The magic word these days is ‘creativity’. And not just for artists: managers and policy makers alike demand creativity. Even family therapists and mediators urge us to find more creative solutions. Nowadays, creativity is all about positive morality. We expect nothing but good from it. But what remains of the meaning of the word when just about everybody is using it to death? And where does this hunger for creativity come from? Isn’t it instead a sign of a creeping loss of true creativity?
This essay primarily concerns itself with the social context of creativity. The reader will find few, if any, references to trendy literature from either the world of management or that of popularized cognitive psychology. Rather, the focal point is the economic, political and social context in which this type of literature operates and therefore ideological matters as well as labour sociology issues will be reviewed. The micro level (individuals), meso level (organizations) and macro level (society in general) will all be properly represented, as befits sociology traditionally by now. The interaction between these levels will receive special attention. How, for instance, do macro sociological phenomena such as globalization and neoliberalization intervene in classic institutions on a meso level such as museums and art academies? Or, how do the global flows of money, goods and people affect creative workers and their creative labour on a micro level?
I will relate the story of the process of the social (re)creation of creativity by taking you on an eight-day journey. The concept of creativity started to mutate in the 1970s. From a social point of view, however, the turnabout that has taken place since the end of the 1980s with the sweeping rise of the cultural economy and creative industry is especially interesting, and therefore the focus will be on the past two decades. All the same, we will be jumping back and forth through history and also treat periods from before the 1980s. For instance, it would be rather ill-mannered to say anything at all about the creative industry without referring at some point to the notion of ‘cultural industry’ introduced by Adorno and Horkheimer in the 1940s. Still, I do not pretend to present a careful historical genesis here, nor an etymological or semantic analysis. As mentioned earlier, the focus will be on the social narrative.
In telling that story, however, very few classic sociological insights will be applied, although results from scientific research – including my own – will occasionally figure in the background. In accordance with the form of an essay, I will instead use metaphors from literature and especially philosophy to interpret and understand our social reality. In doing so, I will lean upon quite a few authors, some of whom I will use and others I will perhaps abuse in order to construct my own argument. Although their numbers run rather high in this regard, there are actually only three books that define the primary colour of this story. Two of these do so explicitly, whereas the ideas of the third book are more like a current in the background. However, as is often the case with figures behind the scenes, this last one may very well be the most powerful actor. In hindsight anyway, book number three has defined the global framework of this essay. The authors of the first two works are called Slavoj Žižek and Peter Sloterdijk, respectively. Although their ideological and intellectual positions are perhaps difficult to reconcile, they will meet each other quite frequently over the next eight days without crossing swords. Rather, an independent third story emerges from mixing First As Tragedy, Then As Farce (Žižek, 2009) and You Must Change Your Life (Sloterdijk, 2009). The reader absolutely does not need to be intimately acquainted with the wisdom of these gentlemen to be able to understand what follows, however. I should probably confess right away that I will also manipulate their work freely in order to support my argument, the intention of which is – as with most essays – to persuade the reader. For this manipulation I will use all of the weapons at my disposal, whether relevant or not.
It is perhaps useful, though, to know a little bit about the protagonists in this story beforehand. Whereas the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek advocates an explicit neo-Marxist vision with a dose of Lacan, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk is sometimes accused of ‘elitism’. However, it is hard to discern a clear political colour in his book You Must Change Your Life. By contrast, in First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, Žižek unremittingly advocates a new communism. In line with Marx’s ideas about the course of history, he sees the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US as a tragedy, followed not even ten years later by a farce, i.e. the collapse of the financial markets. The politicaleconomic landslide described by Žižek will be the macro sociological context that frames the transformation of creativity over the next eight days. In You Must Change Your Life, Sloterdijk in turn defends the thesis that people do not content themselves with life as it is given. Frequent learning and obsessive practicing offers them a way of rising above themselves. It is no coincidence that Sloterdijk casts an admiring eye at the circus acrobat risking his life high on a rope. Creation requires specific and continuous practising within ‘vertical tensions’, according to the German philosopher.
And this brings us to the third book, which has, as mentioned earlier, determined the plot of the following story of creation to a large degree. Alessandro Baricco also discusses verticality in I barbari (The Barbarians, 2008), contrasting it with the horizontality in which we are increasingly living today. Whether it is wine, football or the Internet, according to the Italian author, they all suffer from a loss of depth, stratification and expertise, but also of height and grandeur. The world has become flat, and it is hard to maintain an upright position. That is the central thesis that I will defend in this essay. If creation once stood for standing upright and rising above oneself and others, what can creativity then still mean in a flat world?
Although the main sources of inspiration for this essay sometimes wield rather abstract metaphors, every effort will be taken to make them concrete. In that sense, the signature remains sociological, always looking for empirical data or realities that are lived and experienced. There will be constant references, therefore, to concrete examples and recognizable situations. It is, however, inevitable that we must start at the only place there is to start. As we know, all creation is born in moments of complete chaos. Times and events that do not belong together, and even are at odds with each other, converge anyway. This generates confusion and perhaps fear, but certainly almost always irritation. As with every first day, this story too will throw the reader into the deep end unprepared. It is either sink or swim. Only moments before the break of the second day will things start to clear up.
Well then, hopefully you have now been sufficiently informed. To do more than that would be beyond a prologue’s task.
Pascal Gielen, Antwerp, May 2012.
The First Day: The Creation of a Flat World
The historical facts are well-known by now. 1989: In Berlin a wall was torn down, while in Beijing a crowd of students was struck down in and around Tiananmen Square. The world would never be the same. Twelve years later, that fact was driven home once more. This time by an image that transcended all art in its sublimating aesthetics. Fear, tragedy and beauty are sublimely fused in a media image that is forever etched in our memories. When those two planes crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center, it looked as if Art had lost the battle for good. We felt ashamed to think that we could discern so much beauty in such a degrading act of destruction.
Or are we just as unscrupulous as the mass media, who have desecrated the image by turning it into the ultimate commodity? It has been announced many times over the last century, but this time it is happening again and even more convincingly: Since 9/11, entertainment has taken over art’s monopoly on sublime images by way of ingenious choreography and a disgusting feeling for realism. Or, as Lawrence Lessig, the man behind Creative Commons, rather cynically states:
The genius of this awful act of terrorism was that the delayed second attack was perfectly timed to assure that the whole world would be watching. These retellings had an increasingly familiar feel. There was music scored for the intermissions, and fancy graphics that flashed across the screen. There was a formula to interviews. There was ‘balance’, and seriousness. This was news choreographed in the way we have increasingly come to expect it, ‘news as entertainment’, even if the entertainment is tragedy.
(Lessig, 2004: 40)
No artist can compete with media images anymore. The Belgian painter Luc Tuymans understood this powerlessness very well when, after these shocking events, he submitted a monumentally large still life to Documenta XI. By harking back in an almost reactionary gesture to an icon of bourgeois contentment, he demonstrated the desperation of all makers of artistic images. The very size of the painting – too large to even fit in a bourgeois living room – seemed to predict the uncomfortable feelings of a class in utter decay. After 9/11, the art world is forced, once again, to think hard and long about its possibilities to still make a forceful impression; in short, to still be ‘performative’. Especially if that art still wishes to use classic images.
The fall of the Wall, the Chinese students and the Twin Towers were to have a less visible but all the more tangible successor in the financial meltdown of 2008. In contrast to the occurrences mentioned before, this particular event has not as yet ended. Its permanent character makes this event a paradoxical one. It is still generating a chronic ‘eventialization’ of both the economy and entire societies and their prevailing cultures. To refresh our memories: According to the classic American sociologist Erving Goffman, an event is an occurrence that replaces a familiar frame of reference and meaning with another one (Goffman, 1974).
It is a radical occurrence that changes reality as we know it. Something that has been there unnoticed for a long time suddenly crashes through the floor of reality, making everything that was real suddenly unreal, and everything that seemed fiction into a harsh reality. It can indeed take the wind out of us. An event generates new vectors of movement and points of orientation, and it can do this so thoroughly that it seems as if a river’s water suddenly becomes the riverbed and the riverbed becomes the current in the river. In 2008, this reversal didn’t take place just once, as is customary with events, but evolved into a permanent process, leaving not a single certainty from before intact. Even worse, each new certainty or rule has a high risk of being different again tomorrow, which makes it impossible to anticipate the consequences of one’s own choices.
The World is Spinning (out of control) is an aptly named Dutch television show, but it could also serve as a euphemism for permanent crisis. The 9/11 tragedy is repeating itself in the financial apocalypse, according to the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, this time as a farce (Žižek, 2009: 7-10). The Karl Marxinspired choice of the word ‘farce’ is remarkably apt. After all, the financial crisis is based on a strong ‘fictionalization’ in which money became detached from matter (gold) and especially from labour and real economic production. This disconnection makes currencies and economic trends highly virtual, as they come to depend on abstract mathematical formulas. When monetary transactions become a form of abstract mathematics that hardly anyone understands anymore, this generates a high level of speculation or fiction.
Investing becomes an artistic activity in which the collective faith upholds a highly virtual world,
since markets are effectively based on beliefs (even beliefs about other people’s beliefs), so when the media worry about ‘how the markets will react to the bail-out’, it is a question not only about its real consequences, but about the belief of the markets in the plan’s efficacy. This is why the bail-out may work even if it is economically wrong-headed. (Žižek, 2009)
It’s a story that is very reminiscent of an essay on the production of faith in the art world, in which the French cultural sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has painstakingly described how an artistic artefact is only created in the commentary on the commentary on the commentary on the work of art (Bourdieu, 1977). Whether the art world was the avant-garde in this field too is therefore an interesting question. Which was first: art or the financial markets? There is a remarkable likeness between the art world and the stock market anyway. They have something in common, especially when we look at both phenomena from the perspective of ‘faith’. What’s more, the parallel tells us that the so-called ‘hard’ financial world is in effect founded on ‘soft’ cultural interpretations. Investing has always been a creative activity. However, as long as we are not con-vinced that investing belongs to the realm of fiction, it is capable of generating disastrous effects in reality; worse effects, anyway, than the belief or faith in art.
Whereas in the art world the emphasis is shifting from production to exhibitions, the investment hysteria is guided by exhibitionism in the mass media. The painful part is that this hysteria is unrelated to real economic developments based on effective production processes and labour capacity, but that precisely because of this negation it does profoundly affect those developments. And that is the other aspect of the farce. Although even many neoliberals are beginning to severely doubt the viability of this latecapitalist system and are calling again for a stricter regulation of the market, the majority of them keep on trading as if in an irrational whirl of excitement. The fetish of balancing national budgets; the fight within the European Union over, or against, now Greece and later perhaps another country; the macho heroics of ratings; the appointment of troikas and what have you: it all serves to keep the financial world afloat like some global police-like force.
At the same time, electorates are still happily putting neoliberal and neo-national governments in power, in the hope (or despair) of a reactionary restoration of better (or worse) capitalist times. Neoliberalism: the rule of the free market. Neo-nationalism: the nation state as the ultimate proprietor, the Republic of Property. Ironically, our reality is today determined by a highly virtual game controlled by the psychological whims of investors and an abstract carnival of banks. The irony is that reality, to a high degree, is determined by fiction. It is even beyond Jean Baudrillard’s dreams. Creative man has gone daringly far in creating a fictitious world to first believe in and then lose faith in, while continuing to act as if it’s real. This is hyper-reality dipped in deep cynicism: to go on acting according to the rules of the game while knowing that those rules are a far cry from reality.
Today, it looks as if we need creativity again to step out of the imaginary cloud and regain some sense of reality. Characteristic of a cloud is that it mixes light and darkness in such a way that is very hard to see one’s way out of the cloud. It is all misty, everything is neither white nor black; it’s all bluish grey. The distinction between night and day has been removed and we seem to enter a phantasmatic world, like that of the Belgian artist Jan Fabre. We are permanently in a transitional stage between night and day, in what Fabre calls the ‘blue hour’, without knowing whether it will ever become light again. In other words, we don’t know anymore whether we are in the transition of night into day or day into night. It will take an enormous effort of the imagination to find the light switch and step out of this farce. And the effort required will have to be immeasurably strong, because the cloud in which we find ourselves is itself the very product of the most ingenious creativity. Bill Gates’ term ‘creative capitalism’ doesn’t come out of the blue: he knows the tricks of the trade or the rules of the game like no other. With slogans about ‘authenticity’, ‘imagination’, ‘(social) innovation’ and ‘flexibility’, kindred spirits such as Richard Florida encourage the creative industry to cough up even more fiction, to spray even more mist, because immaterial labour, symbolism and design are also easily taken into account economically. The imaginary world of creation and the virtual world of capital understand each other only too well. After all, both are nowadays residing on that same continent called fiction. What creativity do we need to be able to step out of that much creativity?
The fall of the Berlin Wall, of the students in Beijing, of the Twin Towers in New York and the meltdown of the worldwide financial markets all have many and varied causes. The hunger for democracy, but perhaps even more for prosperity, in the formally divided Germany cannot be simply equated with the last convulsions of authoritarian communism in China. And a terrorist attack in the United States is fundamentally different from the global financial crisis. But while these events are hardly comparable in terms of content, their formal likeness is remarkable and arouses curiosity. In all of these events, the central notion is ‘taking down’. The deliberate taking down of walls, people, towers and statues in recent history can perhaps metaphorically be regarded as a symptom of a similar shared fear: the fear of verticality. Both neoliberals and fossil communists are fearful of too- ambitious heights and unfathomable depths. And although their ideologies are miles apart, they both believe in the economy as the foundation of society.
