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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

When the Artistic Impulse Becomes a Key Economic Asset

By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial for Penang Monthly, February 2020
February, 2020

“CREATIVE INDUSTRIES” is an infuriating term. Why it is so difficult to get a firm handle on it is that it epitomises the postmodern nature of our times, challenging not only a range of notions associated with “modernity”, but also connoting socio-economic and socio-cultural phenomena particular to 21st century globalisation.

In fact, to use another fashionable word, it signifies a deep “disruption” in the industrial nomenclature. Much more often used in the plural than in the singular, it conveys the transcending nature of what it is trying to denote.

And what is it trying to denote?

According to the definition given by the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), what is being stuffed into this one big bag are “those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.”

Human creativity, in my understanding, is not industry-specific. In fact, it is not necessarily tied to industry at all. Seen as art, creativity is more often about “expressing experiences” and “capturing moments” – all very individualistic and psychological; often challenging and contextual. Seen as culture, it at the very least entertains fellow beings and in rare cases, outrages them, even to the extent of altering behaviours and tastes. Still, very contextual.

By definition, creativity is unpredictable. Even its obvious connection to individual freedom is not always a necessary condition. What we are talking about then, is creativity of a certain type, or of certain types. We are in fact talking about creativity as economics.

The present impulse to connect “creativity” to “industry” is quite clearly an economic one; and the economic potential involved in connecting the two, given the boundary-breaking (i.e. disruptive) and lifestyle-changing (or life-changing) power of technologies marketed globally in the last two decades, makes it a responsibility for policy-makers to consider ways and means of encouraging and aiding these unclear “industries” in their backyard. It also makes it the responsibility of each individual to consider where his best interests lie.

Seeing creativity as a key economic asset is a radical turn of events indeed in the history of the world. For industrialists, capitalists and politicians to take creativity seriously – and to rank it as an equal of innovativeness and inventiveness – is astounding.

One can consider this cynically of course, and see it as the ultimate invasion and appropriation of the soul of society and of individuals: from now on, all things are monetisable. Or one can be sanguine and see this as the freeing of individuals from the constraints of their time, their culture and their location: globalisation comes of age.

Glass half empty, or glass half full? A new dusk or a new dawn?

Whatever the case, revisiting the terms that we inherited from the industrial and the nationalist age, and that we think and argue with, is necessary if the notion of creativity as an individual right is to be preserved.

What is postmodern about all this is the conjoining of art and culture on the one hand, with the hard sciences and the traditional industries they built, on the other. The digital revolution that has made this possible, and that is ongoing at an accelerating rate as we speak, is relentless – and therefore revolutionary.

The technologies that act as vehicles of growth for the creative industries are still very new and uncertain in relevance. Exploiting them to generate wealth and jobs requires not only suppleness in thought but also speed in action. As a policy matter therefore, educating the young to be at home in the digital age is a priority. But to keep them sound and rounded, they should also be trained in the humanities as well. Unlike innovativeness, a term that belongs in industry, creativity is something more likely to be born of the whole person, undissected. For creative industries to be successful and sustainable, a society does need to be long-sighted. It needs a population with sensibilities stretching from the exactitude and regimentation needed in the use of digital technologies to the tolerance and agility required in the execution of creative arts.

As an aside, and by way of concluding, the paradoxes involved are many. We consider nerds entrepreneurs. We budget for creativity, as if it can be commanded forth. We aim for sustainability – but without upsetting our consumerism – at a time when planetary cycles are undergoing disruption (that word again).

Most stunning of all, we fear Big Brother, but as a species, we manage no other response at his emergence than to welcome him.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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