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Is creativity overrated? On the arts in Newfoundland and Labrador

in Arts & Culture/Featured/Opinion by

Is creativity overrated?

Oli Mould is a human geographer at University of London in the UK, and the title of his latest book—Against Creativity—might lead you to think so. The provocative argument Mould makes in his book is that “creativity is a barely hidden form of neoliberal appropriation. It is a regime that prioritises individual success over collective flourishing. It refuses to recognize anything…that is not profitable.”

He’s referring to the manner in which neoliberal, corporate capitalism has appropriated everything we thought of as creative—from the arts to scientific innovation—and harnessed it for the exploitation of profit. His book offers numerous examples. Real estate developers have taken to spray-painting graffiti in housing developments in the hope of making them seem trendy and appealing to the hip and wealthy. Other developers will convert empty warehouses into art galleries or offer free apartments to artists, not because they want the arts to flourish but in order to gentrify their housing developments. They hope to use the lure of artistic community to draw wealthier tenants, drive up housing prices, drive out existing low-income tenants and transform communities into hipster hubs for the wealthy.

We see the ubiquitous growth of “business and the arts” organizations across the western world, seeking to convey the impression that art is worthwhile not because it’s important and intrinsic to the flourishing of the human soul, but because it’s profitable.

The problem with this, says Mould, is that it in fact stifles true creativity and the arts by tying them to a capitalist framework, closing off any real possibility of creating new worlds outside and beyond the narrow, profit-driven boundaries of contemporary corporate capitalism.

Mould offers a broad critique, analyzing how technological innovation and cutting-edge computer algorithms are wasted on online advertising rather than improving health care or civic planning; how the so-called sharing economy is just a scheme to financialize things—spare rooms, spare car-rides, old toys—that we used to share or give away for free; and how supposed team-building initiatives like co-working spaces and open office layouts aren’t really about encouraging true collective teamwork but about encouraging individual performativity in a competitive context.

But let’s stick with his critique of the arts, because he’s put his finger right on the pulse of many of the recent disappointing and unsettling trends in the creative arts in Newfoundland and Labrador.

For a place that’s historically been thought of as immensely creative—from our long history of oral storytelling, to our vibrant mummering practices, to the colourful architecture—there’s been a subtle transition occurring as creative initiatives in the arts and music become corporatized. Whereas there used to be a day when anyone could pick up a guitar, sketch a foggy landscape vista, or pen a poem; now much of this creativity is being harnessed by entrepreneurs and bureaucrats and institutionalized into revenue-generators. As this happens, much of the deeper sense of innovation and creativity is lost, and music and the arts become little more than a revenue stream for tourism operators. Instead of offering radical and creative new ideas about how we can live our lives, organize our society and appreciate the world around us, now artists are being told to professionalize at the behest of consultants if they wish to financialize their art and make of it something more than a hobby. But as consultants and bureaucrats reshape these creative practices, are we losing something fundamentally vital and dynamic in our creative culture?

Auditors? Or artists?

The ArtsNL scandal earlier this year is an excellent example of this process. When ArtsNL abruptly canceled a series of previously approved and juried grants to established local arts organizations, it used the excuse that those groups had improperly submitted auditing information.

While technically this may have been correct, what caused outrage was the sudden and arbitrary nature of the decision and the fact there was no dialogue or opportunity to appeal the process. Artists are not accountants, nor should they be. And arts organizations have traditionally granted or refused funds on the basis of artistic merit, not on the basis of accounting performance. It should have been no problem to simply contact the organizations that made mistakes in the confusing accounting process, and work together to correct them. ArtsNL’s claim that by waiting till the last minute these organizations forfeited such support smacked of bruised egos and arrogance on the part of ArtsNL.

What was most shocking about this process was the way in which it suggested ArtsNL’s slide from an organization supporting the arts, to one driven equally if not primarily by business principles. The soulless PR-style of its statements to media reinforced this: ArtsNL was acting like a trumped-up corporate bank, not like an organization dedicated to the arts and artists of the province.

To be clear: ArtsNL broke no rules and did nothing improper by any corporate standard. Yet many in the artistic community felt betrayed because an organization that was supposed to embody principles of artistic practice — creativity, flexibility, iconoclasm — seemed to have been hijacked by corporate PR men.

This is the consequence of capitalism’s appropriation of artistic creativity. Supporting artists becomes a secondary function, to the perceived need to satisfy stakeholders and funders with slick accounting performance. Under such a regime, the books will undoubtedly look pristine. But when the books come first, that means the art comes second. Art produced under such a regime will either be second-rate, or produced under conditions of precarity and underfunding for the artists.

Stale jellybeans

The iconic Jellybean Row is another prime example of this process. When the original stretch of housing was painted bright and flamboyant colours back in the ‘70s, it was an iconoclastic effort to make the otherwise drab housing more cheerful and livable for its (mostly low-income) residents. The splash of colour was original, daring, and controversial. It was widely questioned for its flamboyance. To the surprise of the arbiters of good (read: normative) taste back then, visitors loved it, taking it as a unique sign of creativity. Residents soon mirrored the sentiment, developing a fondness for the scheme.

Today, the scheme has been appropriated by the forces of capital, diluted from its original iconoclastic and creative spirit and replicated throughout the city. An architect friend of mine jokes that it’s now impossible to get any truly creative or original designs approved by either the City or the provincial government, unless you adhere to the Jellybean Row design regime. Of course, modern contractors achieve the effect in a soulless manner, slapping coats of paint onto buildings in a hollow replica of the original.

Oli Mould warns about precisely this process: the establishment backing of flagship cultural projects which leads “to the homogenization of the cityscape and policy realms along the same lines of cultural and creative consumption” through a form of “by-the-book creative city development”.

