Creative Industries from Gold to Lead: A Review of Robert Hewison’s “Cultural Capital”





278 pages
ISBN 978-1-78168-591-4 UK
Publisher: Verso

1. Where have all the Critics gone?
Since their inception in the late 1990s by Tony Blair’s New Labour government, creative industries policies have spread throughout the continent. The creative industries approach is increasingly becoming a mainstream tool for policy makers at all levels, from the funding schemes of the European Union and the various national agendas, down to the administrative capillaries of regional and local policy. One might think that the process of establishing the creative industries as a policy field would have been accompanied by a critical and constructive discussion about the approaches, instruments, and indeed, the general direction creative industries were taking over the course of the past fifteen years. If it is true, as the pundits don’t tire to tell us, that creative industries policies are a reflection of massive social, economic and cultural transformations, then surely no one expects policy makers, pioneers and first-movers to get everything right the first time around. New policies, after all, need rigorous critique in order to improve. Success or failure of the creative transformation of our economies and societies depend for a large part on learning from one’s mistakes. So far, however, this is hardly happening.

True, over the past few years, we have seen are a number of publications that critically engage with the rise of “creativity” to the centre stage of policy making. Books such as Gerald Raunig’s Critique of Creativity, Andreas Reckwitz’s Erfindung der Kreativität, or the INC’s own MyCreativity Reader made valuable contributions challenging the cynical vacuity the discourse on creativity and its industry increasingly acquired. However, while these and similar publications often put forward important arguments against political and economic functionalizations of art and culture, they tended to remain at a level of theoretical abstraction that was incompatible with the discourses happening around the realpolitik of the creative industries. The Brits themselves proved to be active commentators on their own policy invention as well. James Heartfield’s early Creative Gap, Guardian economists Larry Elliot and Dan Atkinson’s entertaining polemic Fantasy Island and Owen Hatherley’s Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain are examples for a very critical engagement with different aspects of creative industries policy. And one should not, of course, forget geographer renegade Jamie Peck’s tireless attacks on Richard Florida and the urban policies his theses instigated.

Yet, those involved in the construction of the new policy field in Britain and elsewhere did not seem all too keen to engage in a critical discussion of their practice anyway. The idea of intercity or interregional competition, which is at the heart of the creative industries paradigm, did not help spread a critical ethos among public institutions. Always wary of one’s brand value vis-à-vis supposed competitors, creative industries officials prefer to work with docile consultants and professional researchers who deliver the expected positive outlook. At the same time, universities have a hard time adjusting their programs to the interdisciplinary challenges that come with the new topologies of creative labour and entrepreneurship. Increasingly commercialized funding structures, often under the aegis of creative industries policies themselves, don’t help to spread a critical ethos either. Which puts us in the unfortunate situation of having a newly established policy field without being able to properly assess it.

2. Cultural Capital
Given this regrettable state of affairs, the publication of Robert Hewison’s new book Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain is a very fortunate event. It is a comprehensive account of the complex motivations and processes that led to the invention of the creative industries out of the spirit of New Labour (which, it should be noted, took a page or two from Australia’s Creative Nation policy) and its further development under the current conservative-liberal coalition government.  As the title indicates, this is a book about cultural capital, and more specifically, the changing political attitude towards culture and the arts. The author doesn’t have much to say on the structural transformation of production or the changing nature of labour – themes that are often associated with the notion of the creative industries – but focuses instead on the question of how, within the new paradigm of the creative industries, cultural capital became an instrument of social and economic policy.

Hewison understands cultural capital in refreshingly non-Bourdieusian terms as a form of wealth or value that, although it can be enjoyed individually, “is a mutual creation that uses the resources of shared traditions and the collective imagination to generate a public, not a private, good.” However, creative industries policy approaches cultural capital and its articulations in the cultural and artistic sector in rather different terms. As the author shows, the emergence of the creative industries paradigm marks a transformation in the policy toward culture and the arts that “seeks to privatize this shared wealth, absorbing it into the circulation of commodities, and putting it to instrumental use.” For Hewison, this signals a shift in policy orientation toward a rigorous understanding of culture in terms of cultural capitalism. His book presents a fairly chronological analysis of this shift from the double-edged “golden age” of New Labour to the brutal reality of the current “age of lead.”

