Samar Shams looks at identity and the role creativity will play in the future world of work. 

‘Art is the definition of sanity. It is the definition of self-realisation.’ Louise Bourgeois

Expression and interpretation are central to the development of identity, but we find ourselves distanced from both. Changes in the world of work including the gig economy, the growth of the creative sector and universal basic income could improve our connection to our creativity.

Society discourages people from recognising their creativity. The delineation of creative and non-creative people is perpetuated by a division of labour that has been in place since the agricultural revolution, when food surpluses led to larger populations, which in turn lead to towns and specialisation of occupations. The industrial revolution narrowed the possibilities for creative work. People became engaged in non-creative, repetitive factory tasks. The pervasive and varied creative work of craftsmen and skilled artisans largely disappeared.

Art is the preserve of the professional artist and creativity is perceived narrowly because of our society’s reliance on quantification. The innovation charity Nesta notes that the concept of creativity reflected in governmental estimates of the economic contributions of the ‘creative industries’ is constrained by the “need, for official measurement purposes, to treat occupations discretely as either ‘creative’ or not.” Music industry thought leader Brian Eno posits “Art is everything you don’t have to do.” He sees anything beyond the basic animal activities, such as eating, as engaging one’s creativity. However, it is evident that people do not recognise their exercise of creativity in activities such as choosing a hairstyle:  It is very common to hear people say things like “I wish I were creative” or “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.” 

The development of modern art also distanced people from interpretation. In challenging establishment art, the avant-garde alienated the masses, who found their art incomprehensible; Marcel Duchamp’s piece “Fountain”, a ready-made urinal, is a seminal example.

One might argue that social media allows for expression and interpretation on an unprecedented scale. However, expression and interpretation via social media are limited in terms of capacity for meaning and the development of identity. We record our experiences instead of experiencing them.  For example, watching a concert you attend through a screen on your phone so you can show it to someone later who will not actually experience the concert, just as you have not actually experienced the concert, does not constitute meaningful experience.

We also propagate falsehoods knowingly and unknowingly through social media. A common manifestation of the distortion of reality via social media is the disproportionate posting of happy family images. The Anna Karenina principle that all happy families are alike is evident on Facebook. Although one can use any form of expression to propagate falsehoods, relatively little accountability exists in the virtual world.

The dilution of meaning through the falsehoods and fake news pervading social media leaves a vacuum which post-truth rushes in to fill. Sources of information prescribe emotions, instead of providing meaningful information that people can use to develop their opinions independently.

A few developments point to people exercising expression, interpretation and creativity more in future.

The distinction between artist and non-artist is blurring. It is already common for artists to be ‘double-jobbers’, i.e. to make at least part of their living from work other than art.

A person now commonly changes jobs several times over the course of their lifetime. The gig economy is diluting the general division of labour that has been in place for millennia. Like other roles, the role of artist is becoming less defined and distinct, as people take on whatever pieces of work are suitable and available. People might take on a wider variety of work, increasing the chances of their taking on work with a creative element. As the distinction between artist and non-artist roles blurs, exercising creativity will normalise more generally.

The magnitude of growth in the creative job market will further normalise the exercise of creativity. In the UK, employment in the creative industries is growing at four times the rate of the general workforce. The higher proportion of people exercising creativity through work will normalise creativity in itself. Creative occupations’ relatively high resistance to automation means that they will continue to represent a larger and larger share of the workforce. 

Interpretation of creative works is also normalising, as evidenced by the high rate of growth of attendance figures at modern art museums. Several factors are likely to have caused the increase in attendance, including the influence of studies showing that one is likely to be happier spending money on an experience rather than on a thing. Perhaps one of the factors is that modern art is coming to fruition as the people’s alternative to establishment art. People have become accustomed to the primacy of the idea over technique, materials or beauty.

Accepting the idea as primary diminishes the segregation of the artist: a person without formal training can be recognised as an artist. The recent surge of interest in Jean-Michel Basquiat exemplifies that untrained, or ‘outsider’, artists are not only accepted, but can be glorified. After a lull in major exhibitions of Basquiat’s work, the Brooklyn museum hosted one in 2015 and the Barbican hosted one in 2017. Also in 2017, an untitled painting of Basquiat’s set the record as the most expensive painting by a US artist sold at auction. Basquiat famously admitted to failing at life drawing in the ninth grade.  He worries in the memoir ‘Widow Basquiat’, “I’m almost a famous artist now and I don’t know how to draw. Do you think I should be concerned?” Whether or not Basquiat posed the question in earnest, it is evident that ‘no’ was the correct answer.

Universal basic income could further erode barriers to creativity. Implementation of a universal basic income in the UK is increasingly likely. The Royal Society of Arts recently published a proposal for a trial programme, including funding and implementation mechanisms.

Universal basic income would divorce labour from monetary value. People would be able to spend less time working for money and more time pursuing their interests, developing their ideas and making things.

Universal basic income would also mitigate the polarising effect of technological change on the workforce.  Nesta has reported that technological advances have enhanced the returns to labour for highly skilled workers but also shifted medium-skilled manual workers to low-skilled workers.  The Royal Society of Arts has argued that universal basic income would mitigate the divide between the resultant ‘privileged and self-perpetuating ‘creative class’’ and other workers. 

The increase in creative activity due to changes in the world of work is crucial to the UK’s global competitiveness. Globalisation, combined with technology’s polarising effect on labour markets, makes creativity essential to a UK worker’s ability to compete in the international labour market. International competition for innovation further underlines the importance of creativity. Nesta notes the UK’s relatively high proportion of creative employment and concludes that the UK is well-placed to take advantage of technological innovations’ augmentation of the return on labour in creative occupations. 

Creativity through work, whether paid or unpaid, could be a bulwark of identity in the future. The backlash against fake news reflects that people do value meaning. Whether the creative act will serve as the defense against the ruin of the world, as posited by the poet Kenneth Rexroth, remains to be seen.


By Samar Shams