However, those who pin themselves down on the economy understand nothing of cultural heights and other hierarchies, which is something we can hardly say about Muslims. Such a reproach would after all severely neglect their love of transcendence. What they are distrustful of, though, is secularised verticality or human ‘grandeur’, which they believe to be nothing but shameless and inappropriate pretentiousness in the eyes of Allah or God. For the record, and before people start bashing each other’s heads in, this is a worldview that Muslims share with all other monotheistic religions. Only the Protestants have ever seen a sign of God in worldly gains, which paradoxically forced them to exhibit more modesty, less pretentiousness, more mercantilism and more mediocrity. Whether religiously motivated or not, falling down and taking down make up the visualized heart of the latest wave of globalization. Every worldly verticality – whether reaching for sublime heights or the darkest depths – is marked for destruction. In the current worldwide poker game in the global casino, everything and everyone is sucked onto the horizontal plane of the average. While sociologists and other social scientists thought that the welfare state and its construction of the middle-class would lead to the necessary averaging, it is only now, with the run-down of the welfare system and the dismantling of the social centre, that we see the sanctity of the middle ground awaken. The economic mean is now no longer linked to the cultural mean. Or, rather: the dismantling of the economic mean in the form of unheard-of financial wealth and excessive poverty does not generate a similar division in a cultural and intellectual sense. There, the average rules. With political-economic globalization (neo-liberalization) and technological globalization (the Internet), the greatest common denominator becomes the cultural standard. Flows of virtual money have the power to reconcile different cultures in an increasingly easy way, relating them to each other and, in doing so, bringing them into perspective, sucking them onto the middle ground. Žižek argues that John Maynard Keynes was already aware of this in 1936 when he compared the stock market to a beauty contest: It is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. (Žižek, 2009)
Let’s stay with this notion of ‘anticipating’ for a while, as it characterizes what is perhaps one of the most important activities in the flat world of networks. Individuals need to constantly anticipate the actions of other individuals and, in order to survive, organizations are obliged to constantly anticipate the movements in their alleged (market) environment. Strategy has been replaced by tactics, and performativity by ‘adaptivity’. Anticipating, in other words, is the predominant action that pulls everything towards the middle.
Over the past twenty years, the world has become increasingly flat. In a ‘networking’ world, depth – let alone historical depth – is hard to come by. And looking up will quickly lead to neck pain or inspire envy and jealousy sooner than admiration or respect. Networks, and especially financial configurations, naturally gravitate towards the horizontal level of the cultural middle. In spite of all the analyses of ‘global cities’, megapolises or metropolises, since the fall of New York it is the hinterland that now sets the tone. Since then, provincialism dictates the height of cultural ambition and we have entered the era of mediocrity.
Ever since we have been living there, we have all been given the same passport, issued by the United States of Normalcy. (Sloterdijk, 2011: 453)
The Second Day: Pillars Crumble, the Skies Tumble Down
First Days are always slightly chaotic. Everything is still so new. No routines have been established yet. Besides, all the events seem so contradictory that any attempt to bring them together may look grotesque, perhaps even implausible. Like most creations, that of the flat world also involves a lot of cracking and rumbling. The Second Day makes things a little bit clearer. Especially now that we can review what happened on the First Day from some distance. The story also becomes more concrete, now that we have dealt with the biggest macro-sociological events and metaphors. We can now leave that level behind and continue on the meso level, where the world no longer takes centre stage and we will be scrutinizing concrete actors. In the transition from a sphere-like world to a flat one, several actors come under pressure. They have to break their vertical suspension, transmute, or emigrate. As with every transition, it is no wonder that people panic and organizations are in crisis with this upheaval. One of the most remarkable actors to experience such an awkward predicament is the classic institution.
To sociologists,institutions are always at least two things. On the one hand they are concrete buildings, people and organizations, while on the other hand they represent a complex set of values, standards and customs that are upheld by a specific culture. Their social function indeed includes ‘holding up’, seeing as they were responsible for maintaining verticality in the pre-flat world. Institutions are the pillars that support the skies. Classic institutions such as the family, the church and the state, but museums and academies as well, all provide their own value regime in their own way.
When the world was still round, they promised the inhabitants of various continents some measure of certainty and grip. As we know, they did this in a strictly hierarchical, sometimes very authoritarian but always vertical manner. A concrete example: The classic 19th-century museums provided depth by presenting history, offered a stepladder by way of an exemplary canon and provided ‘grandeur’ to anyone exhibiting there, and even to those wandering around in them. The consecration of the actual work of art could only take place in relation to the deep wells of history.
In art education, there was a similar hierarchical relationship between those who knew and those who did not (yet) know. The classic relationship between master and pupil was a vertical one in which the place of law and authority was clear. The pupil had to climb the proverbial ladder and try to become the equal of his or her master. Only then did the ritual patricide become possible. But what is important here is that learning was climbing. Climbing the ladder of a rather self-assured wisdom. And aspiring students were only willing to do so if teachers had some ‘grandeur’ that earned them respect (even if this ‘grandeur’ was sometimes artificially upheld by the institutions that embedded them). At the same time, museums and art academies offered a yardstick for measuring creativity. Teachers who felt that they discerned talent in a pupil not only relied on vast experience but also on a healthy dose of intuition and subjectivity – especially when dealing with a modern artist. In other words, in the relationship between master and pupil there was also always an element of ‘not-knowing’ (Laermans, 2012).
Pupils, on their part, had the necessary trust in everything the teacher did, wrote, drew and said.
What is important here is that institutions such as museums and academies, in spite of their subjectivity and ‘not-knowing’, did erect a relatively objectifiable hierarchy of values. This hierarchy had little to do with the quantitative hierarchy of visitor numbers, number of competencies, output data and other evidence-based measurement material of the flat world. Creation and the potential for creativity simply do not lend themselves to being calculated or recorded in such a logic of numbers. On the contrary, having a lot of money or public acclaim has in the past not always proven to be the best guarantee of creation and innovation. To create something means to place oneself outside of the measurable measure. Creative individuals must withdraw themselves from the flat plane and, by much trial and error, make themselves stand upright. Classic institutions came in handy here because they, with their experience of depth, could somehow point the way up. All this navigating of course carried no absolute guarantees for a successful result, but it did offer an adequate view of the horizon. And perhaps it was precisely this concurrence of rigidity, history, ignorance and faith within the institution that offered creativity its chances in the past.
Without trying to romanticize their function
- the history that institutions carry with them can also be crushing and the bureaucracy they embrace can be too rigid to allow for any rebellion or literal ‘uprising’
- one can safely say that classic institutions at least stood for a hierarchy of values that assessed and measured creativity differently from the way it is done in the present dominant system of measuring investment and output. The latter reduces quality to quantity and erases the former in the process. Any numerical calculation makes differences in quality relative, after all. It generates quantitative comparability and the interchangeability of qualities by making an abstract distinction in grades. Once the abstraction is made, literally anything can be related to anything else, and relationships therefore become relative and interchangeable too. By contrast, rising up, or creating something, requires absolute faith and blind intuition, but also needs a solid cultural ground to stand on. And that is exactly what the classic institutions provided.
It is therefore rather bewildering that whereas the call for creativity has never been so loud as today, the ones making that appeal1 are at the same time hastily draining dry an important layer of fertile soil that nourishes that creativity. For instance, after the 1999 Bologna Agreement, not only did the educational arena in Europe become highly uniform and rational, it was also redefined as a market space where educational institutes fiercely compete for students, outbidding each other in offering easily interchangeable competencies. Within this system, students are treated like little entrepreneurs, while the relationship between teacher and pupil takes the form of a contract. Much has already been said elsewhere about the transmutation of education (see, for instance, Masschelein and Simons, 2006, and Gielen and De Bruyne, 2012). What matters here is that under the neoliberal hegemony, the institution is being eroded. One of the causes is that it is losing its own cultural hierarchy in the shadow of market logic. What was once regarded as highly functional for educating articulate citizens, creating ‘cultivated’ people, now fades into dysfunctionality under the dogma of profitability. And, as Sloterdijk argues:
…because schools over the last few decades could no longer muster the courage to be dysfunctional – a courage they had continually demonstrated ever since the seventeenth century – they became empty selfish systems, focused exclusively on the norms of their own operational management. They now produce teachers that are only reminiscent of teachers, subjects that are only reminiscent of subjects, students that are only reminiscent of students. At the same time, schools become ‘anti-authoritarian’ in an inferior way, without ceasing to exercise formal authority. (Sloterdijk, 2011: 447)
The implementation of an anti-authoritarian educational model does indeed run remarkably parallel to the introduction of a formal authoritarian neo-management model, which, as in other institutions, deconstructs the traditional cultural hierarchy of verticality by submitting it to the law of numerical measurability. According to Sloterdijk, the overturning of verticality into horizontality, and of book culture into net culture, also generates a kind of controlled ‘jungle pedagogics’ within education whereby ‘interdisciplinarity’ is the buzzword that eradicates all disciplines (and thus depth – ‘time to dig deep’, as Richard Sennett  would say).
We should not be fooled by these loud calls for professionalisation. After all, in art schools these calls are often answered by inserting some marketing and management subjects, which inevitably leaves less time for teaching the proper creative subjects. As a result, students rapidly switch from one specific skill to a completely different area of knowledge. Such jungle pedagogics thus often have the opposite result of what was intended and result in the de-professionalization of the creative profession. The aim of all this is to deliver ‘broadly employable’ or ‘polyvalent’ students, multi-purpose individuals who follow just one important imperative: that of adaptation or – indeed – anticipation. ‘Adaptivity’ and ‘flexibility’ are after all the highest goods in a flat network world. The main thing is that such an educational model loses all performativity. Educational institutes become organizations that no longer deliver a surplus of autonomous personalities and idiosyncratic skills, for which society (and the economy) needs to generate new space. On the contrary, schools obligingly follow the demands of the market ‘to be more closely linked to the professional practice’. However, as schools are always lagging behind in following these economic trends, and as it is also impossible to guess what the demands of a fluctuating labour market may be in five years’ time, education covers itself against such fluctuations by delivering multi-purpose subjects. Whether they are as characterless as traditional multi-purpose venues is best left an open question. The point is that by ‘tuning into’ the market, schools lose all performativity (and authority) to make their own mark and therefore no longer provide a spine to those who wish to stand up straight and undertake some daring creative act.
And what about museums, then? That is a more familiar story. Beginning in the 1970s, the function of the museum has slowly but surely been eroded by the rapid succession of temporary exhibitions and biennials, introducing a structural amnesia in the field of art, causing it to suffer from a loss of depth (Gielen, 2009). Over the past few decades, the museum ‘unlearned its ability to hook up with the artistically most ambitious level of the previous generations’, again according to Sloterdijk (2011: 449). Paradoxically, the ideology of creativity has consistently fought the institution of the museum. If artists and other protagonists of the institutional critique had been aware thirty years ago that they were undermining their own foundation for creativity, then perhaps they would have changed their tune completely. Or at least they would have chosen a better strategy. Still, such an analysis is not altogether fair and correct. On the road of their slow criticism (slow, as they were always starting from a very ambivalent attitude towards the museum) they were after all overtaken at high velocity by a speeding neoliberalization. It quickly found ways to profit from the work done by the institutional critique by taking over its jargon of ‘creativity’ (which would squash the museum), ‘innovation’ (which would slow the museum down) and ‘flexibility’ (which would make the museum rigid). This takeover by neoliberalism took place in a rather ‘unseemly’ manner, and the ‘antiinstitutionalists’ from before hardly even recognized it anymore. Only the converts to neoliberalism – and there was no shortage of them in the 1990s – still saw some similarity between the creativity from before and the opportunism that now ruled.
Mostly, however, the neoliberal engine has set a new operational framework in motion in the art world. Or rather, it deftly hitches a ride, even enhancing operations that were initiated in the art world with the best intentions and much idealism. This of course refers to the hegemonial shift from the museum to the biennial and the symbolic displacement of the artist by the so-called ‘independent’ curator. Artists who still aim for immortality and who take up a position as bohemians outside of society, hoping for recognition in the hereafter, are today ridiculed for their conviction. It is only the here and now that counts. Or rather, not the here and now, but the very near future on this flat foundation. The artist can no longer stand outside of or above the world. Because many contemporary artists still regard creation as ‘standing upright’, rising above everyday things, they are summarily dismissed in the flat world. The creative worker of today is not so much a trapeze artist but more of a (social) networker. In the world of visual art, the latter coincides wonderfully well with the ‘independent’ curator mentioned earlier. He mingles with the audience, wanting both to show and be seen. Sloterdijk calls it the shift from ‘art as production power (including the ballast of the “great masters”) to art as exhibition power’ (2011: 449). It’s all less and less about creating and more about exhibiting.
