Today we interrogate the idea of creativity.
My guest, Oli Mould, says 21st Century capitalism has redefined creativity from being a power to create something from nothing to the ability to create new products for markets. Creativity, in other words, feeds capitalism’s own growth.
Students and workers alike are told they must be entrepreneurial and flexible to survive the global economy. We are told businesses and governments seek out these character traits. In effect, the power to create has become an individual characteristic that can be traded and exploited.
Oli Mould is a human geographer based at Royal Holloway, University of London. He argues for a creativity that forges entirely new ways of societal organization. His new book, Against Creativity, published by Verso, goes on sale tomorrow.
Oli Mould works at Royal Holloway, University of London. His new book is Against Creativity.
Citation: Mould, Oli, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 127, podcast audio, September 24, 2018. https://freshedpodcast.com/olimould/
Will Brehm 1:18
Oli Mould, welcome to FreshEd.
Oli Mould 1:22
Thank you for having me.
Will Brehm 1:24
So, you start your new book by detailing a Pepsi commercial from 2017. Can you describe to listeners what that commercial showed?
Oli Mould 1:33
Yes. So, this Pepsi ad came out in 2018. And it shows Kendall Jenner, who is, I guess, the new kind of model of the day, and she is having a photoshoot done. And she spies this protest movement that is walking outside her door. And it’s really riffs off what’s been going on in the UK and the US of late days – protests, marches that have been going against police brutality, and Brexit, and you know all the kind of ills of this contemporary world. And it is a very generic protest. There’s sort of signs saying things like, “Join the conversation”, and “Love”, and all these really words that you never ever see at protests. And she spies this other sort of model looking guy, she, you know, throws off her wig and smudges her lipstick and just joins this march. And it is really quite incredible. She goes over, she grabs a Pepsi can, gives it to a policeman who’s clearly there to supposedly keep the peace, and he nods approvingly, and everyone sort of laughs and everyone is really really happy that this guy is drinking this Pepsi. And all the while, there is a what is clearly supposed to be a Muslim girl who is a photographer who comes in and out of the commercial at various times. And at the beginning, she is frustrated because the photos she has are not very good, and she’s clearly frustrated. You can see her doing that. And then she spies the protest as well, and she sees Kendall Jenner giving this Pepsi can to the policeman, and she takes a photo, she is really happy. And everyone is really really happy about what’s going on. But you watch it, and you know, the timing of it was important, given all that stuff going on in the states in the US, and in the UK. And it was clearly riffing off this. It was clearly sort of taking this aesthetic of protest to, you know, sell Pepsi cans. And it was very very blatant, very very crass. And it was just, you know, very very obviously done in that way. And clearly, when it came out, there was a lot of stuff online that was very critical of it, and it was taken down. Actually, they apologized for it. So that is what the advert does. And, you know, it was very very blatant. And actually, there was a very famous photo from Baton Rouge, where there was a woman who was being kind of approached by police and being handcuffed, and it was clearly, you know, riffed off that, and it was just very very low. And so that is what the commercial does – it really appropriated the protest aesthetic in order to essentially hawk a sugary drink.
Will Brehm 4:16
And what does that tell you about the contemporary form of creativity?
Oli Mould 4:22
Well, it says that, essentially, creative practices – in this case, advertising – but it bleeds into a lot of the corporate practices more generally, that essentially, you know they’re called creative, but what they’re doing is, they’re scouring the world. They are scouring all sorts of different images and experiences and feelings and emotions in order to plant them in ways that make profit for their products. So, you know what people say are creative in terms of advertising, what they’re doing is, they’re not being creative, they’re being appropriative, they’re been co-optive, in that they’re taking things that already exist, things that are sort of actually kind of anti-capitalist or resistive, and using it for corporate processes. So they’re emptying it of any kind of ethic, any kind of anti-capitalist meaning, and just kind of using it to just plaster over ways of flogging their products you know in new and kind of I guess, “innovative, creative ways”, as they say. So, for me, that is not creative at all, because they are actually destroying what that image means. And as they get more and more into the corporate aesthetic, they begin to lose their meaning, and they actually lose their resistive and anti-capitalist ethic. You have seen it with punk and skateboarding, and I guess even things like hip-hop to a certain extent. You know these are things that were once quite subcultural and quite resistive. But now they are very much part of the mainstream, and you watch it now, and you do not get a sense of that countercultural movement. You do to a certain extent, and they still exist in the cracks and everything else. But in the whole, you just don’t get that when you see it. So that is why that Pepsi ad, in particular, I think, was a particularly damaging form of creativity.
