Gibson, C and Kong, L  (2005)  'Cultural economy: a critical review', in Progress in Human Geography, 29 (5): 541 - 561

This is a critique of work on the cultural economy, primarily from a geographical point of view  [but sociologists and leisure theorists will recognise it straightaway]. The cultural economy is seen to be dominant in Western societies, and there has also been a cultural turn in geography -- basically that the economic system is mediated through a series of signs and discourses and that  'the "cultural is seen as materialized in the economic"  (Crang, 1997)' (542). The term cultural economy needs to be clarified, especially since it seems to have contradictory usage, and seems to develop conservative implications. There have been four main approaches:

1. The sectoral approach. There is a new economic sector including the arts and entertainment industries, or  the  'Cultural Industries Production System'. There are some definition problems here -- should zoos and botanical gardens be included, but sport not, as in Australia ! (543). What about food production? Funeral services? Is any household good featuring none utilitarian design in this sector or not? Some clothing can begin as a work where, but become a fashion item  [one example is the marvellous Hard Yakka in Australia].

2. The labour market/organization of production approach. Cultural industries appear to be dominated by flexible specialisation, intellectual labour, but also volatility as fashion changes leading to lots of part time and sub contracted work as in postfordism. Companies tend to cluster together since they need face-to-face networking. Creative activities retain a non economic interest for participants and their personal desires. At the larger corporate level, there seems to be increasing, conglomeration to break the barriers. However, simple divisions as in the use of  'fordist/postfordist checklists... [are]... only partially helpful' (544).

3. The "creative index" approach. This begins with a view that creativity is increasingly important in all modern businesses  [see Murphy for example] but this can be reductionist. It  'misses the complexity of cultural activity and reduces contradictions and interpretations to a numerical scale' (545)  [The examples here include the use by business of a number of indexes  'a bohemian index, gay index and so forth' (545)]

4. The convergence of formats. Convergence technology has produced a new creativity as hitherto separated branches and entertainment, such as film, television and PCs join together. Large conglomerates can emerge. There is a convergence as well with the new technology of international finance. The issue becomes one of intellectual property rights and their value. Such convergence also enables critical perspectives to be brought to bear such as work on the political economy of media ownership, critiques of the culture industry, including Adorno's, themes of commercialization of intellectual property, and issues of governance and policy.

Several studies try to bring in a spatial or geographical dimension, since there can be spatial concentrations in creative quarters. The idea is that workers in the cultural industry need to be close to each other  [some very old stuff about the priority of face-to-face communication is invoked in Murphy's account]. Concentration produces a  'creative milieu', and clusters develop links with local higher education, and various other public private funding sources. Thus creative quarters are found typically in large cities. The emphasis on the continuing importance of face-to-face serves to warn against excessive faith in  'weightlessness' as the new technology globalises finance: apparently,  'socializing, eating, relaxing' are still important  (547)  [I think this is over-done, and represents practices of social distanciation or social reproduction of privilege rather than any functional input to creativity]. Some cultural geography also argues that clustering produces extra benefits --'one learns from being close to competitors, and is encouraged to collaborate when in mutual best interests' (547).

However, clusters like this are nearly always found in large cities, with implications for policies of local regeneration: cultural quarters are often used to both attract small businesses and also market cities. However, there is often a struggle about these projects with other stakeholders. Nor is it easy to simulates cultural activities, and in some cases, local artists will move out of a gentrifying sector. Cultural courses do not escape the politics of local elites or civic boosterism. There is also the point the cultural industries may begin small and local but often end up by centralizing -- especially film and television. Sissies benefit at the expense of non metropolitan areas.

It is also not clear what constitutes a cluster, and at what scale they actually work. Good personal relationships, for example, can  'cut across geographical scales' (549). The pattern might be different in Asia as well  [an example of the Asian film industry appears on 549 -- it's much more international, apparently].