In this exhibitionistic turn,it should hardly come as a surprise that the workshop or the atelier is losing importance or that studios cease to exist (Davidts et al, 2009). In the flat world, this space of digging deep, of reflexivity and ‘slowness’ or verticality, but also of isolation and dealing with materiality, is predictably exchanged for an immaterial discourse that is all about mobility, and the institution dissolves in a network structure. ‘Mobilism’, ‘nomadism’, ‘travel’, ‘planetary drift’, ‘exodus’, ‘transport’, ‘links’, ‘chains’, ‘loops’, ‘neurons’, ‘in touch’, ‘relational’, ‘connection’, ‘communication’, ‘distribution’, ‘redistribution’ are but a handful of notions used by curators and a growing horde of creative workers to describe and sell their activities. While curators – both in their exhibitions and in general – pour out criticism of the perverse excrescences of late capitalism by the bucket load, the majority of people in the art world dance perfectly in time to the tune of the neoliberal climate. This lack of self reflexivity – at least publicly – is quite remarkable. The same goes for the notion of the rhizome or that of the network. It is usually embraced, and endowed with a romantic touch. The hero of network thinking is of course the nomad, which again emphasizes the rosy side of mobile man. This nomad, however, is not a strider but a swimmer – and one with gills, if we are to believe the Italian author Allessandro Barrico (2011).
The Third Day: When Everything Became Fluid
Mobility and networking are today part of the art world’s doctrine, and in fact that of the entire world of professionals. Artists who stay at home in their studios are morally reprehended and accused of localism. They nourish false illusions on an island where they still have solid ground beneath their feet. But nowadays artists are either international or they are nobodies. Curators are connected or they are nobodies. These may sound like the ground rules of the contemporary art world, but they are also the adages of global late capitalism, which has, over the past few decades, effortlessly invaded the artistic realm through cultural and creative industrialization. This late capitalism, by the way, has a lot to gain from us seeing ourselves as mobile actors in a fluid networked world. Individuals as well as organizations feel that their true selves are ‘corporate identities on the open sea’, as Sloterdijk says in his writings about globalization (2006: 90). Time, labour, and even love become liquid if we are to believe Zygmunt Bauman (2009).
So, those who imagined that they still had solid ground beneath their feet when the flat world was created were very much mistaken. The flat world is a wet one. It is one big pool of H2O in which we paddle around as if on water bikes. Or, to put it more pathetically, we are floating in a swimming pool, treading water in an airless, liquid, late-modern age, hoping to find some sort of direction (or meaning). Whereas collective institutions – the welfare state prominent among them – used to guarantee the stability of the cruise ship on the open ocean, today our living and working environment is made up mainly of rubber rings floating about with the occasional small lifeboat and a limited number of luxury yachts thrown in.
This is especially true of creative working environments. Creative workers have been thrown into deep existential waters with treacherous currents. Therapists, personal coaches and other social-psychological workers are supposed to help us get used to our new living environment. This mental support force is entrusted with the noble task of relieving entrepreneurial creative people from their fear of drowning. Those who still think that they can rely on the traditional ground that institutions used to offer are merely delusional. With no clear idea of the future, creative individuals are bouncing from one wave to the other and have no choice but to practice freestyle swimming. Occasionally they may find a precarious rubber ring to keep their head just above water, but the creative entrepreneurs have to inflate it themselves and the slightest puncture will burst it wide open. Hopefully, the double wall of the insurance policy will then keep them afloat for a little while longer. In a flat world with neither God nor secular collective solidarity structures, these entrepreneurs are indeed very much left to their own devices.
This ‘immanism’ of liberal representative democracy, as the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy calls it (1991), regards society as the sum of independent individuals, who are finding it increasingly difficult to forge relational ties. A flat, wet world that looks upon itself as a network presupposes quite specific characteristics and makes certain demands of the people who are floating about in it. In a neutral definition, a network consists of interconnected points. It can only exist because there are connections, as we know from the actor-network theory. When those connections are broken, the rhizome evaporates with them. The word ‘evaporate’ clearly indicates the weakness of a network configuration within a wet playing field and evokes the volatile or at least temporary nature of such social connections. What’s more, within a liberal network economy these temporary collaborations are controlled by competition. This is why project-like thinking is so dominant in the current order. People only temporarily drift together, to then float collectively while realizing a project, after which their swimming lanes often diverge again. Relationships arise because there is a collective goal for a short while. This is why sociologists call this goal-instrumental action. This thinking in terms of networks and projects is not limited to the field of creative labour but has become part of society in general. Nowadays, for instance, project developers determine to a large extent the look of our cities and living environments, and even the nuclear family is seen as a temporary educational project for children, at the conclusion of which parents can go swim their separate ways again.
The best functioning units within wet networks are not collectives or large, unwieldy cruise ships. It is not unions, social classes, groups, political parties, institutions or families that set the course, but entrepreneurial individuals – even in their rubber rings. The maximum collective unit that matters is the team, precisely because in a team all members can be called to account for their individual responsibility and effort. Individuals are more flexible, more mobile, slicker, wetter and more ‘adaptive’ than rigid collective structures on dry land, and that makes them very suitable for the water society. It is also why ‘independent’ curators have a better market position in today’s industrialized art world than do collective museum structures with their local artistic, political, social and economic embedding and historical and art-historical obligations. One of the reasons is that the ‘independent’ curator can provide the manoeuvrability of a speedboat, whereas institutions are as unwieldy as mammoth tankers. Just like an entrepreneur, this player stays dynamic by constantly keeping a watchful eye on the potential competition from other curators and fluently anticipating it. The curating boom with its worldwide culture of selection and contests fuels this competitive mood even more. Just like independent entrepreneurs, curators who wish to keep their heads above water take their destiny into their own hands, never give up and respond with a problem-solving attitude to every new challenge that the surrounding oceans throw at them. Indeed, in the flat wet world, creativity is often equated with ‘problem-solving’, which is something else entirely than causing problems or, rather, problematising issues, a task that was until recently reserved for the artist or dabbler.
The new protagonists, by contrast, see themselves as entrepreneurs. This is something entirely different from seeing oneself as a critical citizen of a nation or as a public servant with an institution. The former, after all, is a liberal-economic entity, while the latter is a liberal-political identity. This means, among other things, that citizens and public servants simply have rights and obligations (given to them because they were born in a certain country or occupy a certain position with an institution.) Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are obliged to constantly obtain and defend those rights and obligations time and again within the organization, city, region or nation where they find themselves. Coldwater fish adapt their temperature to that of the waters in which they swim. This requires, among other things, flexible, dynamic, active, communicative and performative networking. In short, in a sea of opportunities, the independent entrepreneur is permanently forced to prevail over his connections.
Over the past two decades, the art world has increasingly come to define itself as part of the network society outlined above. It should be no wonder, therefore, that a lot of the jargon mentioned here can be found in today’s exhibition catalogues. The word ‘network’ is ubiquitous and the careers of curators and artists are treated like a succession of temporary projects. Museums and biennials, as well as the cultural cities in which they operate and produce, also define themselves as enterprises competing with each other for artistic, political and economic prestige. Their symbolic weight is reflected in visitor numbers, audits and other measurements, and their potential for creativity is expressed in this quantifying logic as well. In other words, creativity is transmuted into ‘lu-creativity’.
A view of society that is based on enterprising individuals, organizations and cities or regions on a flat level stresses certain qualities or values, such as individual freedom and self-reliance. Other qualities or values, though, are hopelessly neglected. The enterprising individual has little use for solidarity, for one thing. Or, as Sennett states in his line of thinking: ‘Networks and teams weaken character… character as a connection to the world, as being necessary for others’ (1998: 146). Within the network society, solidarity is only temporarily functional, usually only for the duration of a project. In other words, in the network economy this value, too, is seen as goal instrumental. It is only valid as long as it benefits enterprising individuals and fits within their trajectory. One of the consequences is that these individuals find themselves in a very weak position when something happens to them, as it becomes increasingly harder to fall back on collective structures of solidarity. That is also true for the art world and by extension for the entire creative industry. Take for instance the fact that there is remarkably little social security in this sector. Trade unions are greeted with howls of derision, which partly explains their lack of clout. Worldwide, the creative sector, including the art world, seems to be cultivating a labour ethics these days that plays right into the hands of the neoliberals.
Another problem of this flat wet world is sustainability. The demolition of the institution not only leads to cultural amnesia but also generates social instability. Individuals and organizations that are permanently open to change and to constantly new connections and constantly new artistic movements and creative trends have problems with building durable relationships. This goes for both the relationships of individual creative workers and those of organizations. Constantly changing projects result in at most temporary commitments. Also, constantly working within the framework of projects means only temporary labour contracts or, as is often the case in the creative field, no contracts at all. In other words, a network economy is not really conducive for durable labour relationships and labour conditions. In the history of labour, the job held for life is now definitely a thing of the past, especially in the creative industry. Creative people, by the way, often speak derogatively of ‘steady jobs’ or ‘permanent positions’, preferring their own autonomy to the security of a steady job. The creative work ethic is against commitment to the rigid demands of an institution. By contrast, the project-based labour embraced by the cultural and creative industry happily welcomes the continually changing contacts and contracts.
Finally, the project-like character of a flat world makes it very sensitive to fashion or trends. Information quickly circulates on a global scale and competition is fierce, leading to quick changes of the creative guard. As each project has to bring about a clear and preferably remarkable creative distinction in the relatively short term, there is often little space left for self reflection or for research and development. This ultimately undermines the sustainability of the creative production itself. Creativity often stops at superficial creation, mere differentiation with neither depth nor height. In the wet, flat network world, creative individuals swim hastily and blindly from one project to the next. Whether they will be able in the long run to ‘keep the ball in the air and the game alive’, as Nicolas Bourriaud, one of the protagonists of the new flat art world says (2009), remains very much to be seen. Unless of course he is talking about an entirely different ballgame…It would be too simplistic to condemn the network idea as a purely ideological concept.
Within the present-day economy, however, it is increasingly being appropriated and deployed to serve the neoliberal hegemony. This is certainly true for labour relations, but also for the reorganization of education, the media, politics and relationships in the creative world. Also, the whole network discourse is instrumental in completely redrawing the lines between the public domain, the labour sphere and the domestic sphere. To use the network concept as a purely neutral or descriptive term, as Bruno Latour does in his ethnographic work, or to flirt with it – often accompanied by some choice phrases by Gilles Deleuze – as happens in the art world, is to ignore or suppress the ideological appropriation of the notion of networking. It can only lead to sticking one’s head in the sand. Therefore, we can only understand the labour of the workers in the present-day cultural world and creative industry if we have some grasp of the dominating relationships of production within the current flat, wet world. Not that this is a very original insight, as it was already put forward by Walter Benjamin over half a century ago. In his essay on authorship, he came up with the unexpected postulation that the author could only be understood as a producer within the relationships of the fourth estate, or mass media as we would call it today. And, he concluded:
They still belong to capital. On the one hand the newspaper, on the technical level, represents the most important literary position. But this position is on the other hand in the control of our opponents, so it should not be surprising that the writer’s comprehension of his dependent social position, of his technical possibilities and of his political tasks must struggle against enormous difficulties. (Benjamin, 1970: 3)
And is this is not also true today of that new protagonist in the world of visual art, the ‘independent’ curator, but this time in relation to ‘the art market’ and ‘global capitalism’? And, in line with Benjamin’s thinking, shouldn’t we conclude that this curator’s present-day catalogue activism only remains ‘counterrevolutionary’ if his or her solidarity with the artist, the creative ‘precariat’ and some misery in the world is purely ideological?
As mentioned earlier, the current context of production by creative entrepreneurs is characterized by a high degree of individualization or de collectivization of project work in a fluent network structure. The ambiance of this production context and the always youthful enthusiasm with which it is embraced, and even ‘scientifically legitimized’ under the guise of individual independence, makes the creative industry especially sensitive to neoliberal value regime. Those ideas cater to the desire of cultural producers to act autonomously, in full freedom. Creative capitalism of course tells its protagonists that they are, or at least should be, in control of their own lives and working conditions. It is their moral obligation. In exchange for this opportunity for self-regulation, the creative individual is prepared to offer his virtuosity cheaply, and sometimes even for free. The desire for autonomy, fuelled by the neoliberal appeal for realism and ‘personal responsibility’, eventually leads to ‘selfprecarization’. Creative entrepreneurs take risks and neglect institutional securities (disability insurance, pension funds, etcetera), believing they can take care of these things themselves. Within these parameters, work offers the experience of a unique chance for self-realization, and that is exactly why labour is easily offered at low rates. In their urge to realization, entrepreneurs take up a sensible or realistic position in order to obtain their goals efficiently. In this secularized religion of ‘self-realism’, it is no coincidence that the root word ‘real’ fits in well with neoliberalism’s call for more realism and the neo-manger’s watchfulness over the realizability or feasibility of a proposed project. Utopia is out of the question in this ideology of realism. Worse still, whatever cannot be measured is soon set aside as impracticable and too utopian. The urgent call for an awareness of reality obliterates the breathing space for an awareness of what is possible. Entrepreneurs, who are themselves the employers of their own labour, regard the realization of their objectives as real, and in the process realize themselves. However, the belief in ‘self-realism’ often gets these employers/employees into trouble. Political scientist Isabell Lorey has outlined the ambivalent situation into which these cultural and creative entrepreneurs manoeuvre themselves:
This financing of one’s own creative output, enforced and yet opted for at the same time, constantly supports and reproduces the very conditions in which one suffers and which one at the same time wants to take part of. It is perhaps because of this that creative workers, these voluntary precarized virtuosos, are subjects so easily exploited; they seem able to tolerate their living and working conditions with infinite patience because of the belief in their own freedoms and autonomies, and because of the fantasies of selfrealization. In a neoliberal context, they are so exploitable that, now, it is no longer just the state that presents them as role models for new modes of living and working. (Lorey, 2011: 87)
Paradoxically, because of their self-declared autonomy, creative individuals become highly dependent upon a network environment that is always fickle and find themselves drifting towards a sociologics of competing entrepreneurs. Just like these protagonists of the neoliberal network economy, creative individuals constantly have to rely on self-promotion within an attention regime in order to stay connected or extend their network. This generates a production context and relationships between creative workers that leave their mark on both their attitudes and their products. To illustrate this within the limited space of this essay, the focus will be on only one – albeit crucial – production aspect in the flat world: project work.