Will Brehm 6:21
And is this a new phenomenon? Or has, in a sense, capitalism been appropriating various creative ideas and industries, and riffing off of maybe anti-capitalistic imagery and protest to further capitalism itself? Is this new, or has this been happening for quite some time?
Oli Mould 6:44
I think it is relatively new. There is a lot of work, scholarly work, which has been done around the May 68 Parisian riots. These were almost considered a bit of a watershed moment because post that time, and I guess you can couch that in the wider countercultural revolution of the 60s more broadly, that you know it signaled a kind of shift in how corporations work, from being quite structured and hierarchical and quite kind of pragmatic to being little much more flexible in how they go about using images to further their profit margins and their spread, I guess. And people like Boltanski and Chiapello in their book, ‘The Spirit of New Capitalism’, they argue quite strongly in what is essentially 550 pages of this argument, that post-1968, capitalism has got much better at doing this. So, it is not necessarily new, but the ways in which capitalism has changed its processes have, since around the kind of late 60s, early 70s, and from then you see a lot of this appropriation happening. And it actually happens much quicker now, and I think with the advent of social media, it’s sped up even more. So, I would not say it is necessarily new, but I think that it is quicker, it is a lot quicker now. I always use the example of subcultures. I mean, I did some work around parkour and graffiti and skateboarding, all those I guess urban subcultures. And you look at skateboarding, it took maybe a decade, 15 years, for it to become appropriated if that is how you can measure these things. And then graffiti took a similar kind of time. Parkour took about two or three years. So, you can kind of trace these things. You spot something that is new and innovative and very very creative, because it is subcultural, anti-capitalist, and then within a few years, it is become part of the mainstream; has been Red Bull or Nike splashed all over it. So, I would not say it is new, I would say it is different and quicker.
Will Brehm 8:49
So, in a sense, is the idea of creativity, therefore, changing in itself?
Oli Mould 8:54
Yes, it depends on, I guess, which version of creativity you mean. Yes, I think what it means to be creative, I guess from top-down, to use a blunt phrase, I guess what corporations and businesses and politicians and teachers and everything else tell us to be, yes, it’s about being flexible and innovative in how you work. It is kind of exploring the world, always bringing that back into say, “Look, how can that how can that help us to grow.” It is about growth. Now that is often couched in economic growth, economic development, and sometimes that can be personal growth as well. But it is always about, “What can you find out there that helps you to grow – as a person, as a nation, in terms of monetary wealth, or whatever it might be?” So that is why I argue in the book – that the notion of creativity has now been privatized. It is about, “How can you be creative in order to help yourself?” How to expand yourself in monetary terms, in enlightenment terms, and everything else. So, that is what creativity means in terms of top-down, I guess, and that is how it is changed, yes.
Will Brehm 10:15
And so, what does that actually look like? This privatized notion of creativity, what does that look like today you know for someone in entering the labor force, for instance?
Oli Mould 10:27
Well, it looks very precarious. It looks very problematic for me anyway. You look at all the different job ads out there at the moment, from fast-food workers to corporate CEOs, “creative” is in there. You have to be creative. And it is become so ubiquitous that it is almost meaningless. But what it always means, for me anyways, is that you have to be flexible. You have to sort of embody that mode of competition, I guess. And this is a broader argument that I made in the book; that this version of creativity is very much couched in with what people call the “neoliberal turn”, and this idea that the markets must be as efficient as possible, and they must extend into every realm of life. And so within work, if you go into the job market, that’s what creativity, I think, when you see it, that’s what you should always be very very careful because it is asking you to be flexible. So, it is asking you to maybe work on a zero-hour contract, or it is asking you to work as a sort of outsourced worker where you get very few workers’ rights. You look at all the various gig economy companies that are around. There has been a huge backlash against their working practices. They are great if you have got the flexibility. The students that I teach actually really like these kinds of things because it allows them to earn a little bit of money whenever they want during their studies. But if you are relying on that kind of work to live, it becomes a whole different ballgame. And you know being creative in that way should really not just mean, “Oh, you can be flexible and just work whenever we want you to work, and you bow to the whims of us as employers, and to how the market dictates you should work.” So that is what that version of creativity means in the labor force.