The creative power of Jellybean Row lay precisely in its dissonance: in the fact that in the midst of a city of drab houses and concrete, a spear of colour lit up the skyline, clashing dramatically with its neighbours. That dissonance is what signaled creativity to the world—that in this city were residents and designers who were willing to be daring, go against the grain, do something no one else was doing. That is what was creative about Jellybean Row. The coloured houses themselves are neither unique nor remarkable in the slightest—they are no different from any other set of colourful houses in Girona, Amsterdam, Stockholm, or all those other cities whose claim to creativity lies in a few multi-coloured buildings. What was remarkable about Jellybean Row was its dissonant clash with the norms that surrounded it. Today’s rainbow-hued downtown says little about creativity, and a whole lot more about the soulless copycatting of a single original idea.

Mummers made in China

And of course, let’s not forget the ranks of cheap, Made-in-China mummer trinkets that have flooded the market in recent years. While some might argue that they help meet a demand for souvenirs in a cheap way for local businesspeople, what this neglects to take into account is the fact that the colourful mummer iconography was originally the product of struggling artists and artisans, riffing off a historical tradition rooted in the culture of the province’s historically poor outport communities.

By emailing design sketches to Chinese firms for cheap plastic mummer trinkets, the tourist joints which sell them are undermining the work of authentically creative artists and artisans who produce authentic Mummer crafts by hand using local products and local labour. The get-rich-quick business mentality is stealing opportunity from the very creative folks who invented the Mummer craft industry in the first place (and that’s without even getting into the often horrifying working conditions of Chinese factory workers).

It also undermines the broader integrity of local culture. Many tourists turn their noses up in disgust when they realize that what are advertised as local crafts are just cheap Chinese-made knock-offs. The value of such products would be improved by regulatory standards designed to keep such cheap products off the market. This reassures tourists and other purchasers that items like Mummer crafts are indeed authentic, locally-produced items. There are plenty of examples of jurisdictions that employ such regulations to protect local craft industries, for instance various European countries which regulate production standards for various local traditional food and craft items.

Too small to be honest

One of the province’s challenges is its smallness. In a place where everybody knows everybody, it’s impossible to achieve a truly critical literary culture. By critical, of course, I don’t mean criticized but rather subjected to intelligent critique. If you read reviews of local books in local newspapers, they will invariably range from positive to glowing. Critical reviews, however, are few and far between. The motivation for this is not all bad: in some cases, reviewers simply wish to promote and encourage local writing; while in other cases reviewers do feel awkward about writing honestly critical reviews because they’ll likely bump into the person they’re reviewing at the next arts event. Or even worse, that person might end up adjudicating a grant application that the reviewer has submitted.

This critique gets revisited every few years, it seems, but that’s because it’s an important one (see, for instance, Aimee Wall’s excellent writing on the topic, which you can read here and, in the second part, here). I’d go so far as to say I have never read a seriously high-quality, critical review in this province. And that’s unfortunate, because good criticism doesn’t exist to tear us down but rather to refine our best talents: to hone our finest skills by excising the bland and the redundant and concentrating our creative potential. Without criticism; without intense debates and arguments over the quality and content of a work; without differentiated and partisan approaches to the creative work that we do, we will never have a truly first-rate arts or literary scene. That’s the nub, and it bears repeating. For a place that prides itself on its creativity, the fact is Newfoundland and Labrador’s arts and literature will never be truly high quality until and unless it is possible for it to be subjected to the highest and most ruthless critical standard. Our faces light up with praise and delight when we list off our most revered authors—Wayne Johnston, Ray Guy, Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey, and so on and so forth. And they are tremendous artists indeed. But until they face the fire of true critique, they’ll never achieve their highest potential. This is why so many artists who desire earnest critique and achievement wind up relocating to the mainland (E.J. Pratt, for instance).

The limpid praise of creativity, an offshoot of this neoliberal appropriation of creativity, is perpetuated by a national literary culture (including the CBC) which aims to present itself as fairly representative of all the country’s regions by offering pride of place to an elite coterie from every region. This lends the appearance of a region’s creative talent and potential. But this is more about regional representation than talent.

Yes, representation is important. It is important and good to always represent a diversity of regions, identities, insights. But we must also never confuse representation with talent.

Mutual support gets one far. But honest criticism is a vital part of the process too. And while the lack of honest critique in the province can be blamed in part on the province’s smallness and the desire to get along with each other, the financialization of creativity lurks as a causative factor as well. When we feel the urge to deliver a blistering critique against a new, locally produced novel or play or book of poetry, we often hesitate, because we know what a small market already exists for this work, and we know that criticism will hit the artist financially, not just artistically. And the reframing of the arts as “cultural industries” exacerbates this process, by suggesting we ought to consider the arts from a financial perspective, not critique them from an intellectual or aesthetic angle. It is through these mechanisms that “artists themselves are made complicit with gentrification via artwashing,” writes Mould, referring to the ‘artwashing’ as the way in which artists are manipulated into erasing local histories and communities by serving as the friendly face of corporate development.

If government funded the arts more generously, and in such a way that the potential of art was not judged through its potential for revenue generation but through its potential to spark intense artistic discourse and appreciation, and yes even conflict and controversy, then perhaps our reviewers would be less hesitant to dull their critiques into limpid pots of praise.

Oli Mould has hit an important point in his critique of creativity. As he points out:

“Creative work, despite its evangelists, does little to question the norm of capitalist accumulation: indeed it catalyses it. To break from this norm, and realize alternative modes of organizing societies and economies, is what creative work can allow us to do – it just needs to be ‘released’ from the vernaculars in which it is currently embedded. Rather than ‘releasing the inner entrepreneur’, creative work can, and should, ‘release the inner revolutionary’.”

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