His account of events is based on what is usually called ‘grey literature’, i.e., policy documents and reports, together with academic and ‘expert’ commentaries as well as his own observations of events. It is particularly the fervour and meticulousness of the latter that give the book its extraordinary quality. Hewison has indeed spent a lot of time ploughing through the grey stuff and he doesn’t hold back sharing what he’s found there.

3. Cool Britannia’s Backstage
Most of the book reads like a case study of third way modernization through the lens of the arts and culture policy. After a revealing discussion of the ideological and political force field in which New Labour’s position on culture and the arts emerged, Hewison takes us, as it were, to the backstage of “Cool Britannia.” As he ushers us through the transformation of the Department of National Heritage into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the restructuring of the Arts Council, the formation of new agencies such as NESTA, the appointment of task forces, the reallocation of budgets and so on, the mechanics of Labour’s creative industries policy become palpable. It also helps that the author embeds his policy analysis in a review of the artistic and cultural phenomena that defined “Cool Britannia” such as the Young British Artists and Britpop.

Although the flood of names of relevant players, their backgrounds and positions, institutions, manifestos, committees, speeches, budget numbers etc. can be a bit overwhelming to the uninitiated, it also gives the reader the feeling of getting an almost unfiltered account of what ‘really happened’. What did in fact happen was the introduction of the so-called “New Public Management” which meant that “the discipline and values of the market were applied to the formerly impersonal, politically and socially neutral, world of public service.” The whole of government – and with it the government of culture and the arts – would be restructured along the lines of business practice, or rather, its governmental simulation.

Fundamental for this process was the assumption that culture not only meant something to the economy but in fact should be seen as one of its drivers. The positive effect of the idea that “culture creates wealth” was that under New Labour’s rule between 1997 and 2010, government spending on the arts nearly doubled. The entry charges to all national museums and galleries were removed, raising the annual number of visits from twenty four million to forty million. Generally speaking, Britain’s cultural infrastructure was improved not least thanks to the National Lottery’s transformation into an engine of urban regeneration. The film industry was flourishing, regional theatres, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre were rejuvenated and had great visitors’ numbers.

Yet, all this came at a price. While the idea of culture driving the economy provided a great argument for increasing arts funding, it also meant that cultural policy became besieged on two fronts: on the one hand the logic of the market, that increasingly saw cultural policy as an extension of economic policy; on the other hand the instrumentalization of arts and culture in the government’s quests for ‘diversity’ and against social exclusion. Both were articulations of New Labour’s populist third way renovation while in many ways also continuing Thatcherite ideologies (entrepreneurship, etc.) as well as anticipating Cameron’s euphemistic “Big Society.” As Hewison summarizes this highly ambivalent development: “culture became more ‘democratic’, but the democracy was the unequal democracy of the marketplace.”

4. Creative (De-)Construction
One of the areas in which the creative industries approach was first put to the test was urban regeneration through culture and the arts. Cultural Capital discusses many cases of the cultural landmark approach, i.e., the erection of ‘iconic’ buildings for the purpose of strengthening local identity and attracting investment. London’s Tate Modern, of course, was one of the great successes of this approach, turning Southwark – previously one of the ten most deprived boroughs in the country – into a thriving district. While this seemed to display “the economic magic that cultural investment could make” it proved to be the exception rather than the rule. Particularly for Midland and Northern cities, the attempt to solve structural social and economic problems by way of cultural infrastructure investment turned out to be ambivalent at best. Not all the projects failed as spectacularly as the West Bromwich art centre The Public (cost: £72 million; life span: 4,5 years) but they left a trail of shameful early closures, fantastic time and cost overruns and other embarrassments. Obviously, continental Europe too has its share of failed cultural infrastructure projects but it is very helpful to be reminded that these were not necessarily failed transmissions of an originally well-working concept but that the concept per se was dysfunctional.