Will Brehm 12:16
What does it look like in education? I mean, I know you have students who may work as Uber drivers as well, for instance, but what about in education itself, either in higher education or even in secondary and primary education? Do we see this sort of definition of creativity, this neoliberal definition of creativity creeping into these spaces as well?
Oli Mould 12:41
It is an interesting question, and funnily enough, I toyed very much with the idea of having a chapter about education in the book. I did not, primarily because I did not think I could make an argument with the examples, but I think that it is, to a certain extent, this neoliberal version. It is interesting, because obviously, I have got two young children now at school. And it is really really fascinating to see how the educational structure is encouraging or not encouraging creativity. There’s a big thing in the UK, at any rate, at the moment about how it’s really important for children to know and university students as well to have STEM subjects like science, technology, engineering, and maths, because those are the things that drive the economy, drive productivity. But actually, a lot of people are saying that “Well, actually, you do need that, but you also need the STEAM, such as an art in there as well. And you actually need to meld the two, you know, having music classes, art classes with engineering to make sure that they have a very well-rounded education. And that is being driven by a lot of people who work in, for example, the computer games industry, or you know, the tech sector. They are saying, “Actually, we need people who understand creative methods and artistic practices as well as the nuts and bolts of maths and engineering.” So, I think that that is important to a certain extent. So that division is happening quite early on in education. For example, my kids don’t do a huge amount of music, and that’s partly because of budget cuts and everything else. When budgets get cuts, the first things to go are the arts. They’re like, “Oh, they’re not important. Let’s just concentrate on English and maths and stuff.” And I think, “Well, maybe not.” The other thing as well is, and in the UK, we have a guy, Sir Ken Robinson, who you may know. He’s been very vocal about this, and one of the things he’s concerned about is that we group students into year groups very very early on. You know, like five-year-olds, six-year-olds, seven-year-olds, and they flourish at very very different times. And you have a particular kind of year group, but you’ll have very very different educational levels within that. And Ken says that maybe we should change the way that we group students together, for example. So, yes – I think that this version of creativity is creeping in, and it’s around the numbers, the targets and the exams, and everything else that has to be done is so huge now that students are just told how to pass exams, they’re not told how to think. And so yes, there is a number of different problems within education in terms of how creativity in that neoliberal form is being applied.
Will Brehm 15:25
And what about higher education? When you were saying about the idea of being flexible and having work that is very precarious. Higher education becomes a great example of the rise of contract teachers. So, in what ways have you seen this idea of creativity, or neoliberal creativity, entering higher education?
Oli Mould 15:50
Do you mean the teachers themselves?
Will Brehm 15:54
The teachers, or even more broadly, where do we see some of these neoliberal forms of creativity in universities?
Oli Mould 16:03
So, I think that within higher education it is really interesting. The workforce themselves, the academics and the teachers within higher education, you’re almost getting a sort of dichotomy or dualism created, where you’ve got a sort of higher, let’s say, “research class” or “professorial class” that are very secure. They have huge amounts of free time to do their research, and it is kind of self-serving in that respect. And you couple that with the massive increase in students that we have seen, which you know has become part of the problem, because that is where that’s where universities get their money from now, our students. So, we need large numbers of students; they need to be taught. And so, we have this sort of underclass of very, very precarious teachers, and universities in the UK, and I think the US as well have nine-month contracts, part-time contracts – very short term things. And being in the sector myself, I hear so many stories about early career staff, and peoples fresh out of PhDs who have had to travel to different countries, live in different parts of the world, move away from their families, their wives, and children, in order to secure a nine-month teaching post or a 12-month part-time lectureship, and it’s just not healthy, and it doesn’t foster that longevity and that kind of connection that students require – higher education. I am in the higher education system because I believe it is a fundamentally crucial part of people’s lives, and having that critical thinking is really really important. Because without it, we are just producing more of these, to use the phrase, these “worker drones” that have no kind of ability to act creatively in the way that I want people to in the book. And that comes from the amount of critical thinking and the input that people get in higher education, in further education, the sort of “latter years”, if you like, of their educational career. And having that binary class, again, kind of just erodes that, because you’re just creating this sort of cadre of precarious workers who just are like, “I’d like to be able to do that, but I can’t because I need to make sure that the students do this, and they pass the exams, and they do this, and I make sure I have my numbers up so I can get employed elsewhere.” So, there is a sort of soft hegemony I guess just moving people towards a sort of far more auditing, and just by-the-numbers kind of educational system, which is very very neoliberal at its heart.