Just as in the rest of society, projects have taken on a central role in creative production. In the traditional art world, for instance, temporary exhibitions, biennials and triennials have won historical ground from the structural museum sector – which, by the way, has been thinking more and more in terms of projects itself.
Especially in a network society, projects are therefore a cherished method of production and a temporary binding agent, say the French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello.
The project is the occasion and reason for the connection. It temporarily assembles a very disparate group of people, and presents itself as a highly activated section of network for a period of time that is relatively short, but allows for the construction of more enduring links that will be put on hold but remain available… the very nature of this type of project is to have a beginning and an end, projects succeed and take over from one another, reconstructing work groups or teams in accordance with priorities or need. (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2005: 104-105)
As mentioned earlier, project work does generate goal-instrumental relationships that are dissolved again when the project is finalized. In the case of creative workers, they enter into temporary strategic alliances with artists, designers, art works, sponsors, creative organizations, etc. Once the creative project is finished, the relationships are put on hold. They are ended but can potentially be reactivated. They are sort of suspended.
Projects have a special economic value because their temporariness allows them to always succeed in bringing together a lot of energy, manpower and working hours. Those who collaborate on a project tend to give it everything they’ve got. At the least, they are willing to invest more time and energy than initially expected or predicted. Precisely because they know it will end someday, they are willing to sacrifice private time, perhaps pull an all-nighter, or at least work long hours. This is in part because creative project work is always result oriented labour and the result is the only thing people are accountable for. Always having insufficient means at their disposal, they are still willing to go to extremes. So, working on projects does indeed lead to more productivity and creativity, but at the same time it is a convenient labour model for mental, social and physical exploitation. In the excitement of the project, the participants imagine themselves to have found heaven on earth, as there seems to be no end to the creativity produced by the newly found collectiveness. But those who go from project to project will learn that this way of working feeds on intellectual and physical stamina and in the long run leads to exhaustion. The project squeezes you out.
Not that working on projects was necessarily invented by the cultural and creative industries. Within the art world it is a way of working with a well established tradition. The traditional museum curator would for instance organize exhibitions that had a beginning and an end and that also temporarily brought together artists, art works, critics, collectors and perhaps a few additional sponsors. The big difference with regard to present-day individual creative workers is that their artistic projects are no longer embedded within the institution in terms of job security. As a result, acquiring a project and making it successful is directly linked to their symbolic status and economic situation. Just as the project is temporary, their income and contract – if there is one – are only temporary as well. And when on top of that their creative labour is relatively underpaid – which after all is often the case – they are constantly obliged to look for new projects while still realizing the current project. In other words, creative entrepreneurs are mentally always living in another world than the here and now. They are swimming outside of the present in an ocean of potential future projects. The German philosopher Boris Groys has this to say about it:
Each project is above all the declaration of another, new future that is supposed to come about once the project has been executed…. If one has a project – or more precisely, is living in a project – one always is already in the future. One is working on something that (still) cannot be shown to others, that remains concealed and incommunicable. The project allows one to emigrate from the present into a virtual future, thereby causing a temporal rupture between oneself and everyone else, for they have not yet arrived in this future and are still waiting for the future to happen. (Groys, 2002)
Socially, this often leads to frustration with managers, project leaders, technicians and other co-workers involved. While they are perhaps still physically working together with the creative project worker, he or she has mentally already sailed out onto the waters of the future. Symptoms such as bad or no communication, limited or even faked commitment, but also physical absence may sometimes be reported by the temporary allies, but the problems are rarely solved. Like all project workers, creative entrepreneurs literally lack routine: they escape the rhythm of the day, the present in which they operate. Consequently, they often don’t notice the rhythm of the immediate environment and the people they are working with. This makes creative entrepreneurs loners, always looking for other waters in a future elsewhere, scouting out new and perhaps better and bigger projects.
The project as a temporary junction within a network leads to curious social configurations. Not so much because the network figuration is goal instrumental and therefore the social aspect is in itself only a means to an end; after all, the realization of a creative project or concept, not the mutual relationship, is the main thing. The main reason why project work generates a curious social configuration is that the goal that is being realized by a collective of co-workers is already floating about somewhere else for at least one of these co-workers: the creative hireling. Because of this shift, the project’s goal is always already situated outside of the project, that is, in a new project. From a sociological point of view, this leads to special forms of social cohesion. This cohesion benefits those who realize the project (technicians, administrative workers, PR people, etc.) but rarely benefits the initiator, the actually creative individual involved in the project. The latter finds himself outside of his project, which makes him lonesome, as mentioned earlier.
For the project’s author, namely, everything in the here and now is of no consequence since he is already living in the future and views the present as something that has to be overcome, abolished or at least changed. This is why he sees no reason why he should justify himself to, or communicate with the present. (Groys, 2002)
Groys is however not talking about the material causes of this apathy with regard to the present. If the next project is not only necessary for creative satisfaction but also simply to put food on the table, this will only fuel future-escapism.
In the ocean of projects, commitment will therefore always be only temporary and partial. This is not only so for those who realize a project but also for the environment – the city, the neighbourhood, the institute, the public, the creative community or migrant community, the ecosystem – in which it takes place and even for the idealism, if that plays a part. Nomadic creative entrepreneurs are not only physically flexible, but socially and mentally as well. While relying on their intuition and talent, they are constantly scanning the world for useful ideas, new artists or creative hotbeds. Just like instinctive entrepreneurs, the new creative workers are always accompanied by disorder, a permanent state of being alert and doubtful at the same time. Within these flowing situations, they accumulate specialized, creative and highly personalized knowledge. This personally integrated knowledge has the advantage of being very mobile and flexibly deployable. Its downside is that it is much harder to embed historically or institutionalize. After all, network relationships do not easily build a memory. Any commitment to either local circumstances or history can only be temporary, as it would otherwise threaten independence and personal freedom. And that would be detrimental to the myth of self-realization.
Put in abstract terms, creative entrepreneurs are thus placed very flexibly in both the time and space that might tie them down. The symbolic and economic benefits of weak and easily exchangeable ties is however counterbalanced by a lack of faith in, and loyalty to, the same local circumstances and history. The individual who is permanently mentally and physically mobile thereby loses his or her character or ‘sustainable Self’, according to Sennett (1998). In the romantic embrace of an ocean of bohemians, nomads, networks and projects, this sacrifice to flexible creativity is conveniently forgotten. In short, the de-institutionalization of creativity not only cuts away depth and height, but also durable character building. Put simply, creativity becomes disengaged from faith or conviction. Defending a creative idea is relative and only temporarily relevant. For the duration of the project, and for as long as the environment wants it, such an old-fashioned positioning may be productive, but after that it becomes irritating and something to get rid of. In other words, the creative worker no longer has to take up a position. Or rather, he is no longer obliged to hold a position. Whereas round world ethics, for the sake of credibility, still demanded some constancy (as a sign of authenticity), the flat world demands pure mobility and flexible anticipation. If they are truly creative, creative entrepreneurs will after all easily exchange older ideas for new ones. In other words, project workers had better be disengaged or alienated from their own creative products in advance. As a verb, ‘networking’ always implies some form of self-effacing. It blocks taking root. Rhizomes are indeed not roots. In the flat wet world, being ‘grounded’ is equated with ‘nostalgia’, ‘rigidity’, ‘inflexibility’ and sometimes even plainly with ‘fundamentalism’. The neoliberal constitution, in other words, demands creativity for the sake of creativity, mobility for the sake of mobility, fluidity for the sake of fluidity, change for the sake of change.
This tendency towards an always moving ground also explains the increase in change management in larger institutions. It installs the ideology of change because change as such is supposed to be a good thing. In the flat wet world, innovation is morally positive by definition. That many organizational restructurings seem pointless and later turn out to be so, and that the endless chain of ‘creative’ changes often results in a status quo on the work floor, is a fact that many employees are by now wise to. The rank and file have long since figured out that this neophilia primarily serves to keep the neo-managers themselves firmly in the saddle, as every newly announced change legitimizes their own survival. Whereas creative individuals come and go, anyone who is good at measuring and counting stays on. After all, creativity must be flexibly deployable, devoid of any ardent belief, ideology or conviction. The creative deed must be depoliticized, in other words. Creation and innovation, that is the message, and the flat wet world provides the medium for that message. The message becomes the massage, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, and the call for creativity becomes a sedative. Or, as Sloterdijk puts it with some pathos: ‘the present-day network society celebrates the human right to unconsciousness’ (2011: 395). However, such statements quickly tend to sound bombastic in the flat world, where any form of critical creativity, upright standing or verticality causes irritation. With an appeal to constructive collaboration, critical analyses are quickly dismissed as grotesque blow-ups or extravagant exaggerations. Preferably, within the current neophilia, they are shoved aside as ‘obsolete’, ‘has-been’ or even ‘reactionary’.
The Fourth Day: …And then the Pirates Came
In the flat world, creativity has lost its familiar parameters. Classic institutions such as educational institutes and museums are providing these parameters less and less. Therefore, enterprising individuals must be increasingly self-reliant, even though they sometimes get help from the team of which they are only temporary members for the duration of a project. The posh label of ‘entrepreneur’ is however often covering up a precarious existence in which self-realization and self-sacrifice become confused. In the Netherlands, anyway, the so-called ZZP status (for self-employed workers without employees) often serves as a disguise for what is in fact an unemployment status. When collective institutions offer less and less guarantees, both in terms of social security and in terms of cultural yardsticks, individuals have to turn to other places that can nourish both them and their creativity.
In the flat wet world, the search for such islands has therefore begun in earnest. In the recent past, this expedition has rediscovered a few small stretches of land that had perhaps disappeared below sea level for a while. Because of their recent undersea existence, they still look very squidgy and unstable. Those who dare stand on these sandbanks still run the risk of getting their feet wet and of sinking quickly in the mire of a hopeless individual tangle. These islands certainly don’t provide a stable foundation, as did the traditional institutions. What’s more, these emerging grounds are quickly threatened again, as the proponents of cultural horizontality are very suspicious of them. You never know, someone might stand up here. They therefore hope, armed with greenhouse effects and similar ecological or other weapons, to raise the sea level a little more so that preferably nothing can surface anymore. But as long as the hoped-for definite flood does not occur and this type of danger spot continues to rise, other pesticides are called for. Whoever dares to crawl ashore is thus hastily branded as ‘illegal’ or a ‘pirate’. In light of their self-declared ‘state of exception’, the horizontals want everyone to stay in the water (see also Agamben, 2005).
Both the financial police and other number crunchers hope to keep everything on a flat plane. Anything that is not measurable or cannot be immediately economically accounted for simply has no right to exist and is therefore efficiently placed outside of the law. Anyone or anything that is not measurable, is outlawed. In light of the structural nature of the financial meltdown mentioned earlier, the state of exception is given a permanent legal statute as well. Rules are suspended and replaced with temporary ‘measures’. These are rules designed to the measure of constantly occurring crisis situations and they can also be changed time and again. Measures are first and foremost intended to enforce the measure, but also to be able to flexibly adapt the unit of measurement.
And it’s not just the prevalent ‘change management’; the entire government policy, too, uses less and less legislation and regulation and more and more measures. For instance, Europe’s dictate to Greece to include the obligation of a balanced budget in its constitution is in fact an intervention that insists on melting the constitution, the ground law, into a wet and fluid mass. It forces the state to make its own legislation liquid. The constitution is made subservient to any wild market fluctuations, reducing the law and rules to an accounting unit. This is indeed a ‘measure’ that sets the norm, time and again, in the permanent state of emergency. In the name of that same emergency it becomes permissible to torture people, throw fugitives into the sea, demolish social security, deny the sick access to healthcare, turn back democracy in education and do away with subsidies for culture. All of these fall outside of the measurable ‘measure’ of neoliberalism, which shifts all responsibility to floating individuals in order to minimize its own risk. This system explains why neoliberalism generates a large carousel in which the buck is for ever passed on.
In spite of this threat-by-measure, a growing minority is still setting course for the islands. Some among them even dare to pitch their tents there. The verticality of their tent poles by no means matches that of the traditional institutional pillars. Still, although lacking sound foundations, the scarce land is regularly occupied. Some intellectuals and other verticals have even named it, if only to establish its existence at least in the discourse. The philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, for instance, have called these islands the ‘common’ (2009). In terms of a creative seedbed, the jurist Lawrence Lessig named them ‘creative commons’ (2004). Leaning heavily on the idea of ‘general intellect’ from good old Marx, these verticals regard the common as a possible substitute for the institutions of the pre-flat world. Various publishers, authors, musicians, web designers and other creative individuals today subscribe to the principle of the ‘creative commons’, which allows users of their cultural products to copy, distribute and even transmute them as long as it is for non-commercial use.
Creative products and forms of expression thus become, to a certain extent and under certain conditions, a free ‘open source’ that can be used for new creative productions. Hence the term ‘creative commons’: cultural and mostly immaterial goods that are freely available to anyone because copyright and proprietary rights are partially lifted.
