Save Creativity! Peter Marcuse at the Centre for Metropolitan Studies on 9th August 2011

Peter Marcuse

Peter Marcuse

by Ares Kalandides

There has been a relatively comforting silence recently around the creative class, the creative city and the creative economy. The embarrassing hurrahs of the past ten years seem to have settled into a murmur. People and discourses have moved on and the question today is rather to find what is left of the old hype, what can be useful in future research or policy and what can finally rest in peace at the bottom of our waste-paper baskets.  So when the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the Technical University in Berlin announces that Peter Marcuse will give a lecture on “The Creative City”, the hope is obviously that this old veteran of engaged academia will take the terms apart and show us what we can keep and what not. And that is indeed what he set out to do last evening:

Marcuse’s goal was twofold: 1) Show that “Richard Florida was wrong”, and that indeed his ideology has had an “evil effect” ; 2) rescue the term “creativity and pay attention to it after getting rid of Richard Florida”.  His first central argument was that the Creative Class is “a category that will not stand up”, as it includes anybody with a PhD, Medical Doctors (“including a foot doctor”) or engineers  – and somehow links these to the arts without any clear methodological concept of how this is done. In fact, argues Marcuse, if this is a class then it is a managerial-technical one, as the people Florida has in mind are people with money. Calling them in to improve the city and create growth is just another word for gentrification. More interestingly, Marcuse questions growth itself as a concept, unfortunately without developing the argument.

But Marcuse’s main concern was to find a useful way to think of creativity independently of the Creative Class discussion. Here he used four sets of arguments: Firstly, that there is a basic difference between problem-solving that presupposes the existence of a problem and creativity, which is rather a goal in itself than a technique. Second, that it is not enough to look at creation itself, but we should examine what is created. “Florida” he said “is ideologically dangerous because he wipes out the difference between what is healthy in creating and what is not. You need not worry about the consequences of what you do as long as it makes money. Efficiency is adequacy”. To underline this argument he compared Florida with Wernher von Braun, the scientist who after being a high-ranking researcher in the Nazi machinery took an equally high position in the US research for the atomic bomb – and was equally “creative”.  To illustrate this he played the old 1960s Tom Lehrer song “Wernher von Braun”.

His third argument and at the same time an attempt at definition, was that the arts are creative when they are an end to themselves and not when they are used as a means for profit. In other words “one possible definition of creativity is that which is done for other reasons than for money; of what is done for the joy of doing it”. And finally Marcuse argued that creativity is what makes humans human, the capacity that distinguishes us from animals.

As Marcuse himself admitted, several of these thoughts, in particular the distinction between problem-solving and creativity, are still not fully developed and rather a point of departure than a definite answer.  But what went missing more than the clear answers (that nobody was seeking in the first place) is a real set of arguments to counter Florida’s babble.  It is very hard, if not impossible to counter an economic argumentation (the Creative Class produces growth in cities) with an ontological category (creativity is what makes us humans). These are two different levels of discourse that do not even necessarily exclude each other. I would argue that Florida does not even have to disagree with the argument: Creativity can be both what distinguishes us from animals and what produces growth. It is equally difficult to use the bad/good creativity as an argument because it introduces a moral category that in itself opens up an endless discussion. I am not saying that we should not talk about ethics, quite the opposite, but that creativity is in itself a neutral concept – and can be either bad or good and even both and the same time. I find it hard to define it by its ends. The same can be said for the distinction between creativity as a means for making money/creativity as an end to itself. Though conceptually it may be an interesting distinction to make, the odds are that it will not stand up empirically – which in turn has consequences on the concept.

The difficulty in Marcuse’s undertaking was that he tried to answer to an economic/political argument with ontological and moral categories.  This being said, introducing ethical questions in economy is both legitimate and necessary, but it raises the question at a different level of argumentation. What is still needed in my opinion is a discussion on whether there is anything in the creative city discourse (and not the one on the creative class) worth keeping – both conceptually and at a policy-making level.

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