Bullshit Jobs in the Creative Industries

April 23, 2015
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Post by Jack Newsinger, Lecturer in Media and Communication, University of Leicester

This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media.  This week’s contributor, Jack Newsinger, completed his PhD in the department in 2010.

One of the key features of cultural and creative labor is the supposed emotional and psychic investments workers make into their careers.  It’s commonplace in the academic literature on the subject to discuss the oversubscription of cultural labor markets as a response to the intense appeal of fulfilling kinds of creative work, particularly to young people.  The desire for exciting, autonomous, non-alienated labor, in turn, makes people accept, and even welcome, the challenges and barriers of unpaid internships, precarity, low pay, and so on.  In this way the creative industries would seem to offer the antithesis of what David Graeber memorably calls “bullshit jobs—the peculiarly modern sectors of the economy made up largely of meaningless activities with virtually no social value.  But is this really the case?  In this post, I want to reflect on the idea of bullshit jobs in the creative industries and what this might mean for pedagogy.

The Creative Industries

The story of the creative industries as a concept is well known.  Its origin is usually identified as the British New Labour government’s attempt to redefine itself as the party of post-industrial economic modernization, in which high technology, highly-skilled workers, and information would play the key roles.  Of particular importance to the development of government interventions in the form of policy was the perceived “spill-over” relationship between core creative activities (the creation of cultural expression in books, paintings, films, plays and so on), the industries of commercialization and reproduction (publishing, galleries and museums, DVD distribution, etc.), and the wider economy.  This allowed the values and practices of commercial sectors increasingly to determine the organization and management of the cultural sector, with the market assuming a much greater proportion of the role of cultural commissioning and authority than had been the case previously, and a much greater role in the management and regulation of productive capital in the form of ideas and labor (“creativity”), which fit well with New Labour’s political investment in neoliberal capitalism.

One of the features of Graeber’s argument is that neoliberal capitalism is characterized by a peculiarly unnecessary administrative bureaucracy.  Graeber singles out professional, managerial, clerical, sales and service workers as examples.  In the UK, the growth of the creative-industries policy concept has gone hand in hand with a massive increase in these bullshit jobs—the kinds of work perceived as essential to making money in creative sectors but that don’t contribute directly to cultural practice or human creativity.

Copyright is a prime example.  Copyright law and copyright protection have been at the forefront of the growth and integration of global distribution systems of the content industries.  In the UK, a review of copyright protection was the first major policy announcement from the Liberal Democrat–Conservative Coalition government in 2010.  And this, arguably, is concerned primarily with the capitalization of culture through its restriction.

In my own research into artworkers in the subsidized cultural sector, one of the key defining characteristics of small arts organizations over the last 20 or so years is the rise of the full-time fundraiser.  This is the person—probably at one time or maybe even still an artist, now an administrator—who spends his or her time looking for the next grant, developing partnerships, reading criteria, filling in grant applications, writing bids and so on.  This activity fulfills the demands of a funding ecology in which organizations must compete with one another for subsidy—an artificially created “market for support” that tries to ape commercial markets to instill the values and practices of the private sector in artists and art.  And the full-time fundraiser is absolutely essential to the survival of organizations, while adding nothing to cultural resources or creative practice.  There is something inherently bullshit about the thousands upon thousands of hours wasted in this way.

And that’s not to mention all the bullshit tasks that increasingly characterize work in the creative sectors.  Again, in my research, the near-obsessive demands of evaluation and monitoring that go hand in hand with subsidy—upon which the creative economy still depends—are a feature of all kinds of creative labor.

We might add to this list all the bullshit that surrounds employability in the creative industries, from informal dress codes to the obligatory Linkedin profile—the total governmental absorption implied in the construction of the “creative self.”  As Mark Banks puts it, “cultural workers today are being induced to offer employers the full, productive capacities of their unconscious bodies.” There is a clear moral dimension to the levels of self-exploitation required to “make it” in creative sectors, which ties in well with Graeber’s discussion of the moral elements of bullshit work: “the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing.”


Teaching Creatives

I teach a class at the University of Leicester in the UK called “Working in the Creative Industries.”  It aims to equip students interested in these sorts of careers with a more informed understanding of the history and conditions of creative work, and ultimately to help them get where they want to be.  As such, we focus on things such as precarity, internship culture, institutional sexism and inequality, and the contradictory evidence in the research literature around the qualities, pleasures and pitfalls of careers in the creative and media industries.

I say to the students at the outset, “if you want to work in the creative industries now, you won’t by the time we’ve finished.”  But of course they do—their enthusiasm is not diminished one bit by all the talk of exploitation.  This is, perhaps, either a measure of the success of bullshit as ideology in creative sectors, or a measure of the strength of the human desire for autonomy and creative expression.  However, while it is no longer possible to talk of creative labor in wholly positive terms—there is too much evidence to the contrary—in my view the more negative, repressive and exploitative aspects of creative work and the creative industries should be much further towards the forefront of research and pedagogy than is now the case.


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