdom, ecological respect and imagination.

The resilience of Canada, and in particular the Canadian Banking System, to the current economic crisis as been a matter of comment. There banking rules existed, were applied and largely respected. But Canada is not only impressive from that front. Its record of harnessing the power and value of creativity is even more impressive.

In 2006, the Strategies for Creative Cities Project Team produced a report entitled “Imagine a Toronto…Strategies for a creative city” where they stated:

“In today’s world, creativity is a necessity – a must have, not a nice to have. There is a direct link between a flourishing city and the vitality of its creative sector. Toronto is on the cusp of a creative breakthrough”

The departure point of that groups imagining assumed that:

“We are now in the creative age - a time when the generation of economic value in a growing number of sectors depends directly on the ability of firms to embed creativity and cultural content within the goods and services they produce.

Familiar goods such as clothing, furniture, and food products depends on creative and cultural content for their competitive success, and consumers are willing to pay higher prices for products that are well-designed and culturally distinctive.

Knowledge-intensive products such as computers, mobile communication devices and biomedical technologies are born of the innovative spark of well-educated, creative workers. They also exploit appealing and ingenious design to enhance their success in the marketplace. Furthermore, a set of creative industries producing ‘cultural goods’ - including film and television production, new media, electronic games, publishing, advertising, design, music, and the visual and performing arts - now generate a large and steadily increasing share of our international trade, employment and gross domestic product locally, regionally, and nationally.

Not only does the generation of economic value flow from this creative economy, but the people who work in creative occupations and industries are themselves drawn to places that offer a critical mass of creative and cultural activity, broadly defined. These are places where the arts flourish, with vibrant and lively local scenes in music, literature, theatre and visual arts. They are cities that host cultural traditions from around the world. They welcome newcomers from a variety of ethnic, racial, religious, and national origins, and provide opportunities for their easy social and economic integration. They are also places that enshrine freedom of cultural expression, places that nurture the creative act.”

It is important, however, that accepting a social definition of creativity requires an integration that goes much farther than having a space that respects or is conducive to the arts. Crucial though space for creativity is, connectivity and social inclusion are also essential.

The Toronto experience is instructive insofar as its film and television cluster ranked third in North America with just under 900 Million dollars worth of film and television productions shot in 2005, and the industry contributed 1.1 billion dollars annually to the local economy. Toronto, in 2005, was also home to 25,000 designers, the third largest design work-force in North America. It was home to more than 11,000 performing artists. What is significant, from the Toronto reflection on its future at that time, is that it recognised that a simplistic business model would be insufficient for the creative industries. Instead, a holistic approach enshrining culture and creativity at its core had to be adopted and achieved.

I raise the example of the Canadian city of Toronto’s reflective self-imaginings now as the European Commission this year published a Green Paper entitled ‘Unlocking the potential of cultural and creative industries’. The Commissioner responsible, Commissioner Vassiliou, invited submissions to the European Commission from interested parties and indeed I understand that Ireland’s own cultural coalition led by the Temple Bar Cultural Trust and incorporating the Digital Hub, Business to Arts, the Project Arts Centre and Design Business Ireland took up the opportunity in early August of this year.

I believe it instructive to consider the departure points of the Commission’s own reflective Green Paper. Where does it locate the value of creativity? The paper speaks of CCI’s – or Creative and Cultural Industries. It is fairly broad-ranging in that it does list several dimensions, though, at its core, it remains embedded within an old economic model.

The paper begins:

“In the recent decades the world has been moving at a faster pace. For Europe and other parts of the world, the rapid roll-out of new technologies and increased globalisation has meant a striking shift away from traditional manufacturing towards services and innovation. Factory floors are progressively being replaced by creative communities whose raw material is their ability to imagine, create and innovate.

In this new digital economy, immaterial value increasingly determines material value, as consumers are looking for new and enriching "experiences". The ability to create social experiences and networking is now a factor of competitiveness.

If Europe wants to remain competitive in this changing global environment, it needs to put in place the right conditions for creativity and innovation to flourish in a new entrepreneurial culture. There is a lot of untapped potential in the cultural and creative industries to create growth and jobs. To do so, Europe must identify and invest in new sources of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth drivers to take up the baton. Much of our future prosperity will depend on how we use our resources, knowledge and creative talent to spur innovation. Building on our rich and diverse cultures, Europe must pioneer new ways of creating value-added, but also of living together, sharing resources and enjoying diversity.

Europe's cultural and creative industries offer a real potential to respond to these challenges thereby contributing to the Europe 2020 strategy and some of its flagship initiatives such as the Innovation Union, the Digital Agenda, tackling climate change, the Agenda for new skills and new jobs or an industrial policy for the globalisation era.”

As I said, many dimensions are listed, however, at its core, the document is an attempt to adjust European cultural policy to that which has been almost ephemeral in itself, the so-called Lisbon Strategy for “growth and jobs.”

Please do not misunderstand me. Of course I am in favour of investment in creative and cultural industries, and jobs, and growth. Indeed, I believe that such investment produces a multiplier far greater than the investment itself. Where I take issue with the Paper is its location of the value of creativity and culture to society solely in the jobs and growth that ensue.

