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Review of Everyone is an Artist

Review by Ivan LP of Ruben Jacobs' 'Everyone in an Artist'.

The review was published on 31 May at medium.com/@vertigens/

We are facing a new awakening on the urgent need to understand the role of the arts in contemporary society. The book “Everyone is an Artist”, written by Ruben Jacobs, freelance writer and lecturer in Cultural Sociology and Philosophy at University of the Arts Utrecht, presents an innovative perspective in this matter starting from a thorough and profound criticism of the assumptions that support the creative industries as morally beneficial, and economically sustainable.

The path taken by the author begins in the Romanticism of the eighteenth century, through an analysis of the roots of authenticity concept. This concept, which surprisingly (or maybe not) persists today, promotes the image of the autonomous individual: artist, entrepreneur, creative professional, etc. Through classical authors of Romanticism like Rousseau was born the idea of replacing faith in one God (the God-Nature-man scheme) by the preponderance of human nature, and the artist as its impersonation. Man should live according to the originality of their individual expression, which in the contemporary world has become an obsession:

“Consumers, tourists and citizens — they are all, more than ever before, looking for “authenticity and real, not mediated, experiences.” Ironically, however, forced attempts to be “genuine” and have “real experiences” lead only to artificiality. Politicians who try to prove their integrity before the cameras in every possible way, hipsters in big cities who try to go back to a nostalgic past, the enormous number of ads that evoke ideas of originality and genuineness: in every aspect of everyday life, the hunger for authenticity is expressly visible. Look and you’ll see it everywhere.”

These romantic ideas, so firmly ingrained in our culture that they seem to have always existed, are very convenient to the current economic system, in which everything is arranged around the individual work, but in fact it is the financial sector that controls almost everything. The heart of the so-called classical capitalism was the manufacture of the object. But today before making the object it is necessary to create the desire for the object, which is to say the yearning for the pleasure of owning something special, authentic and original. Apple provides what may be a paradigmatic example of this structure, starting with the campaign that encouraged us to “Think Different.” The real point is not to make people “think different”, but to make them identify themselves with the brand’s idea of different and to make them believe that they are being original when they express their individuality through consumption. In this sense, it as if the individual also becomes the product. But there are other important aspects.

The hype around the figure of the “creative entrepreneur” is clearly an expression of this status quo, in which goods and people share the same social space: the market. Entrepreneurship turns the person into a brand. Simultaneously, people have moved from being consumers to being prosumers with far more influence than ever before. Rather than ordinarily “consuming” products, people are becoming the voices of those products and significantly impacting the success or collapse of companies, products, and brands, especially through their involvement on the social media. Hence the importance of “taming” this prosumer, linking the brand to the desire of identification with the figure of the “creative entrepreneur. The brand offers itself as a framework for such desire. Another way to “tame” is through sophisticated mechanisms by which they don’t tell you exactly what to do, but they create an environment where your conduct seems to have a limited margin of maneuver. Each person is considered autonomous and free, but at the same time he has to operate within an environment built to encourage certain behaviors, avoid others, generating trends. Not so free after all…

Creativity has become a key value for current capitalism, a sort of “artistic capitalism”, in which aesthetics is configured as a powerful tool in the sphere of multinationals. It is a post-modern economy that has appropriated artistic production values such as a focus on concepts, ideas and perceptions. The problem is that the appropriation of these values has the purpose of associating consumption with the creation of subjectivity. Marketing operates to convince us that our desires can only be directed to the products that are available in the market. But how consumption can be identified with creation? If we consider desire as a power of creation, and consumption as an essentially passive action, there is no way to sustain this identification.

The creative industries — which according to official statistics in so many countries are one of the fastest growing sectors and has become a global phenomenon — is an important expression of this “artistic capitalism” and of the romantic ideal. UNESCO’s definition in a way reveals an immense difficulty in placing art within the industrial perspective:

“The term creative industries encompasses a broader range of activities which include the cultural industries plus all cultural or artistic production, whether live or produced as an individual unit. The creative industries are those in which the product or service contains a substantial element of artistic or creative endeavour and include activities such as architecture and advertising. In this article, these terms are used precisely and are not synonymous nor interchangeable.” [1]

In an economic and industrial system, the annulment of the differences is a necessity, because it is what enables economic exchange. But the artist is someone who announces the possibilities, expands the boundaries of thinking. His objective is movement, the transformation of motionless thinking, the violation of dominant thought, and because of this his work is grounded on difference as a constitutive principle of nature. The difference precedes identity and similarity and also dissolves all determination and stability in a world that only in appearance is solid and permanent. Therefore, by its nature, it seems impossible that art could be subjected to the designs of an economic system which always aims reproduction instead of creation.

A key issue, addressed in this book in a very precise way, is the substancial “confusion” between art and design, innovation and creativity. These concepts, placed under a utilitarian framework, are important pillars of support not only for the creative industries, but for the organization of society:

“(…) the scope of design has long since ceased to be limited to living room interiors and computer exteriors and plays an ever-wider role in everyday life. Design thinking, social design, food design, bio design, interaction design, transition design — the term “design” is used in a growing number of fields. Not only finished products but creative processes, distribution chains, and the general organization of things can be designed. And that’s not all: increasingly, the problems of the world are viewed as design issues. Design can be defined as problem-solving. The What Design Can Do organization “calls on designers to take responsibility and consider how their work can impact the wider society.”
(…)
The general aestheticization of contemporary life has placed design at the center of modern capitalist culture. The designer-artist role fits the ideals of industrial creative discourse, because it links perfectly to a rationalist interpretation of creativity: it is applicable, steerable and controllable.
(…)
“Being creative,” in modern parlance, means “being innovative.” Of course, the reality is more complicated than that. Creativity as such has no direction or purpose; innovation is a concrete striving to create something new. Innovating means effecting change, and for that, creativity is needed.”

Jacobs’ brilliant unveiling of these structures shows in a very assertive way how the concept of creative industries aims the reproduction of the current economic system. In a broader sense, we have here an indication that the political task ahead is much more complex than we could imagine. We must affirm art as the creation of what did not exist before, as something that eludes the limits imposed by the dominant economic groups. It is important to say that this practice can be performed by artists as much as by ordinary people, and also within the limits of the academia. This is not a matter of knowing the solution beforehand, but of being continually committed to working hard in this direction. Peter Pál Pelbart, one of the most important thinkers in Brazil, made an important warning about this: “what we consume today, more than shoes and refrigerators, are ways of being, ways of living, life styles, senses, subjectivity. Thus, from one end to the other of the economic circuit, that is, from production to consumption, what is extorted and stolen from us today, sometimes invested and intensified, at other times reformatted and resold, is life itself. We can’t help being surprised by this.”

[1] Understanding Creative Industries Cultural statistics for public-policy making, UNESCO — http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/files/30297/11942616973cultural_stat_EN.pdf/cultural_stat_EN.pdf

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