The chronological start and end point of Hewison’s journey through Creative Britain are two massive infrastructure projects as well. He takes off from the Millennium Dome – a fiasco of its own league that very early on and very clearly showed the catastrophic failure of New Labour’s new public management – in order to arrive at the Olympic games. Perhaps surprisingly, it is in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony of the Olympics that Hewison detects the fullest articulation of Creative Britain. The projection of a creative, inclusive and dynamic ‘Britain of the people’ that the artistic trio around Boyle created in their great show expressed with unprecedented vividness the beauty and ambivalence of New Labour’s vision on cultural capitalism. “Britannia found her Cool,” as the author puts it, in the aestheticized populism of everything that is great about Britain. And although Hewison has no illusions as to the ‘crimes’ that have been committed in the context of the Olympics and its cultural satellite the Olympiad in terms of budget reallocation, gentrification or the privatization of public space, he shows quite a bit of affection for the moment when the spectacle conveying what creative Britain could have been took the world’s centre stage. Ironically, it was also the moment when in Britain and other European countries doom was starting to descend on the cultural sector.

5. Lessons from Britain
There are many lessons to be taken from Robert Hewison’s book. Obviously, he has done us a great favour in documenting the deep ambivalences of creative industries policies in the country that is responsible for their invention. What continental Europe can learn from the British experience is that economic and social lead objectives and targets make neither for sensible nor effective instruments in the area of cultural policy. With regard to the DCMS’s perhaps most important lead objectives – social inclusion and audience diversity – the numbers of even the most celebratory reports remain underwhelming. The same applies to attempts at using cultural investment for the sake of economic development. There is, of course, a relation between culture and the economy but, a least with regard to the area of traditionally subsidized culture and the arts Hewison talks about, it is much less linear than policy makers like to assume. As the author puts it succinctly in his conclusion:

“The conversion of culture into an instrument of social and economic policy has changed what should be an offering into a requirement, and a response into an obligation. But creativity cannot be commanded, any more than its consequences can be predicted. Creativity depends on taking risks; the corollary is that the risk-taker must be trusted to understand the risk being taken. Everything that was done by New Labour to tie the arts and heritage into an instrumental agenda limited the creativity that it sought to encourage.”

Hewison’s work reveals a crucial mistake at the heart of creative industries policy: that the increasingly aesthetic, immaterial and cultural character of economic goods and services would make it sensible to regard culture and the arts primarily in terms of their economic value. This, of course, is not only neoliberal, it’s also plain wrong. The incapability to distinguish between culture as capital (market) and culture as value (public realm) has caused a most regrettable policy confusion within the field of creative industries. And while the international cast of incompetent policy makers along with their experts and consultants carry some responsibility for the obstinacy with which this policy nonsense is perpetuated, the award for instigating this confusion goes to New Labour’s ideologists. It might be interesting to note in this context, that the very same confused thinkers who are responsible for the creation of the conceptual mess ‘creative industries’ have since moved on to repeat their questionable magic on new policy shores. Geoff Mulgan and Charles Leadbeater, two figures who played extremely crucial roles in formulating creative industries ‘thinking’ in Britain have become prominent visionaries (and in the case of Mulgan indeed an institutionalized leader) of the so-called social innovation movement. This is not, of course, the place to make a case against the absurd and ill-conceived notion of social innovation. However, as this newly emerging policy field is now spreading throughout the continent in a fashion similar to its creative predecessor, perhaps we can also read Hewison’s book as a warning against the uncritical imitation of British policy fashions.

Be that as it may. Robert Hewison has given us an empirically rich, relentlessly researched and impeccably argued critique of cultural policy under the aegis of the creative industries paradigm. Treating culture in terms of capital has failed – many of us have known this for a long time but now there is a book that proves this point with regard to the motherland of the creative industries. I am hopeful Robert Hewison’s Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain will instigate the critical debate on cultural policy and creative industries that is needed today more than ever.


Robert Hewison will deliver his talk “Why the Creative Industries do not exist (but need to be invented)” at our MyCreativity Sweatshop, 20-21 November 2014, @TrouwAmsterdam.