When I was Minister for Culture, I did indeed stress the importance of the creative space and the immediately discernible contribution of the creative industries, be it film, music or publishing to economic wealth and employment. During that period the value of the creative industries in employment terms was greater than that of the Banking Sector or the IT Sector. The multiplier was also greater and had a greater regional effect. However, I must warn that one should not assume that even in such an area there was an equality of participation in the cultural space and thus there was indeed a limitation, an exclusion, in terms of citizenship. There was then, as there is now in Ireland, a clear divide based on class. The National Economic and Social Forum in a study published in March 2007, gave statistics for December 2006 that showed clear differences.

*Those on higher incomes were three times more likely to attend classical concerts, and twice as likely to attend plays and art exhibitions, than those on lower incomes; this was also true in the use of public libraries

*Even going to the cinema varied by class, with 69% of the middle class going to the cinema in 2007, compared to 42% of those from semi-skilled/unskilled backgrounds

*People aged 35-44 had a lower attendance rate at a number of arts events, which may be related to family commitments in the rearing of children.

*A digital divide was also noticeable – 36% of the middle class downloaded arts-related material, compared to 21% of those from semi-skilled/unskilled backgrounds. Young people and men were most likely to download arts material;

*Another striking statistic is that 40% of those using PCs in public libraries were non-nationals and 44% were unemployed.

These figures present a very serious challenge. The real value of creativity I suggest, in society is to invent an agenda for living which defines the cultural space as wider than the economic space. Refusing to accept such a proposition is to seriously limit citizenship. The cultural space stretches in time back before any contemporary version of the economy. In that stretch, it raises all of the issues of the ethics of memory. The cultural space also includes the various versions of the economy that are not yet born. The ethical issue posed in that stretch is one of defending the integrity and freedom of that which can be imagined but which has not yet managed to be.

Culture, beyond all the definitional difficulties, is based on what we share. It is a process, one that is continually being reworked. In addition, because culture is shared it constitutes the bed-rock of the public world – a public world that has been placed under threat from the demands of a destabilizing privatized world, predicated on consumption, and the protection of which is often based on a fear of others. Thus, the shared trust of citizens in the public space is replaced by the insecurity of private possessions.

To consider then the concept of the cultural space – the cultural space cannot be the residual of the marketplace. Rather, it is the space within which various forms of human activity are made possible. There is nothing abstract about this. The fact is that the cultural space properly respected can be not merely a location for the arts but a source of vision, offering innovation in capacity for living, including the economic, and a necessary defining capacity for quality of life.

If we are to bring a new form of social economy into being, give a prominence to a new paradigm of political economy, it is the case that the economic space will fall to be rescued by the values of the cultural space and its contribution to citizenship rather than culture and creativity being regarded as residual or functional in a limited sense.

It is important to recognise the political implication of accepting the hegemony of the cultural space over the economic. A neo-liberal model over-reliant on market provision cannot produce such a space. Indeed, it tends to destroy it, colonising as it were, the space of citizenship with the demands of consumption.

There is now, then, a real need to emphasise that there is more than one version of an economic order. That which has dominated in Europe in recent times, particularly since 1989 and the emergence of a neo-liberal hubris in economic terms, is by no means the only one. Neither is it the most efficient or effective version of public economics.

Such a version of the economy might be referred to as a ‘depeopled economy’. What does this mean? What it means is that all is predicated on the needs and demands of the economic at the expense of all else. Citizens are forced to work to live, rather than living through their work.

Within this model of decay and alienation, so much else of our potential life experience is either denied us, or is seriously curtailed. In essence, issues pertaining to family, community and society are all too often superseded by an imposed devotion to maintaining the economy. But it goes much farther than that. Across the dimensions of space and time we are forced, be it in terms of enforced limitations in housing, or, in the absence of public transport, to huge losses of social time to the demands of commuting to a work that is more often a necessity for economic survival rather than a choice for personal development.

We must, I suggest, conclude that our current, over-determined model of the economy, and the economic space, is reductionist, clumsy and limiting.

Turning then to the discourse on culture - there have been two major collaborations of an international kind that might have produced an international response to these issues. “Our Creative Diversity” – The report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, published by UNESCO in 1995 and the regional contribution from Europe entitled “In from the Margins”, published by the Council of Europe as its contribution to the debate.

Unfortunately, there has been little parliamentary response to these publications. While there were a number of valuable meetings in the preparatory phase of these works in different regions and countries, including Europe, ones that produced often valuable, thematic considerations, such as the Power of Culture Conference at The Hague in the Netherlands, in 1996 which concentrated on the ethical basis of culture, the intellectual community’s debate has been deeply disappointing.

It is time for us to repeat that in debating and applying economic policies there needs to be a critical engagement; with a critical relationship to, and a critical evaluation of, the society. There is a real need to engage critically with the world around us; particularly with regard to the way it is presented to us. In a globalised environment with a galloping concentration of ownership in the media, the dangers of an imposed homogeneity of consumption are real. I remain unconvinced as to the possibilities of local mediation of corporate globalising tendencies. The form may change but the rules and their impacts remain the same.

At the political level, the challenge is to identify democratic, participatory and empowering policies to ensure access to culture for the public at large and through a better knowledge of other cultures, to encourage intercultural dialogue.

On a practical level, culture may be utilised to see to it that our past is "harnessed" to our future, so as to ensure access and creativity and sustain our cultural richness in its identities and diversities.

Culture can prevent and treat some of the emerging tensions of our society. It can help build an understanding of the many facets of sustainability. It can bring about a new sense of solidarity. It can positively inspire the new economy, especially act as a means of empowerment and entitlement. It can be the bed rock we need to reach out from, to understand and respect other cultures with self-reliance.

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