According to some verticals, including Hardt and Negri (2009), such a ‘common’ is necessary to guarantee future creative production. In light of the precarious situation of institutions, mentioned earlier, they may be right. Still, the statute of the common is not the same as that of the traditional institutions. The philosophers described the common as a category that transcends the classic contradiction between the public good (usually guaranteed by the state and other institutions) and private property:
By the common we mean, first of all, the common wealth of the material world – the air, the water, the fruits of the soil, and all nature’s bounty – which in classic European political texts is often claimed to be the inheritance of humanity as a whole, to be shared together. We consider the common also and more significantly those results of social production, such as knowledges, languages, codes, information, affects, and so forth. This notion of the common does not position humanity separate from nature, as either its exploiter or its custodian, but focuses rather on the practices of interaction, care, and cohabitation in a common world, promoting the beneficial and limiting the detrimental forms of the common. In the era of globalization, issues of the maintenance, production, and distribution of the common in both senses and in both ecological and socioeconomic frameworks become increasingly central. (Hardt and Negri, 2009: viii)
Both public institutes and private actors contribute to a common that can be used as a source for new creative work, social interactions and economic transactions. Hardt and Negri also say that especially cities are important in creating the conditions for such a common. The philosophers outline a clear genesis of the term ‘le commun’ or ‘the common’: according to them, the term ‘common’ was first used in the process of land consolidation at the start of the capitalist era (16th-17th century) when, first in England and later all across Europe, shared fields where cattle grazed and forests for collecting wood were converted into private property. However, according to them, there is still only little empirical knowledge about the social functioning of a possible common. The island has hardly been explored yet. Also, the political conditions to arrive at such a communality are still very unclear. Hardt and Negri anyway don’t expect any good to come from the state, but favour near direct democracy and self-organization. It is however very doubtful whether these islands have any chance of survival without some sovereign power taking care of them. Should the ‘common’ be legally enforced and be able to rely on legal guarantees to have any chance of survival at all?
Hardt’s and Negri’s distrust of the state is not a sign of blind paranoia. Many decisions by various layers of government do indicate that they are out to destroy communality. Democratic states tend to veil that they are in fact republics of property. American republicanism in any case is built on the Constitution, which, argue Hardt and Negri, is in the first place an economic document. It legitimizes the fundamental and unalienable right to private ownership. The Constitution makes this right unassailable, which would mean that those without property are excluded or oppressed.
The predominant contemporary form of sovereignty – if we still want to call it that – is completely embedded within and supported by legal systems and institutions of governance, a republican form characterized not only by the rule of law but also equally by the rule of property. Said differently, the political is not an autonomous domain but one completely immersed in economic and legal structures. There is nothing extraordinary or exceptional about this form of power. Its claim to naturalness, in fact its silent and invisible daily functioning, makes it extremely difficult to recognize, analyze, and challenge. (Hardt and Negri, 2009: 5).
The American lawyer Lawrence Lessig shares their opinion in his analysis of copyright legislation in the United States (2004). In the euphoric mood after the discovery of a growing creative class, à la Richard Florida, what is often neglected is the fact that this class is being menaced by invisibly increasing overregulation. Copyright legislation does not support creativity at all but instead primarily serves to protect big industry against competition. Moreover, this legislation lays an ever-growing claim to the free sources of inspiration used by artists and other creative spirits – all this to the great joy of the champions of creative capitalism. Who but Bill Gates is stacking his digital cellars with images so he can sell them later at a profit? The creative industry is surely out to commodify and privatize images and other intellectual property, increasingly cutting off creative individuals from the ‘common’ culture that is freely available all around them. In good neo-Marxist-speak, one would say that the positive dialectics between creativity and culture are seriously disturbed. Culture as common goods and a ‘natural’ source of inspiration is being curbed, leaving creative individuals and dabblers with nothing. The public culture they can soak up in cities, the images that are hurled at them and the sounds that surround them are becoming increasingly difficult to use freely for creative reuse. And whether they are called Walt Disney, Andy Warhol, Sonic Youth or Marlene Dumas, they have all used and are still using a ‘common culture’ that surrounds them. Artists mix this common culture with their own more or less idiosyncratic ideas and then feed them back into the same culture. This obvious chain of ‘rip, mix and burn’ is being made increasingly difficult by new intellectual property legislation, however. Says Lessig:
I have become increasingly amazed by the power of this idea of intellectual property and, more importantly, its power to disable critical thought by policy makers and citizens. There has never been a time in our history when more of our ‘culture’ was as ‘owned’ as it is now. And yet there has never been a time when the concentration of power to control the uses of culture has been as unquestioningly accepted as it is now. (Lessig, 2004: 12)
Lessig’s observation by no means refers exclusively to the United States. In Europe, democratic access to public cultural goods is being increasingly denied as well. As the German researcher and author Raimund Minichbauer has shown, European cultural policy is shifting from creating favourable conditions to hardball policies that curb cultural use. Already since the 1980s, the European Union has been blocking a solidarity policy of direct compensation between poorer and richer regions. Solidarity is all too readily linked to demands of competition, which means that poorer regions only receive support when they promise to enhance competitiveness. Willingness to become competitive, to become liquid, thus becomes a precondition for financial support from Europe, and regions are therefore expected to participate in the global rat race between competing regions and cities in the water palace. It is widely known by now that culture and art play an ever more important role in this ‘free’ competition, and EU policy is a great influence in this. Support in this field hardly ever takes the form of measures to stimulate creativity. On the contrary, ‘hard’ intellectual property rights are rigorously endorsed. This, by the way, is a trend that is all too easily ignored in the recent euphoria about the creative and cultural industries. Creative industrialization generates cultural privatization. Ideas, stories and images that used to be in the public domain are increasingly patented and claimed by private ownership. The ‘creative commons’ is being dismantled and authorities such as the EU seem only to be encouraging this trend. It is a repressive policy that in any case will increase piracy and other illegal activities. According to Minichbauer:
Proposed restrictions in the field of intellectual property rights imply a certain tendency to criminalize media users and especially people who actively promote the free flow of information. The question arises as to whether such a development … may signal an indication of a transition in neoliberalism from a mainly liberal to a more repressive stage. (Minichbauer, 2011:154)
Minichbauer’s statement brings us to a crucial insight about a word that has already cropped up a few times in this essay but has hardly been discussed at length: neoliberalism. Historically, Minichbauer’s distinction between incentives policy or ‘soft law’ and repressive ‘hard law’ policy, as well as Lessig’s between ‘free culture’ and ‘property culture’ remarkably coincide with the transition from liberal to neoliberal politics. The difference between these two historically different programmes is crucial in understanding the transition from supportive to repressive policy.
Although neoliberalism, like its historical predecessor, strongly believes in the wholesome effects of free culture, competition and a free market, and although both propagate a small government that doesn’t interfere too much with the market, they fundamentally differ in how they deal with their core concept: that basic principle simply called ‘freedom’.
Traditional liberalism historically never had individual freedom as its only political and social goal. It also held an optimistic view of mankind, believing that the world would become a better place once the individual would have full freedom. Freedom was not just liberalism’s goal but also the condition on which to build a better society. In other words: liberalism believed that freely acting individuals would produce the best results for society. This is why the market was to be as free as possible, which, taken to its extremes, resulted in a laissez-faire capitalism. One had to take the risk of letting individuals have maximum freedom in order to have creative innovation and a rise in prosperity. Because of this belief in the positive outcome of freely acting subjects, liberalism happily made room for both daring entrepreneurs and the most idiosyncratic artists and other creative individuals. After all, they promote the credentials of individual freedom and autonomous make-ability like no other.
Neoliberalism, however, has taken a less optimistic view of mankind. Perhaps it learned something from a number of historical excesses that resulted from a blind faith in the freedom of man. Certainly, neoliberalism is very wary of free space for individuals. Will they use it wisely and in the right way? It is perhaps because of this distrust that the political programme of neoliberalism purposefully tries to control or contain the freedom it proclaims. It creates all kinds of repressive instruments to make and keep freedom measurable, controllable and manageable. And this is where the booming creative industry comes in, in that it gives consumers the impression that they can choose just about anything according to their own wishes and desires while in fact it delivers serialized standardized products or, paradoxically, serialized individualized products. On top of that, every consumer who buys a commoditized good is also harassed by patents that severely limit the creative reuse of whatever they bought.
Creative industrialization means that cultural expressions and cultural goods are being prepped to be commercially traded in the marketplace. This implies at least two things. Firstly, it must be easy to alienate the people from the cultural goods they produce. Some emotional or cultural distance is required to trade your own creations for money and literally become alienated from them. Secondly, industrialization requires formats that are easy to manage and, especially, easy to calculate. Things that cannot be calculated or at least be measured in the foreseeable future, will have more difficulty in finding their way to the marketplace. What is crucial is that neoliberalism, for the sake of this conversion, has in fact given itself over to fundamentalism, as it declares the value of the number (and the imperative of accumulation and profit maximization) to be the foundation of all cultures. The number becomes the only foundation of society, making neoliberalism in essence indistinguishable from other regimes that recognize only one thing (a holy book, an image of a God).
Just like all fundamentalism, neoliberalism is fed by fear. Fear of its own drive and utopian ideal: freedom. Neoliberalism is incapable of looking its own ideals in the eye. It is in fact constantly creating hard laws to curb creation. These laws serve to mask the fear of freedom, of its own people, its own society and, ultimately, of itself (mankind). The aesthetics of measurability is a product of fundamentalism’s fear of the creative potential of every human being. Because neoliberalism hides its distrust behind a discourse of usefulness, helpfulness and realism, it is also a deeply cynical ideology. In that sense is an ideology that invokes echoes of Communism from behind the Iron Curtain. Les extrêmes se touchent (see Gielen and De Bruyne, 2012). This time, however, the Stalinist collective bureaucracy has made way for a subtle neo-management coupled with a bureaucracy that is customized to the individual. In the domain of creativity, this neo bureaucracy is called ‘creative industry’, as it submits free creations to strict procedures and preordained formats.
Such a rebuke to the nowadays so popular creative industry does merit some explanation. ‘Creative industry’ is not used here to refer in a medium specific way to technically reproducible cultural products. Just as with the notion ‘cultural industry’ coined by Adorno and Horkheimer, it is also not used to make a distinction between popular cultural expressions and ‘high’ art. Both are, after all, subjected to cultural industrialization, which here simply means ‘formatting’. This is a process in which creations are tried in advance by the law of the acceptable measure. This may be the case with popular cultural expressions, but just as well with what is supposed to be traditional art. So ‘cultural industry’ refers to a process rather than to specific products or media. This definition makes it possible to break out of the format within what is usually regarded as ‘creative industry’: pop music, fashion, design, etc. Vice versa, practices that are expected to break out of the format, such as creating visual art or organizing exhibitions of contemporary art, can just as well become ‘formatted’.
Just like neoliberalism, creative capitalism never fully trusts the free individual and as a result it also distrusts any potentially free space. By administering the rule of number, it tries to keep the public domain orderly, manageable, predictable and especially apolitical. Measurable creativity is after all called common sense, and as Lessig observes, ‘Common sense does not revolt.’ (2004:11) For the record, one must strictly distinguish ‘common sense’ from the ‘commons’. While the former is a result of compromise – comparable with the Dutch ‘polder model’ – the latter ‘commons’ is by contrast a continent of contradictions, paradoxes and conflicts. The ‘commons’ is crackling with discord, but exactly from that, sparks of creativity may frequently fly high. The ‘common ground’, in other words, is a heterotopian place from where one still dare cast a glance upwards to some utopia. The compromise model, on the contrary, stimulates nothing but anticipation. It talks and meets and consults until everyone succumbs to an appropriate mediocrity.
The lack of clarity and the uncontrollability of the commons make neoliberals, bureaucrats and neo-managers very nervous to begin with, because something might occur in this free creative space that escapes from the dictate of number and numerical accumulation. Flooding the ‘creative commons’ does however have a latent side-effect that is clearly getting stronger for ‘free riders’. Those who cannot afford to pay for culture must increasingly resort to appropriating things in an illegal manner. A small group of wealthy companies (for instance, the majors in pop music) monopolize an ever increasing part of the ‘creative commons’, making it of course not common anymore but turning it into private property and commodities. Who knows, this may even lead to the critical point when 99% of those still venturing into creativity will be denounced as pirates. After all, within the state of exception, almost anyone who dares to practise some form of ‘irrational’ creativity can be outlawed. At least their activities will be firmly discouraged by banning them to leisure hours or, if need be, by parking them in the private domain as ‘left-wing hobbies’. What is interesting here is that in this largescale undertaking, neoliberalism appeals to the public as an excuse. The public, after all, wants guarantees as well; ‘value for money’ or measured creativity – or so neoliberalism claims through the mass media. Accordingly, these media reproduce creative mediocrity while at the same time cultivating a little anti-elite barbarism. If anyone hates verticality, it is the mass media.
