Creativity in hard times

Flagging up a forthcoming IWA conference on a pertinent theme

Culture, which Raymond Williams famously said is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”, has always been central to the way the Welsh think about themselves. Our leading living historian Dr John Davies once turned the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst’s famous line on its head, “When I hear the word culture I reach for my gun” (actually the line was “Whenever I hear of culture I release the safety catch on my Browning!”). But as John put it, “In Wales, whenever we hear the word gun we reach for our culture!”

In the current issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda, cultural historian Peter Stead observes that with the 21st Century only now getting underway in Wales we need a new economic model, one that can only revolve around our culture, the arts and what, in the jargon, we call the creative industries. This is the central motif of our forthcoming conference Creativity in Hard Times that explores the inter-relationship between artistic creativity and economic downturn and renewal (click to download the Event Flyer).

The theme was prompted by a reflection that, looking back at the 20th Century, in we can see an astonishing correlation between periods of austerity and financial stringency and bursts of artistic creativity. In the Depression years of the 1930s, our ‘age of the locust’ – what John Davies has described as “the principal happening in the history of 20th Century Wales” – there was a strong artistic response. The visual arts took on a new lease of life and there was also the ‘first flowering’ of Welsh writing in English, through the work of such authors as Rhys Davies, Jack Jones, Idris Davies, Gwyn Thomas and, of course, the poets Vernon Watkins and Dylan Thomas.

Similarly the 1980s, another time of relative hardship, with the precipitate rundown of the coal and steel industries, the miners strike and high unemployment, witnessed a further burst of creativity. This time it was associated with television, the launch of S4C, the production of a number of landmark television series on Welsh history, and the emergence of influential Welsh rock bands such as the Stereophonics and the Manic Street Preachers. Can we anticipate a comparable artistic response to hard times in the 2010s to the one that occurred in the 1930s and 1980s?

This is a central question being addressed by our conference Creativity in Hard Times, along with a focus on how policy-makers can encourage it to happen. One of our keynote speakers is former Independent Editor, Ian Hargreaves, who earlier this year delivered his groundbreaking report The Heart of Digital Wales: a review of the creative industries to the Welsh Government. As one of his key recommendations stated, the Government:

“… should organise itself in a way that it is able to shape more effectively the economic contribution of Wales’s publicly financed creative industries as a whole. This is a £300m a year economic opportunity which extends across numerous areas of government, from heritage and regeneration to education and social inclusion.”

There is a question mark over whether central direction to all of this should remain with the Department of Economic development and Transport. It is interesting, for example, that the Arts Council Chief Executive, Nick Capaldi, who will also be speaking at our conference, told the  Hargreaves review that the key drive should be the Heritage Department, which should be renamed and rescoped The Department for Creative and Cultural Enterprise.

Though part of the agenda, such debates will not dominate the conference. The main thrust will be sessions on:

  • Crisis and creativity, with art historian Peter Lord and Professor Jane Aaron of Glamorgan University.
  • Fostering creativity in the next generation with, among others, David Anderson, the new Director General of National Museum Wales and profesor Gaynor Kavanagh of the Cardiff Design School at UWIC.,
  • The role of the media with film maker Colin Thomas who produced and directed the 1980s series The Dragon Has Two Tongues.
  • How can the arts and creativity flourish in a recession. For this last session speakers include the artist Osi Rhys Osmond, Academi Chief Executive Peter Finch, the architect Jonathan Adams, and Artes Mundi Development Director Lucy Stout.

We’ve done it before. Can we do it again? It’s a compelling question. We should get some answers at the Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay on 1 October.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

3 thoughts on “Creativity in hard times

  1. Only a think tank could get excited at the creative possibilities of a recession! Meanwhile, the only opportunity most unemployed arts graduates (including myself) get to be creative is when filling out application forms.

    As for this idea the ‘creative industries’ will haul Wales out of recession: don’t bet on it. New Labour invented the term creative industries to lump the arts together industries like advertising and video gaming. The aim was to bring culture into the knowledge economy agenda.

    But while advertising and video games do make money, things like opera, ballet, theatre, literature and art require huge amounts of public subsidy; their economic impact is limited. Most writers and artists make a pittance from their work, which is why many teach to support their income.

    The arts are undoubtedly important, but not as an economic resource. If we see culture in those terms not only do we lose sight of its distinctive qualities, but also we risk making economic outcomes and targets the only measure of artistic value.

    Whenever I hear the term creative industries, I reach for my P45.

  2. Before nick Capaldi came along the Arts Council of Wales could be renamed
    ‘The corrupt moneygiver of Wales’ or the
    ‘The free dosh for our friends association’ or ‘The Free money for those rich enough to hold a party for us association’

  3. All availale creative ability and intellect should be focused on the desperate need to generate employment accross the whole spectrum of industries in Wales not just the hopeful creative sector. This false and trivial focus merely obscures the inconvenience of the reality of 40 years of political deception and job destruction in the UK and Wales.

    Wake up to reality; the real level of unemployment in the UK is nearer 7 million and the creative industries are essentially the luxury end of wealth creation and can provide only a tiny fraction of the jobs required.

    If any sector should be selected for special attention it should be the manufacturing sector to protect what is left of this in Wales. Manufacturing is the source of the widest range of jobs to suit all levels of ability and is crucial to a balanced and healthy economy.

    Diverting our attention from the real issues is just another cruel hoax of the type usually provided by the politicians.

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