Will Brehm 18:45
And so how has creativity been defined sort of outside of this idea of being appropriated by capitalism? Historically, how else has creativity been thought of?
Oli Mould 18:59
Well I guess it depends how far back you go, I mean. There’s very interesting lineage; I mean, you could go all the way back to kind of ancient societies where creativity was considered something which the gods had. They were the ones that had ability to create something out of nothing. And you know you trace that through history and the way that it’s kind of been developed over time, creativity has been increasingly privatized, and increasingly something which, you know, value has been extracted from it. But I think there is something to be said about having a creative mindset or having a kind of idea of creativity, which is about societal progress. Now, the arguments are that creativity now is just sort of something that we need to grow, we need to make more money. And that is one version of progress, but it is one which doesn’t necessarily inculcate anything new. It just creates more of the same sort of stuff. In a world that is rapidly deteriorating ecologically, growth is just a concept that we are going to need to rapidly get away from very very quickly. And so the idea of being creative that doesn’t just produce more of the same stuff, in this case, well in capitalism’s case, like money and profit, then that’s the kind of creativity which we need to work towards. And there is lots of examples throughout history of societies that work that way. So, you know, I often talk about the Diggers and the Levelers in the UK, sort of in the 15, 16th century. They were very much ones who kind of came up the idea of “the common”, the “common wealth”, this idea that there is no such thing as private property, and people kind of work together on the land and they work together to create an economy, a social economy, which provided all the need, provided everything that people needed to get by and to live, including culture and artistic enjoyment, but it was done collectively. It was done with a sense that you know, we can negate any potential damages or potential shortfall in provision by acting collaboratively and collectively, and as a common. Capitalism erodes that. Capitalism source says, “Well, look, I’m working this way, it’s really great for me. I want to do it more.” So, it then begins to encroach on other people’s enjoyment, which is why we get huge inequality and everything else. So, a creativity which source says, “No, let’s not to work towards, you know, making more of the same for a very small amount of people, let’s make sure that we create a world which actually, we can all enjoy. Because, you know, if the climate change people are correct, this world is not going to be the same very very soon. So, it is something which we need to reconceptualize creativity very very quickly. Because at the moment, the way it’s currently defined in the mainstream is just not creative at all. It just produces more of the same problems, and that is going to become very very difficult to sustain very very quickly.
Will Brehm 22:07
So how would that happen? How can we reconceptualize creativity away from the idea of “more growth is always good”?
Oli Mould 22:16
That is a very good question. One which if I had the answer, then I would probably be a very rich man – rather ironically, I guess. But to push against that idea of creativity as something which just sort of makes more of the same capitalist growth, there are examples of it out there. And in the book, I try to sort of pinpoint some of the more progressive ones: worker cooperatives, different political systems, disability. There is a huge array of ways that we can conceptualize creativity there at the margins of society. Now, it is not a case of bringing them into the mainstream and just saying, “Okay, let’s make disability the way we define creativity, and let’s just use them as means of growth.” It does not work that way. You have to kind of shift your societal structures to look towards the margins and say, “Well look, what is it that these people are doing? What is it that these communities are actually achieving?” And that is, in the most case, kind of a quite radical sense of equality, and making sure that there is enough of the resources, or at least the resources of which they have goes to the people that need them. And in doing so, you create a far more just, far more progressive, and actually far more sustainable community. So, you know, there is plenty of examples out there. After the book, I came across an example in Mexico: Cherán, which is a city which has completely refused to engage in local elections. Have you seen that example? It is fascinating. It is annoying that I saw it after I finished it, but there was some stuff written about it recently. And I think, yes, around kind of 2011 I think it was – they got rid of all their local politicians because they were not doing enough to stop the crime in the city, which was about logging. There was illegal logging, and it was creating a horrible kind of crime syndicate. And you know they were losing all their trees and everything else. So basically, the people got together, and they kind of complete defenestrated their local politicians and the police. And they said, “We’re going to sort out ourselves”. And reading the stuff, it is actually a lot of the women that organized this. And since 2011, 2012, they’ve not engaged in local elections, they’ve not engaged in any national elections (i.e. the recent presidential elections in Mexico), and crime has dropped significantly, people are healthier, they’re regrowing their trees, it’s a far more environmentally friendly place. And this is all because they had sort of said, “No, we are not going to engage in your version of society”, which is a kind of parliamentary, democratic, kind of this voting system which we have. So, that, to me … I mean, it’s got its problems, obviously … it’s not perfect by any means, but it’s a city-wide example of people that have refused to engage with what people have said. “You should engage in this kind of version of state capitalism”, but they refused to do that, and it is produced very very beneficial results.