The Fifth Day: Moralism of the Mass Media
Mass media today do not pay enough attention to art, especially contemporary visual art. Or rather, it is not the quantity of press coverage that is the problem, but the quality. Articles and news items about daring creative expressions have become increasingly short, and in-depth programmes about art keep losing ground on radio and television. The professional arts sector has been complaining for some years now that the mass media have had their fill of art. Although this criticism may sound like a pathetic lament for the benefit of the converted, it does seem to touch the right chord anyhow, consciously or not. The sound it makes is not so much that the amount of coverage of a certain kind of creativity is decreasing – on the contrary – but that it is fundamentally changing. In essence, this change is that the critique is losing its criticism. Not only is it disappearing from art critique but gradually also from social critique and journalism in general. More precisely, criticism of the system is being replaced with criticism of persons. Today, a system’s failure or success is less attributed to structural elements and much more to individuals. For example, the failure of democracy in Russia is not so much blamed on the political regime, but is seen as the personal fault of Vladimir Putin. Amy Whitehouse and Whitney Houston were destroyed by their own neurotic weaknesses, not by the histrionics of an entertainment industry gone ballistic. Likewise, any artist’s success is in no way linked to current economic conditions of the art market, but only to the artist’s personal ambition and perseverance. The high prices paid for their work have everything to do with their exuberant private lives, which are extensively covered by the media. The media’s fondness of personification also explains, by the way, why they still uphold the obsolete image of the bohemian artist. And does anyone really think that the financial troubles mentioned on the First Day can be solved by calling a couple of bank managers to account in person? Will firing them produce the muchneeded ethical cleansing of the global casino? Mass media divert our attention from system failures to the amoral behaviour of individuals, allowing the system itself to remain as it is. That is the moralism of the mass media.
Everything is about individuality, and the criticism is directed at private personalities, thereby neutralizing itself. But in the artistic world, more often than not it is the art organizations themselves who have fostered this uncritical critique in the mass media by adopting the strategies of the creative industry. Cultural institutes have become increasingly adept at broadening their ‘public support’ through press conferences, promotional interviews with a ‘personal touch’ and media sponsoring. In itself, there is nothing wrong with a bit of self-promotion. However, both the neoliberalization of the mass media and the imitation of the creative industry by the classic art institutions have driven autonomous critique into a very tight corner. In the end, art organizations undermine their own culture by doing this, because certain types of creative expression only exist because of their criticism. Even more, that creativity can only originate from a critical distance. The type of creation that we have been calling ‘art’ since the modern age depends to a large degree on the possibility of taking a critical stance in one’s own society and culture. Only when creative individuals can rise above their own world for a while, ‘stand on the bank beside the river’ in Sloterdijk’s (2011) metaphor, can they actually make a difference in their culture. Criticism is indeed a form of verticalization. It starts with self reflection and self criticism, rising above one’s own ego and seeing oneself from some distance.
Criticism, modern art and with it a specific form of creation – let’s for argument’s sake call it ‘vertical creation’ – are today, however, increasingly endangered by the mass media. Not only by personifying systemic problems but also by heavily insulting certain forms of creativity while at the same time cultivating the barbarism of mediocrity. Today, the art world mainly becomes the focus of attention when there is talk of excesses, ranging from the outrageous prices for some works of art to the presence of blood, sex and blasphemy in the work of some eccentric creative individual. Cows bi-sected lengthwise, blood, meat and excrement (machines) have been the media’s favourites for a while now. But why? Because they confirm the idea of the horizontals that contemporary art upholds a world populated by crazy people who stand outside real life – people who don’t care about the realism cult of the entrepreneur. In the mass media, art critique is being reduced to the infantile level of bar room discussions. This means that the art we have known since the modern age is no longer regarded as exemplary or Bildungs ideal. On the contrary, it is driven into the corner of social exceptions. After all, those involved in contemporary art these days move in the higher circles of rich collectors or at least are members of an elitist club of pampered writers and other eccentric intellectuals. And that is precisely what is bothering the mass media. Anything outside of the politically correct mediocrity is morally condemned. And so in our society contemporary art takes up the position of the Other, of some curious Fremdkörper.
This leads us to another issue. Mass media detest anything vertical, anything that smells of both elitism and underground activities. They do relish in registering and representing this ‘above’ and ‘below’ but always with the intent of situating it outside of society and in the ‘state of exception’ – hence their fondness of personification. By doing so, the mass media cultivate a politically correct barbarism. They do so with very much performativity, as they only allow one-way traffic. Newspapers, magazines, radio or television thrive on the monologue that they present to a rather passive audience. The highest level of activity for this audience is to switch off a device, change the channel or turn the page. So there is also a clear link between political populism and the mass media. It is hardly surprising that within this type of regime, media moguls and famous television stars get free rein in positions of political power. In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin saw a direct link between these media, the masses and the rise of fascism (Benjamin, 1985). Today we refer to that last phenomenon with the less threatening term ‘populism’.
The important thing is that technological developments are not impartial mediators between creative expressions and an audience. The advent of radio and television has also literally shaped the audience. Radio and television have defined cultural tastes and even transformed political regimes. While the industrial revolution generated masses (of workers), the cultural industry outfitted them with a new identity. In the 1940s, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer labelled this as ‘barbaric’ (2007). The mass media are the expression of a stylized barbarism, an aesthetics of persuasion that also aestheticises politics. In the mass media, politics become theatricality or, rather, showbiz in which good arguments are always defeated by good looks. Democracy becomes ‘imagocracy’. It is not just the financial world that has become complete and utter creativity; the political system as well thrives mainly on fiction these days.
This, by the way, is the well-known criticism by the Frankfurter Schule, but also by well-known figures such as Guy Debord (1967) who addressed the issue of the society of the spectacle. And although the analyses by these critics of society may seem rather grotesque today, their insight that there is a logical link between technological developments, political regimes, culture and (tolerated) creativity is still very valid. In this case, it means the link between mass media, populism and ‘barbarism’. Populist parties such as the ones led by Berlusconi in Italy or Wilders in the Netherlands navigate this triumvirate deftly with a mixture of neonationalism and neoliberalism. The neo-nationalism that is rearing its head all over Europe happily embraces neoliberal principles such as marketing strategies and brands to create its own identity and cultural individuality. Home-grown creativity is also regularly presented to gain an economic advantage. In concepts such as ‘Dutch Design’, ‘Flemish Masters’ or ‘Italian Fashion’, the neoliberal and neo-national agendas perfectly coincide. The essentialisation of culture and the nationalization of creativity generates new economic opportunities, allowing neo-nationalism to hitch a ride with neoliberalism, and vice versa. It is therefore hardly surprising that political parties such as the PVV in the Netherlands or the NV-A in Flanders, besides presenting a neo-national agenda, also present a distinctly hyper-liberal discourse or at least have no qualms about forming coalitions with hyper-neoliberal parties.
These political parties also make clever use of the traditional mass media. Specifically, they combine a homogenizing target group policy with the homogenization of culture at the level of ordinary people. National broadcasters – including commercial stations – do after all generate shared cultural frames of reference. They define what shared culture is, what sort of creativity is allowed and they shape our collective memory, in the process defining a shared feeling of solidarity. In other words, the neoliberal search for the common denominator of the middle ground and the neo-national tendency for cultural homogenization (at the national level) reinforce each other perfectly. Just as the cultural industry of the 1930s shaped the masses, today’s television marketer creates ‘the common man’.
This common man is of course not so common at all, because he is a common commodity construed by very clever media tycoons, consumer researchers, trend watchers and other semi-sociologists. The common man is a calculated average whose consumption pattern is guaranteed. And perhaps the fact that this common man is depicted as a not overly active cultural participant, but rather as a somewhat playful representative of the people is a bonus. He most certainly is not an ‘elitist’ art aficionado, as those people after all don’t generate high viewing ratings. The common man is a little cultural barbarian, because he is anti-elite and allergic to intellectuals. In short, he cultivates the petty bourgeois barbarism of mediocrity and is best at behaving ‘normally’. But is this really the man in the street or a projection of the person on the other side of the camera? Just like the teacher in Pierre Bourdieu’s studies (1979) pressed the taste of the middle-class upon his pupils, today’s television makers push their own image of a politically correct and market-secure creativity into our living rooms. The traditional mass audience of the mass media has however been replaced with statistically calculated target groups. Ever since the 1970s, new methods and techniques have allowed for more diversification. Cultural products can now be delivered made-to measure. However, that measure is still a ‘measured measure’ that already fits the largest common expectation of the average viewer. So nowadays mass media preserve a politically correct – because measured in advance – barbarism that is mostly adverse to intellectuality, doesn’t care much for art, likes to be entertained by Home Improvement, chips, beer and the occasional soccer match. Otherwise, these little barbarians don’t like to dirty their hands on great political ideals.
The technological developments of both the mass media and advance research techniques have laid the moral foundation for the construction of a flat wet world. According to the Italian author Baricco mentioned earlier, the Internet is also one of these media. It is yet another technological development that defines the average and generates a new barbarism of ‘zapping’ cultural participants, creative omnivores and other ‘polyvalents’. In his portrait of the barbarians, however, Baricco hardly distinguishes between barbarians that criticize and destroy in order to be able to stand upright again and the mediocrity barbarism of the horizontals. Although he gives many examples, like that of Ludwig van Beethoven, implying that art contains an element of barbarism, to him all barbarians are the same. However, Beethoven’s barbarism, or today’s barbarism of Matthew Herbert, Meg Stewart and Renzo Martens is completely different from that of the average zapping individual. That of the former generates creative destruction, that of the latter creates stylized conformism or politically correct barbarism.
Baricco doesn’t make the distinction because he doesn’t politicize in his analysis. The construction of barbarian mediocrity is closely related to hegemonial relationships within a society, after all. Populism, neoliberalism and neo-nationalism cultivate a specific form of barbarism – that of the ‘common’, anti-elitist, anti-intellectual, art-hating person – because they have something to gain by it: the votes of the electorate. As mentioned earlier, they have found the perfect ally for this in the mass media. The question is, however, whether the Internet and the World Wide Web will be equally forthcoming. Is the WWW actually a medium at all? For now, part of the answer to that question is that the Internet certainly is not as passive as the traditional mass media. Being an interactive medium, it allows voices to evoke creative counter-voices.
As long as the web is not regulated too strictly by ‘hard laws’, it easily accommodates minorities voicing their opinions, as well as other barbarians. With blogs, moreover, these barbarians have discovered a new public space, a democratic space which had been rather corrupted by the traditional mass media. Lessig, quoted here before, has this to say:
Television and newspapers are commercial entities. They must work to keep attention. If they lose readers, they lose revenue. Like sharks, they must move on. But bloggers don’t have a similar constraint. They can obsess, they can focus, they can get serious…. Blog space gives amateurs a way to enter the debate – ‘amateur’ not in the sense of inexperienced, but in the sense of an Olympic athlete, meaning not paid by anyone to give their reports. (Lessig, 2004: 43-44)
For now, the Internet still has the potential to gather a multitude of creative voices and make them be heard. In that respect it is not a mass medium, but rather a ‘multi-medium’, a common, shared medium. At any rate, the Internet generates barbarians in its own way. It is not fearful of the barbarism of the other and does not resort to reactionary methods such as re-establishing national canons, something neo-nationalism demands on a regular basis these days. Neither, for the time being, is it occupied by repressive politics like that of the neoliberal ‘property laws’. Besides offering a cultural ontology, the Internet is, for now, still providing tools for barbarians to manifest themselves within a culture. So it also still provides space alongside the creative industry, which after all is the neoliberal answer to the advent of the barbarians, trying to make creativity measurable and therefore predictable by making it adapt to set formats. The creative industry generates ‘pre-packaged art’, if you like. Art within the marketable measure, and therefore mediocre art. Just as the national canon is the fundamentalist answer of neo-nationalism, the creative industry is the fundamentalist answer of neoliberalism to that which cannot be measured or predicted. The answers of both ideologies can indeed be accused of fundamentalism, because both are based on a fear of creativity that rises above mediocrity or steps outside of the measure. By contrast, standing upright, or vertical creativity, can only flourish in a post-fundamental climate. This is a cultural context in which no fixed foundations (of either canon or number) are served, but where navigational tools are provided to barbarians so they can find their own ground under their feet time and again. For now, the Internet still provides some great opportunities for this.
The Sixth Day: The Birth of the Creativist
As the Story goes, on the sixth day God created Man. In the flat wet world, it was not the Lord but Creative Capitalism that, peddling the Glad Tidings of the Mass Media, created a mankind of flexible entrepreneurs and mediocre barbarians. And then there are the heathens: a motley crew of barbarians outside the norm or ‘measure’ and a growing horde of pirates. Both the ‘out of measure’ barbarians and the pirates are diligently looking for islands to occupy, also on the Internet. They are on a quest for cultures where they can stand upright and dig deep to their heart’s content. It is there that they still hope to find true creativity, outside of the dominant ‘lu-creativity’. But exactly what is it they are hoping for in using the term ‘creativity’? Does the word still mean anything in the flat wet world that is experiencing a real creativity mania, and where everybody wants to be and has to be creative? Answering those questions makes it necessary to make a small detour, as creativity is inextricably linked to culture, as we know from the dialectics discussed earlier. To get a clear picture of this relationship, we have to delve a little deeper into cultural sociology.
Culture is a socially shared fund or repertoire of signs, says the Belgian sociologist Rudi Laermans in his book Het cultureel regime (The Cultural Regime, 2002). This is a relatively neutral definition, which makes it all the more applicable. Let’s take a closer look at its various elements. The word ‘signs’ refers to the meaning we ascribe to things, according to the science of semantics, which distinguishes between signified, signifier en meaning. This tells us that their connection is rather arbitrary. It is why cultural expressions – for instance, the habit of drinking a cup of coffee or tea in the morning but just as well that of going to see a play or look at a painting – can be signified in various ways. Drinking coffee may be a social thing, or it may be a cultivated biological dependency associated with waking up. We may visit the theatre for inspiration, but also to gain status and distinguish ourselves from others who do not participate in Art. It hardly needs explaining that neoliberalism as outlined earlier has its own favourite signifiers too: participants in culture are signified as clients, artists as creative entrepreneurs and artistic directors as managers. Neoliberalism’s and creative capitalism’s penchant for the number as a dominant signifier has been discussed extensively already. It would be going too far in the present context to go any deeper into the insights of semantics. It does, however, teach us that neoliberalism is a culture too, as it connects signifier and signified in a rather arbitrary manner. This may seem a basic insight, but it fools very many people these days. Anyone who regards the laws of the market as natural laws and proffers a social Darwinism to prove our ‘instinct to maximize profit’, denies the crucial semantic insight into the fleeting relationship between the signified and signifier. But let’s examine the above definition of culture a little closer.