For those who stress the importance of creativity in modern industry, there is a particular contradiction, since 'creativity is everywhere possible' (549). In particular, certain rural areas can be transformed by  'counter urban "lifestyle" migration, commodifications of rural landscapes, telecommuting' (549). Examples include Broken Hill in Australia which developed a visual arts scene, or rural Ireland which had the same effect on music  [and there are the well-known artists colonies in Devon and Cornwall].

Arguments in favour of the cultural economy are often  'normative' [ideological I would say]. There seems to be a basic script which argues that capitalism now needs more flexible production and symbolic content, this requires creative work forces and cultural redevelopment to attract creative entrepreneurs, or policy needs to support these developments by encouraging clusters or networks  [or gentrifying]  (550). Such arguments have been successful in certain cities, partly because of the need to increase the status of cities such as Singapore. There is much Anglocentrism though, with most research on American British or French cities. Asian creative industries are just as powerful, though, from Bollywood to manga. These seem to operate on different geographical scales such as regions.

The geographical work supporting this normative approach does not seem to be critical or self reflective. Indeed, it seems to have become part of the phenomenon itself,  'a "brand" "innovative" product' (551). This is an example of a close link between academic work and the publishing industry -- normative cultural economy has become a bestseller. The authors of best-selling texts have been able to construct  'an industry out of their own work', a version of the  'celebrity economy' (551). Some authors have become consultants. This encourages an uncritical adoption of the cultural economy script, as consultants offer  'singular  "recipes" for success in transforming places' (552). This is how generalizations get developed and popularized:  'Prophetic depictions of the  "new"  or  "cultural"  economy are plagued by overstatements, generality, and problems of downplaying what are clearly important external influences, local variations, and more substantial inherited social relations' (552).

In particular, culture itself is reduced  'into an overarching single urban culture of playfulness and ceaseless invention' (552), ignoring contradictions oppositions and resistance. Creativity has come to mean something that must contribute to economic development. In particular, feminist critiques have pointed to the reification of  'The Economy' (553). The whole notion might just have been produced by particular discourses, ideologically ignoring the uneven distribution of cultural capital.

The risks of cultural production have been under emphasized. The music industry is a good example of the kind of risks that can be faced -- there is as much fragmentation and variability as there is flexible accumulation in a stable regime. There is considerable  'economic contestation' as in current struggles over piracy  (553). Work conditions are also turbulent without significant formal careers -- flexible specialisation can look like casualization. Competition among workers could well mitigate their chances of forming constructive relationships with each other.

Although there has been a cultural turn in geography, this has so far not affected work on the cultural economy itself. Post-structuralist and feminist critiques have led to a number of demands -- to 'foregrounding subjectivities involved in the production of... knowledges' (555), to new forms of interpretation involving textual analysis and deconstruction, and with a renewed interest in relations between humans and non humans. One implication has been to thoroughly critique meanings of  'the economic'. But this has yet to appear in discussions of the cultural economy. Instead, the economy seems to be some unacknowledged good, and we must translate culture into its terms.

Further critiques of this position are implicit in debates about high and low culture, and the implications for subsidy, or the focus on the individual artist. In particular, there are implications of sidestepping  'cultural diversity, homosexuality, tolerance for differences as acceptable only when framed in terms of economic benefits' (556).

At least talking up the economic significane of culture has done something to break the old elitist views of culture, but much more cross disciplinary work is required which does not simply privilege the economic. One case study might be  'the phenomenon... of weddings as cultural economic events' (556). Not only are they a big business, but they seem to be occasions to reinforce social norms, and there are the usual tensions between commercially provided and personal meanings. In particular, we need to apply post structuralist and other perspectives in order to uncover the complexity of the links between economy and culture.

Overall, it is necessary to reaffirm this complexity and  'multivalency' (557) and to encourage both empirical and theoretical innovation and critique. A more pragmatic and less ideological approach is required, instead of simple reductionism and boosterism.

key concepts