Book report: Against Creativity by Oli Mould

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Let me get the click-bait title out of the way and explain right at the top that Oli Mould doesn’t think that people shouldn’t be creative, he just thinks that the idea of creativity has been co-opted and commodified by capitalism and neoliberalism. Mould starts things off circa 2002, at the invention of the ‘creative class’, that educated set of urban innovators who are supposed to revitalise neighbourhoods and buoy up our export economy with weightless digital products.

Mould says the language of the creative economy has bled out from advertising agencies and into district health boards and university councils. Public services are pressured to ‘get creative’ and ‘do more with less.’ The co-working spaces and flexible schedules of the creative class are bolted into other industries in the name of increased efficiency and maximising utility. This is bad, Mould is saying. Making everything out to be a creative enterprise is a fancy ad campaign wrapping on economic austerity and property developers’ profit margins. The pursuit of efficiency comes at the expense of those who can’t conform to the always-on flexibility of the gig economy, those for whom the algorithmic answer doesn’t fit.

Against Creativity book cover

When I started playing in an alt-rock band in the early 2000s we would tell as many people who would listen, which was mostly just each other, that our plan was to sell out as much and as often as possible. When big soda came calling we were ready to get on board. This was one part reaction to the no-sell-out rhetoric of 90s alternative, one part an awareness of the economic reality of trying to make a career in original guitar music from the bottom of the South Island, and about 98 parts massive desire to appear different to what we thought all the other bands were probably saying.

Big soda never did come knocking, and we only every managed to collect about $200 in synchronization rights, and a tray of energy drinks in exchange for a logo on a tour poster. But I tell you this to let you know that if a public-private partnership between council and a big developer had offered us money to play shows in council housing to make the development seem cool and arty we would have done it in a heartbeat.

Mould describes this sort of thing as ‘art-washing,’ and says even when an artist is aware of their complicity in a campaign to make a poor neighbourhood attractive to creative investment, even when they use their art to speak out against this process, the capitalist system can co-opt their protest. This is Pepsi using protest and paramilitary police imagery to say “let’s get along LOL have a Pepsi.” An artist needs to eat to make their art, and they need to sell something so they can eat. It seems like no matter how loud we protest, capitalism can sell that message back to us.

Oli Mould still believes, however, that genuine creativity can be wielded against capital and neoliberalism. We can make things together that can’t be split apart and sold, and we can dream up new and impossible ways of doing things better and different. We can work together rather than competing.

The scariest thing I ever saw at work was the founder of Rocket Lab, the American company that launches US military satellites from New Zealand, telling a staff conference that he doesn’t read any fiction. He didn’t see the point in reading things that were made up when he could be learning something useful for work. I’m not saying everyone has to love reading books, but it really shook me that someone standing on the shoulders of an industry founded on imagination and dreaming could see no utility in contemplating new things.

Against Creativity by Oli Mould is available at Auckland Libraries.

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