From a sociological point of view, the term ‘socially shared’ is interesting. It refers to the fact that signs are meaningless unless they are shared by a collective. In other words, they are ascribed relatively the same meaning by a number of people. A culture is only viable when it is based on shared meanings. In more abstract terms, culture always presupposes a ‘between’: interaction between people, but also between people and objects, buildings, etc. And of course culture has a lot to do with values, normative opinions and fixed habits. That’s why in Laerman’s definition the word ‘repertoire’ is more apt than the word ‘fund’, as it is a better reflection of the temporality and historicity of cultural interpretations. Within cultures, shared meanings are built up in historical layers. They become fixed in habits and familiar things that are therefore always also more or less charged with affect. People grow attached to certain habits or cultural conventions and are unwilling to let go of them. Any culture, in other words, is always also slightly ‘conservative’ (regardless of how ‘progressive’ a culture may be) in the amoral and apolitical sense of the word. Cultural communities conserve customs and habits, and it is only because of this that it is possible to have shared meanings and therefore communication and mutual relationships. This is precisely why culture enhances social integration and can promote social cohesion. Let there be no doubt about it: it is precisely because of this that not so much the family but the culture is the mainstay of society. However, this does not mean that society is harmonious. Laerman’s definition does not preclude the coexistence of multiple systems of signifying within a society, which may rub against each other or even clash. In a globalized world, cultures are diversified and complex, and they are interwoven in an equally complex way with other systems of signifying whose dividing lines are sometimes hard to discern (Featherstone and Lash, 1999:10). Communication, however, is only possible via a shared system of signs. The view of society as multicultural or discordant is therefore likewise based on a shared system of signs that allows for such a definition of society in the first place. In other words, culture remains an important tool for human interaction to take place at all.
Whereas culture provides stability and relatively shared habits and customs, creativity is out to undermine this. In a sometimes seemingly chaotic moment it breaks free of normality, which is why creativity sometimes appears as madness. Creative spirits do not coincidentally suddenly surface in times of crisis. The Italian philosopher Paulo Virno describes creativity as follows:
…the forms of verbal thought that allow for change in one’s behaviour in an emergency situation. (Virno, 2011: 103)
If we are to believe Virno, we must be living in very ripe times now. The permanent crisis outlined earlier should therefore be generating an ocean of creativity. However, Virno’s definition begs the question as to whether creativity only pops up in times of crisis or whether it can also evoke crises itself. We know from the First Day that the current financial crisis is based on an exceptional amount of creativity. We are in a sense caught in an imaginary cloud of creativity. Precisely that makes it difficult to step out of it, was the argument. Within this logic, the question of the rela- tionship between creativity and crisis is a lot like the chicken-and-the-egg conundrum. Leaving that discus- sion aside, we must be grateful to Virno for finding a light switch. The simplest thing that may help clear the cloud to some degree is a witticism or a joke, and for that insight Virno borrows a page from Sigmund Freud’s The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious (1905). However, being a true historical materialist, the Italian discards the psychoanalytical preference for dreams and the subconscious and places the meaning of the joke in everyday public praxis. The joke is a basic empirical form of creativity, says Virno:
…wit seems to be a good example of the narrow acceptation of ‘creativity’: one that does not tautologically coincide with human nature as a whole, but is rather tried and tested exclusively in critical situations…. I would like to highlight the tight connection between wit and praxis in the public sphere. It should not come as a surprise that in regard to successful witticism I am going to say nothing about dreams and much about phronesis, which is the practical shrewdness and sense of measure that guides an agent in the absence of a network of protection from his fellow beings. Wit is the diagram of innovative action. (Virno, 2011: 103)
It sure sounds good: to step out of Žižek’s farce we need Virno’s joke. Jokes accomplish this because they demonstrate how a specific crisis situation can be approached with completely different rules. Applying the rule, the ‘measure’, to the state of exception is therefore arbitrary. Jokes also make clear that there are many different ways of handling the norm and therefore culture. Virno again:
…every humble application of a rule always contains in itself a fragment of a ‘state of exception’. Wit brings this fragment to light…. We need to presuppose that its logical form [of the wit – P.G.], that is the fallacy, has an important role in so far as it changes one’s mode of living. (Virno, 2011: 104)
The interesting thing about Virno’s definition of creativity, based on the joke as an error in logical thinking, is that it does not recognize spontaneous creativity in people. Just as language is not ‘naturally’ creative, as Noam Chomsky and others believe, homo sapiens isn’t naturally creative either, because, contrary to animals, we can simply escape from our instincts, as the German conservative sociologist Arnold Gehlen says. It is political, social, economic or ecological circumstances and conditions that make it possible for a ‘logical error’ in reality to come to light at some point. And it is the noble task of the joker to switch on that light. Not until the joke is taken ‘seriously’ can it really cause ruptures in the culture as it was known up to that moment; the moment in which the joke asserts itself as an indispensable source of innovation. Jokers such as Negri, Hardt, Virno en Žižek tried to demonstrate in this way that the creative creation of capitalism is also founded on a basic error in logic. Neither is it a coincidence that activist movements such as the alter globalists or the Occupy demonstrators gladly make use of the joke these days. Playfulness (including dressing up) and dead serious political statements often go hand in hand. Quite regularly, the path of fiction is chosen to point out problematic errors in reality. If anything, creativity thereby makes us aware that values, norms and habits within a culture are only relative. As mentioned before, creativity and culture are related in a dialectical manner. With their fondness of jokes and their lack of fear of logical errors, creative individuals are capable of creating a lot of unrest. Their carnivalesque approach gives them the opportunity to constantly question habits and customs.
So, creativity also includes the weapon of criticism. One has to step outside of the stream to look at the flow of daily life from some distance. This pulling up vertically is at the very core of criticism: to take a step back from what seems to be the determining agent in order to escape determination. As we all know, jokes often do exactly that. By making fun of reality, at least some distance is created from the events while naming the errors in that reality. The joke demonstrates the variability of reality and thereby its relativity. That is to say: in the joke, reality is understood as just one possible reality beside many others, offering a brief escape from the rule of measure, even if only mentally. But then this mental possibility of an exodus, of being above the rule, of looking at oneself in relation to the rule, is the primary condition for creativity. Or, as the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it, one has to go beyond reality to create a new reality.
Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other. Both are needed to break away from the present without losing touch with the past. Albert Einstein once wrote that art and science are two of the greatest forms of escape from reality that humans have devised. In a sense he was right: Great art and great science involve a leap of imagination into a world that is different from the present. The rest of society often views these new ideas as fantasies without relevance to current reality. And they are right. But the whole point of art and science is to go beyond what we now consider real, and create a new reality. At the same time, this ‘escape’ is not into a never-never land. What makes a novel idea creative is that once we see it, sooner or later we recognize that, strange as it is, it is true. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997: 63)
The question, however, is what we need to do to go beyond reality when our reality itself is nothing but a creation of our own. How to step out of the imaginary cloud of the First Day? Finding a passage from unreality to another reality requires that we pull ourselves out of the water. To the sociologist, that means in the first place disengaging oneself temporarily from the social network. To go beyond reality we have to become disconnected. Here’s Žižek again, be it heavily inspired by Alain Badiou this time:
…one has to withdraw from being immersed in a situation, in such a way that this withdrawal reveals the ‘minimal difference’ that supports the multiplicity of situation, thus leading to its disintegration, like the removal of a single card from a house of cards leads to the collapse of the entire structure. (Žižek, 2011: 193-194)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that various thinkers from Plato to Sennett and Virno referred to the importance of ‘unsocial’ behaviour as a precondition for creativity. The first two philosophers in any case share the opinion that creativity can only manifest itself on islands that are exempt from both the economic and political order of the day. This is why Plato felt that the school or academy needed high walls to be shielded from the day-to-day worries of Athens (Taken and Boomgaard, 2012: 88-89). To this, Virno adds that it is precisely the absence of the social network that puts the individual in an uncertain situation, opening the way for creativity. Creativity therefore presupposes a temporary withdrawal from culture, which also implies being temporarily isolated from society. That is why creativity does not originate in a network or a team2, but precisely in the oscillation between a social environment and isolation. And for the record: It is not so much individuals who isolate themselves but rather singularities, which may also be groups. The singular aspect refers to the unique idea that suddenly emerges and is fundamentally different from the common sense within a culture. This singularity may originate from the idiosyncratic mind of an individual as well as from that of a collective. What is important here is that it can only emerge from moving between the communally shared culture and being isolated from it. The Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto (2009) describes this movement as an ‘inodus’, as a counter movement of the exodus deemed necessary by Virno and others, because it is not just about simply withdrawing oneself, but also about a violent return. That violence or performativity is needed to effectively plug the creation into the culture (‘to burn’, Lessig would say), thereby changing it.
It is this hope for creativity that is cherished by the heathens, out of measure barbarians and some pirates. The current hegemony of networks and teamwork does, however, obstruct such a movement. No matter how casual the relationships within networks and teams may seem, in a quite ingenious manner they do organize an almost permanent connection, or at least an urge to connect (or fear to disconnect), that obstructs any form of isolation. Our addictiveness to Internet, e-mail and chatting, but also to off line networks and holding meetings, are symptomatic of this. Networks and teamwork are typically social configurations that promote competition as well as anticipation. And, as we know from Sennett, ‘In competitive games, rules are set before the players begin to act…’ (Sennett, 2008: 269). Within competitive networks, the rules are already set and the outcome is clear: we need to score. In other words, creativity is already restricted. Within the team, the ‘networkers’ can’t earn themselves much more than a pat on the back from colleagues who praise their creativity while simultaneously comparing themselves to them with some envy. This ambivalent appreciation, expressed in positive and negative sanctions, is always directed towards conformism. It generates creativity that is assessed and approved within the preordained rules of the corporate team and is thereby already confined to the measure of what is possible. True creativity, by contrast, requires the possibility of withdrawing to an island. Here, barbarians and pirates can escape from the order of the day to take a good ‘wrong’ or sideways look at things. On such islands they can stand beside the river for a while, ponder the everyday flow of things and then take a fresh plunge.
This immediately makes clear the political dimension of creativity. By critically intervening in a culture, it can be fundamentally changed. Jacques Rancière defines the political as ‘shaping living together’ (2007). All forms of creativity, whether in the world of design, fashion, art, science or economy, help shape the ways in which we interact with each other. When creativity also leads to cultural change, it is not just political anymore but even revolutionary. It should therefore come as no surprise that the economist Joseph Schumpeter spoke of ‘creative destruction’ when referring to creation ‘that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one’ (2010: 73). Creativity has the potential to destroy and recreate not just economic forms, but entire societies.
If we take these characteristics of creativity seriously, we immediately understand that the creative industry, together with creative capitalism and neoliberalism, are talking about something else entirely when using the word ‘creativity’. Neoliberalism, after all, is fearful of revolution, of the creative destruction that could change its system from within. That’s why it is suspicious of the isolated individual or the breakaway group (and even more so of the singular idea that has no owner) and their potential jokes. Neoliberalism, by contrast, is dead serious and tries to rule out any mistakes, through calculation. The fear of waste and loss forces creative capitalism to embrace measure, moderation, mediocrity. Because it fears the discovery of the mistake, its own faux pas, it installs mechanisms of control beforehand. Isn’t singing the praises of teamwork and networks also a call for social control, by which creativity can be quickly corrected if it would lead to foolishness of a too deviating nature? Of course teamwork and networking stimulate creativity, but they do so in a specific direction and especially within measurable limits. It is then up to auditors, accreditors, monitors, coaches, therapists and other process managers to guarantee that all creativity is at least also ‘lu-creativity’. Under the guise of quality and quality control, they place the creative individual or team in an operational context of permanent mistrust. This way, neoliberalism tries to prevent creativity from becoming political and capable of real change.
The neophilia of creative capitalism, as mentioned before, only calls for change for the sake of change, movement for the sake of movement. As long as we move and stay busy we don’t have time to pause, to think about what really could and should matter. Creative capitalism’s call for mobility may have no other intention then diminishing reflexivity and self reflexivity. Movement for the sake of movement has been depoliticized in any case. Neoliberalism makes us believe that change is in itself morally and operationally good. We could therefore call the creativity without substance as produced by cognitive capitalism ‘creativism’, creativity stripped of its critical potential. That is a creativity that truly becomes a fundamentalism. The obsession with creativity for the sake of creativity suppresses the ideological parameters involved. It obscures the fact that in this creativity society is being shaped in a specific way. Just like the mass media maintain that they are just journalistically objective mediators, neoliberalism presents us with a creativity that is supposedly apolitical. However, just like neoliberalism, neo-nationalism and communism, creativism is an ideology. It proclaims an imaginary world that it believes in, strives for and acts upon. Even worse, just like neoliberalism is a fundamentalism of numbers and neo-nationalism is a fundamentalism of national culture, this form of creativity is also a fundamentalism, i.e., that of liquidity.
