Cultural Industries, Work and Values
My review examined the values embedded in cultural work in the cultural industries (the professional worlds of the arts, media and design) drawing on an interdisciplinary social science literature.
It was first argued that the cultural industries foundationally suspend on a productive, dialectical tension between an economic and a cultural value, broadly defined. This provides the context in which cultural work – the organized production of cultural goods – takes place. Increasingly, however, it was noted that the economic value that underpins the cultural industries is becoming relatively dominant, and now – under an advanced ‘creative economy’ logic – appears to threaten or diminish the other cultural (and political) values that are also inherent to cultural work. The kind of economistic thinking that tends to seek ever more efficient means of managing ‘creatives’ and creative production, now does so in ways that increasingly undermine cultural workers’ material conditions of existence, and their meaningful lives and ambitions – by advancing work’s precarity, inequality, informality and extensification. Yet, by necessity, the cultural industries must continue to provide an indeterminate context for culture as politics – for explorations of other worlds beyond the established and known – since this is not only the animated desire of the capable worker, it is also the best guarantee of future accumulation. It is culture’s unpredictability, its capacity for unintended consequences that make it both an appealing (as well as threatening) prospect for capitalist growth.
Some of the key concluding points of this review were therefore:
- The general focus on cultural value in terms of objects and commodities, symbols and intangible assets, remains vital, but lacks a work-focussed or labour perspective. Cultural value partly arises from the contexts of production where ideas of value, quality, character, content and form are significant, and shape the subsequent value generated in circulation and consumption. The cultural industries workplace is therefore a significant source of cultural value, however this value is defined.
- In focussing on the workplace, we see that the values of cultural work are most often made concrete in objects. In most (if not all) cases there is some relationship between the internal work process and the values of the cultural object produced. For example the craft good is valued intrinsically, as a product of the maker’s hand, and this is what accretes its external value. Similarly, the music produced authentically by an artist under conditions of relative autonomy has a particular kind of value than the engineered corporate song-hit. The ethical intentions and practices of the net-worker are significant in the final evaluation of the integrity of the software good. The ethical connection between the work and the object are significant in many cases, but tend to be overlooked in cultural value discourse. In this way, we recognise that the cultural value of objects can be related to the lived conditions and intentions of the labour invested them – and not just their market price, or perceived aesthetic essence.
- In this respect, while establishing economic value for the cultural industries sector continues to (quite legitimately) preoccupy different interests, the pursuit of a robust economic analysis is only one part of the story of value. Neither is promoting the ‘creative economy’ in its own right – divested of any sense of the necessary tensions between culture and economics – the best way forward. This is because such efforts not only serve to misrepresent the foundational dynamic of the relationships between culture and economy, and narrow the debate about value, they tend also to exfiltrate the political and cultural questions that must necessarily arise in the context of any cultural industry evaluation. It’s been suggested here that work is a primary locus of much of this tension between cultural and economic value.
- Work has the capacity to provide people with material sustenance and fulfilling and meaningful lives; but the question of how to attain this value is almost entirely neglected in creative economy thinking. There is instead a bland and misguided assumption that any kind of work is valuable, and that cultural work in particular is inherently good. Evidence has shown repeatedly that this is not the case. A more critical discourse around work in cultural policy making would go some way to beginning to address the consequences of ‘creative economy’ instrumentalism.
- Culture as we understand it today, cannot be said to exist outside of the market system which grants it recognition and legitimacy; crucially, however, this does not rule the possibility of some relatively autonomous action which can ameliorate the effects or transform the quality of that system – cultural workers are at the vanguard of that exploration of political possibility, and this has its own value.