Will Brehm 25:39
So how would that community in your mind define the notion of creativity?
Oli Mould 25:46
Because they are refusing to go along with the way in which the powers that be suggest that you need to do in order to progress. They are saying, “No, we are going to create a different version of life, one where we are not ruled by local politicians or indeed national politicians. One where we are not subject to police brutality. One in which we can actually stop crime before it happens in terms of, we don’t have to go to the police process, we can actually cut it down to this source.” So, they are being creative because they are refusing to engage with the version of progress which the world imposes upon them. And that is the kind of version of creativity which I try to explain in the book. I mean, there is nothing wrong with creating a brand-new technology, or a brand-new product to market, or a new computer game, or a new app, or whatever it might be. There is nothing wrong with that; they are creative in and of themselves. It is how they are then plugged into the wider systems, which then just sort of eradicate any kind of chance they have of revolutionary change. That’s the problem for me: that creativity has to be broadened out, you have to think about it globally on a societal kind of level because if we don’t create a new mode of living, then there’s all sorts of problems are going to happen. So, in Mexico, in Cherán, it is a really good example of a city trying to do that. Now, you could try and scale that up. Brilliant. The scale problem is a crucial one – can you scale up these things? Sometimes they do not work. Sometimes power comes crashing down, and you end up having to replicate the same problems. So, scaling them up is a very very important process. And that’s a very different question because you have to sort of start changing political systems, and heaven knows in the US and in the UK, we’re seeing a massive polarization of the political spectrum with socialism coming to the fore and everything else, but also the far right. So that is a different kind of question, but there are examples of this kind of creativity, and they are everywhere. Because they are not feeding capitalism, they are often marginalized. And people see them and go, “Well, that is clearly wrong because you are not making more money, you’re not doing this. Let’s try and stop it. Let’s try and appropriate it somehow. Let’s just try and violently enclose it.” So, for me, those are the kinds of things which make it creative.
Will Brehm 28:29
And it goes back to that Pepsi commercial that we talked about at the beginning, where these protest movements were certainly … in many respects, they had power to sort of create something new, something more just, something for the social good, or the commons. But businesses like Pepsi were appropriating these sort of creative spaces to perpetuate the status quo of capitalism.
Oli Mould 28:56
Absolutely. And you know, these protests and all these marches that we see in the world at the moment, it’s not just because it’s the new thing to do. It is that people are angry. People are really really scared and angry about the things that are happening in the world at the moment. And you know, corporations that use that to sell drinks, I mean look at what Nike recently with the NFL player. They have come under similar kinds of critiques. It’s fine on the one hand to have this and to bring these things into the public consciousness, but at the same time, their bottom line will be about, “How can we do that to make more money?” And if that’s the underlying process that’s going on, there will always be at the end game kind of “the growth of Nike”, or “the growth of Pepsi” and the problems that entails in terms of like working structures and continuing to sort of have child labor in Indonesia, or whatever it is that Nike do, how they make their shoes, and everything else. And that won’t change just because they’ve put Colin Kaepernick all over their adverts; it’s not going to change. So yes, these protests and everything else that Pepsi have appropriated, they mean something, and they are of a time, and they’re actually trying to change the system. They are trying to change how we operate in this world. And if the ethics of that are emptied, as they are being with things like Pepsi, then that is for me incredibly problematic.
Will Brehm 30:31
Well, Oli Mould, thank you so much for joining FreshEd.
Oli Mould 30:34
Thank you very much.