Underneath this liquid foundation there flows another stream, however, that of money or capital. The biggest enemy of capital, and therefore of capitalism as well, is standstill or non-transactions. Money only has value as long as it flows. The regime of networks, teams and temporary projects are there to keep the creativist moving and keep his or her ideas circulating. This makes the creativist into an always active or always (net)working person who has great difficulty escaping the neoliberal culture in which he finds himself. No more jokes, unless they can instantly be turned into a profit. Outward-bounds, brainstorm sessions and other labour therapies block Virno’s exodus or Einstein’s escape from reality. On the contrary, those aiming for self realization must be realists and should definitely not escape from reality. So, the creativistic person is robbed of something fundamental to being really creative; that is, the temporary exodus from a culture or from a reality that is taken for real. This travel ban ensures that creativistic individuals can’t do anything but push and pull a little within the boundaries of their – neoliberal – culture without being truly creative, revolutionary or vertical. Creative capitalism, which regards its own culture as creative or at least tries to proclaim it as the dominant morale, has no other aim than to disrupt the dialectics between culture and creativity. It denies standstill in movement or movement as standstill, to save its own skin. To put it differently, creative capitalism embraces movement in order to secure its own standstill or standing. It aims for creativity without destruction. That is why creativistic mankind can keep treading water forever in the flat wet world.
The Seventh Day: The Ban on Work is Lifted
A growing number of shops are open on Sundays, retirement age comes later and vacations are shortened. At the same time, we see how under post-Fordist conditions the work floor is being de-professionalized. Especially with creative and intellectual labour, it is clear that artists are obliged to produce their art in their spare time. But nowadays even university professors have no choice but to write their articles and books and sometimes even do their research outside working hours. Creative or intellectual labour is pushed into the private sphere of leisure time, where it indeed becomes something of a hobby – Leftist or otherwise. The ‘time’ in ‘time off’ is increasingly taken up with work, while activities in the actual workplace have little to do with professional knowledge and skills anymore. Artists and other creative individuals are supposed to be ‘entrepreneurs’ and professors are supposed to be ‘managers’ besides being teachers. Over the past decade, the range of duties of creative and intellectual workers has shifted from content to form. There is hardly any interest in or money for what they have to say, but there is plenty for how they say it. Artists must learn to market their products (regardless of what these products are) and teachers, according to the educational fashion of the day, must pass on their knowledge (regardless of what that knowledge exactly is). Otherwise, it is all about filling out many forms and complying with formalities and dealing with whatever remains through teamwork and meetings. All this so that the measure can be taken. All this to make sure that creativity serves lu-creativity and the transferred intellectuality serves productivity. The intrinsic laws of craft, creativity and intellectuality are lost on neo-management and are therefore replaced with what they think they can measure.
And so neo-management – which is not just rearing its head in companies but also in education and government – is steering towards mimesis. That is why real work is only understood in terms of managing and is therefore measured in those terms. And managing is nothing but forming (organizational structures, communication processes, etcetera). Like that of a clergyman, the profession of manager has no content, except for the believers. Just like politicians, managers are immaterial workers that form society, or at least parts of it. But managers are very different from politicians in terms of content. Whereas politicians try to shape things on the basis of what they believe in, managers cannot have an opinion about the content they are shaping. That is why good managers can manage anything. It is also why we have to be very suspicious of politicians presenting themselves as managers, by the way. While the protagonist of liberalism was the entrepreneur, in neoliberalism it is the manager. The current appeal to artists and other creative individuals to become entrepreneurs is therefore a fallacy: traditional entrepreneurs want to create without acknowledging the consequences of the resulting changes. They don’t know what’s in store but blindly believe in whatever they are making. In that respect the radical entrepreneur is not very different from the modern artist. The current appeal for artistic and creative entrepreneurship is however in fact an appeal for (self )management or self design, for making one’s own life calculable and controllable. Not only are creative individuals expected to form new ideas and objects, but also to form them within the measure, so they can keep the risks of their own creations within acceptable parameters. So creative entrepreneurship in fact means creative management. Management that knows how to keep itself alive, regardless of the (content and quality of the) products or ideas concerned. Good managers, after all, embrace creativity as well, be it only for its own sake, as they embrace change for the sake of change in order to maintain their own position, as discussed earlier. The heart of the matter is that neo-management, wielding the law of measurability, both within and outside institutions, saddles intellectuals and creative individuals with loads of work that has less and less to do with their actual work (and skills and knowledge domain). In order to keep their jobs and reputations, they still have to do that actual work but they have to do it outside the working hours they are paid for. Very few museums or biennials pay artists for exhibiting their work and there are only a few universities left that respect the research hours of their professors. Anything that cannot be measured, like the time needed to develop a creative idea or doing fundamental scientific research, is relegated to off-work time. Or it is subjected to improper measurement scales, such as the number of students delivered (regardless of the quality of the content they have acquired) and the number of blind reviewed scientific publications (regardless of what their content is).
With this growing seizure of free time and private time by controlled work time, the age-old commandment of the Seventh Day is abolished, undercutting one of the most important seedbeds of creativity. Sunday was after all not just a day off for reflection and self reflection on what was accomplished in the week gone by. Sunday, or the siesta, also institutionalized and ‘legalized’ the right to time of one’s own, to laziness and sometimes even the obligation of boredom. Just like withdrawing from the day-to-day culture, this disengaging from weekday time was an important engine of creativity. In regard to traditional crafts, Richard Sennett says:
Boredom is as important a stimulus to craftsmanship as it is in play; becoming bored, the craftsman looks for what else he can do with the tools at hand. (Sennett, 2008: 273)
The constantly networking and constantly working man – who on top of that is saddled with a range of duties that have little to do with his profession – is gradually being robbed of everything that allows him to be truly creative. The present-day hysteria around, and obsession with, creativity can only be explained by the loss of that creativity. Just like during the Industrial Revolution the Gemeinschaft was nostalgically rediscovered as it was pushed aside by urban Gesellschaft, creativity has been discovered over the past few decades because, paradoxically, it is being drowned by neoliberalism. In the 21st century, creativity therefore functions primarily as a fetish, the presumed representative of lost heights. The fetish acts as a mediator between heaven and earth; or, in short, it fulfils the desire for verticality. But just as with Marx’s commodity fetishism, the glorification of creativity shrouds the real social work that is required to arrive at a creative product. By contrast, creativity is seen as the outcome of a competitive market process (and not of a labour process). Cultural entrepreneurs and other creative industrials therefore resign themselves to the limits imposed upon them by the demands of industrial efficiency and the market. They content themselves with creativism as such. The glorification of creativity in fact points to the denial of its terminal state. The fetish of creative capitalism therefore plays a very constructive role, as it makes it possible to overcome the harsh reality of loss. The fetish operates like a relic, like a piece of clothing of a lost loved one that one clings to in the simultaneous denial and acceptance of their demise. In other words, creativity as a fetish provides the possibility to live like a ‘realist’ and accept the loss of true freedom in the creative process. Žižek:
Fetishists are not dreamers lost in their own private worlds, they are radical ‘realists’ that are capable of accepting things as they are, because by clinging onto their fetishes they are capable of softening the full impact of reality. (Žižek, 2011: 104)
To phrase it even stronger – and taking advantage of Žižek’s interpretation of the fetish – these creative entrepreneurs are permissive cynical fetishists. After all, they presume a false reality, specifically one in which they can still act creatively in full freedom. They simply suppress the limitations imposed upon their creativity. The creative employer/employee does, however, know full well that absolute free creativity is an impossible dream in the current neoliberal context.
That is why the creativists pretend that creative capitalism allows just about anything, while they tacitly acknowledge and accept the necessity of limitations. In short, they force themselves to ‘realism’. That is the true role of the fetish in a commodity society in which the immaterial has been proclaimed merchandise. And, according to Žižek, we shouldn’t entertain any illusions about this. Fetishists are happy with their fetish and feel no desire to get rid of it. That is why the belief of the creative capitalists and many a cultural entrepreneur cannot be undermined by pointing out the ‘true’ meaning of the fetish. Traditional debunking strategies as we know them from Marx to Bourdieu are no good anymore and only lead to more cynicism. ‘Yeah, we know all that, but…’ is how the creative entrepreneurs reason within their self realism. The advent or hype of creativity is the outcome of a failed true ‘uprising’, or verticality. Just like Benjamin regarded fascism as a failed revolution, likewise the creative industry is nothing but failed verticality. The term ‘creativity’ here plays the role of the ideological mystification of capital. It is the negation of a possibly critical and therefore political creativity.
As we perhaps have already come to fear along the way, this story of the creation of the flat wet world and creativistic man is heading for a fatal ending. This apocalyptic tendency inevitably begs the question of what to do now. In between the lines, however, an answer has tentatively been provided. We will have to abandon the compromise of anticipation (the polder model) in order to radically politicize everything again. For one thing, creativity will have to be recharged via criticism – social criticism included – in order to proclaim new models of living together. Hardt and Negri have already put forward that this requires a ‘commons’, which needs to be protected. Other protagonists in this apocalyptic story of creation point in a similar direction. And although their ideological and intellectual positions are sometimes miles apart, they do arrive at conclusions that are at least similar. In his The Corrosion of Character (1998), Richard Sennett, for instance, opts for the socialist middle course of a new ‘communitarianism’. Because socialism has failed, Žižek, on the other hand, advocates undiluted communism in his First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2011). But Sloterdijk, too, who can hardly be accused of left-wing sympathies, recently offered a surprising view of the future:
Although communism was from the start a conglomerate of few correct and many wrong ideas, its sensible element, being the insight that shared interests of vital importance and of the highest order can only be realized within a horizon of universal co-operative forms of ascesis, should become valid again sooner or later. (Sloterdijk, 2011: 468)
However divergent the roads which all these vertical gentlemen have travelled may be, they all seem to be in agreement with Rainer Maria Rilke’s adage. Sloterdijk adopted it as the title of his book You Must Change Your Life. The apocalyptic story can only be turned around in a movement in which creativity and criticism meet again. The Austrian philosopher Steven Nowotny calls such a fusion ‘cre-activity’ (2011: 17). Contrary to creativism, this ‘creactivism’ will not cloak its ideological content in the fuzzy cloud of ‘(self ) realism’. Creactivism is, however, not a fundamentalism. It doesn’t believe in numbers or in (national) culture as a natural foundation for culture and society. It also has little affinity with anti-fundamentalism or post-modernism, however, because it does not consider all values to be interchangeable or only relative. Creactivism is post-fundamental, as in every creative act it is looking for new values and foundations. It does, however, understand that there are as many foundations and utopias as there are singularities wandering about on this planet of ours. Creactivism can therefore only offer a partial ideological framework for a quest, but not for the possible outcome of that quest. In short, the search itself is the ideology, which includes the refusal to accept the surrounding reality as real. Creactivists are, after all, jokers who hope that their ‘fallacies’ may one day hit upon the truth.
As mentioned earlier, such an act of verticality requires at least the chance of rising above oneself. We will only get that chance if we can temporarily withdraw ourselves to be – yes, indeed – autonomous again. Only if creative individuals, scientists and other intellectuals restore this time-honoured achievement of the modern age in full will we have solid ground to stand on. Since institutions increasingly fail to guarantee this autonomy, the road to restoration may well be a rather lonesome and precarious project, as it will require much hard work in unpaid leisure time. Meanwhile, like the out-of-measure barbarians and pirates, we shall have to muster the courage to illegally appropriate things and to be paid for work that we do not deliver. This diversion is necessary to survive for the time being but is also a tactic of erosion or creative destruction. Besides these pragmatic tactics, it will eventually be inevitable to resort to public action, to show our colours and take to the streets and demand a Sunday again. That should be a completely empty day with nothing to do and where nothing happens – a day of sheer laziness and boredom. Only in that lost time can we step outside of everyday dutifulness, including the fetish of creativity. Only when we denounce enforced creativity can we become truly creative. To enter this critical terrain of ‘not-knowing’, we need a blank page. The creactivist accepts the risk of a quest in emptiness.
The Eighth Day
‘Creativity and Other Fundamentalisms’ could not have been written without the trust and recognition that I was given by Lex ter Braak, former director of the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture and the enthusiasm of Mirjam Beerman and Steven van Teeseling at the Mondriaan Fund. Many thanks to Tessa Overbeek for her preliminary research and to Leo Reijnen for his accurate editing of the original and for the English translation (with thanks to Jane Bemont). All of them have sinned repeatedly against the Seventh Day Commandment, to keep creativity high and dry. I gladly offer all of them a place in my modest eighth heaven.
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- What is remarkable is that this corps of authors includes very few actual entrepreneurs but mostly investors, accountants, auditors, policymakers and other neo-managers.
- On the contrary, networks and teams promote conformist creativity. The shameless imitation of the 'brilliant insight' that 'teamwork' would be a condition for creativity is in itself hard evidence that creativity advisers and other 'lucrative' businesses are wrong. In any case, their own 'teamwork' leads to remarkably little creative advice.
Pascal Gielen is professor of sociology of art and politics at the Research Center Arts in Society (Groningen University – the Netherlands) and at the Antwerp Research Institute for the Arts (Antwerp University – Belgium). He is editor in-chief of the international book series ‘Arts in Society’. His research focuses on the institutional context of the arts and on cultural politics. Gielen has published many books which are translated in English, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Turkish.