Creative vocations and cultural value


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    A key claim of creative labour studies is that cultural workers are defined by a primary value commitment to creative autonomy, one that we might describe as ‘auteurist’ in so far as it derives from the Modern figure of the literary author (Miège 2011: 87-88; Hesmondhalgh 2007: 67-70). The auteurist model highlights the cultural worker’s commitment to both aesthetic and professional modes of autonomy, such as work routines that provide opportunities for self-expression, personal development and independence from supervision (Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2010: 62-67). While this thesis is widespread in the social sciences, in the context of cultural industries research it is distinctive as it serves a normative critical purpose. As such, it reflects a broadly Marxian critique of modern work as a source of worker alienation and a positive project of identifying those aspects of creative work that hold out the promise of a more authentic work relation. We might say that creative labour research in fact shares ‘the artistic critique of work’ that exists amongst the workers it studies, even as it supplements this critique with a social critique that highlights the distributional inequalities within a sector that has conspicuously low levels of collective organisation. (On the ‘artistic critique’, see Boltanski and Chiapello 2005.) At the same time, the thesis is also used to explain the existence of those ‘vast reservoirs of under-employed artists’ that are central to the functioning of the cultural economy (Miège 1989: 72). Quoting from David Hesmondhalgh, Bernard Miège writes that structural industry features - such as employment practices that favour growing a reserve of underemployed workers, or forms of intellectual property management that economically disadvantage content producers - are insufficient as explanations for why individuals would persist in such poorly renumerated labour markets, and that it is due to ‘professional ideologies of authorship and creativity’ that cultural workers are willing to ‘trade in financial reward and security for creative autonomy’ (Miège 2011: 88; see also Hesmondhalgh 2007: 207). Leaving to one side the consequently vexed convergence of positive (Marxian) and regressive (neoliberal) manifestations of this ideology that then confronts creative labour studies (i.e. the contemporary valence of creativity reflecting both a viable critique of work and its recuperation by a new disciplinary apparatus for inculcating flexible, personalised work relations), the casual reference to workers being willing to ‘trade in’ financial rewards and security is in fact entirely consistent with explanations in economic sociology, where notions of ‘psychic income’ or ‘lifestyle benefits’ add up to so many non-pecuniary rewards that account for career choices that would otherwise seem irrational. By ‘psychic income’, Pierre-Michel Menger refers to a range of social rewards, such as ‘a high level of personal autonomy’, ‘opportunities to use a wide range of abilities and to feel self-actualized at work’ and a ‘high degree of social recognition for the successful artist’ (Menger 1999: 555). The more-or-less rational calculations of agents who ‘trade’ employment conditions for non-pecuniary returns (poor working conditions becoming the ‘shadow price’ for such a vocation, as Menger suggests (555)) are grounded in a value commitment that, although possibly a product of either ideology or personal preference, isn’t itself subject to economic interpretation. It seems that whether researchers come at the problem from backgrounds in cultural industries research, economic sociology or cultural economics, the explanation of what motivates cultural work falls back on a normative conception of social agency derived from classical economics; the worker is both a more-or-less ‘rational’ agent pursuing their specific interests and a normative value position on what those interests are. The problem with positing a cultural value as the foundation of a set of economic relations it stands outside of is clear: it prevents understanding of why this value appeals to some more than others, at certain stages of life, is more highly valued in particular societies, or during certain historical periods. While this approach preserves the dignity of the cultural worker as one who is willing to make personal sacrifices in the name of culture, it fails to consider the specific practical circumstances in which such ‘selfless’ values are economically compelling. That is, it applies the Kantian conception of artistic value as ‘purposive purposelessness’ to the entire field of cultural work. In this chapter I propose an alternative account of the current demand for cultural work, one that can consider the social trajectories for which the auteurist ideal becomes plausible; meaning believable and realistic due to its practical uses. Just as this approach looks away from value positions as a manifestation of higher commitments to the more mundane forms of economic reasoning, it similarly looks away from any normative conceptions of careers in the cultural sector and seeks to confront the reality of a loose field of vocational trajectories within and across the cultural field, the majority of which (as studies suggest) are conducted at some distance from formal employment or organised art markets. While the focus on professional work in the cultural industries and artists’ labour markets has been important to empirically documenting the conditions of creative work, it has overshadowed attention to those ‘vast reservoirs of under-employed artists’, which are mostly composed, as Hesmondahalgh notes, of ʼnon-professional cultural workers, who work occasionally and have to take other jobs to subsidise their artistic activities’ (Hesmondhalgh 2007: 71, my emphasis). My approach hence decentres the role of the cultural industries in relation to the broader cultural field, and looks toward general changes in the relation between labour markets and education systems; in particular, the general phenomena of underemployment and the so-called ‘hourglass economy’ in demand for skilled labour.

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to the Cultural Industries
    EditorsKate Oakley, Justin O'Connor
    Place of PublicationLondon and New York
    Number of pages9
    ISBN (Electronic)9781317533986
    ISBN (Print)9780415706209
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015


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