"Artistic", "cultural" and "creative" are not the same. And this is a political question.

This is a somewhat scholarly piece from the Australian-US theorist McKenzie Wark, but its intent is easily enough explained: what is the difference between "creative", "artistic" and "cultural", as terms we use today? If they shouldn't be regarded as equivalent, how do we spell out their distinctions?

Wark turns to the work of Raymond Williams, the great left theorist of culture, to help him explore this. Wark begins anecdotally:

I like to peek at what other people in coffee-shops are doing on their laptops. Sometimes it is spreadsheets. Very, very rarely it is code. Practically everyone else is doing the sort of stuff that might get them labeled in today culture as ‘creatives’. A ‘creative’ seems to mean anyone who works on a laptop with something other than code or numbers.

But what exactly does the word creative mean? And while we’re at it, what does culture mean? To answer those questions, a good place to look is the work of Raymond Williams. Here I shall look at part of his classic book, The Long Revolution (Pelican, 1961).

There is a certain sadness about reading Raymond Williams’ The Long Revolution given that we seem to be well into the long counter-revolution. The convergence of economic, political, technical and cultural factors that Williams saw as potentially heading towards a new image of social democracy did not come to pass.

In some respects the contemporaneous and more pessimistic diagnosis offered by Pier Paolo Pasolini about the rise of neo-capitalism and its infrastructural culture was more prescient.

However, there is a lot to be said for the way Williams unpacks the categories of art and culture. He was alive to their shifting qualities in the past, in a way that can help us track how they change again since his time.

Wark then outlines Williams' take on "creativity" (the Cambridge professor liked to explore the history of a "keyword"). And creative has a tangled history:

Williams: “No word in English carries a more consistently positive reference than ‘creative’, and obviously we should be glad of this, when we think of the values it seeks to express and the activities it offers to describe. Yet, clearly, the very width of the reference involves not only difficulties of meaning, but also, through habit, a kind of unthinking repetition which at times makes the word seem useless.”  In our own times, perhaps even more so.

...[Williams] begins by teasing apart the sense of mimesis and creation. It is God who creates. The best humans can do is imitate God’s creation. There might yet be special methods via which human work of a special kind might have access not just to the effects of God’s creation, but to His ideas themselves.


Hence by the time of the Renaissance, there is a tangle of four ideas about creation as: 1. imitation of hidden divine reality; 2. the idea of beauty; 3. The idealization of nature; and 4. nature as god’s art, as ‘creation’. The latter in particular then gives rise to a notion of the artist as in a rivalry with God as creator.

What was new here was the idea of human creation, a claiming of the right to break out of the order of nature. In the age of the Anthropocene, this is clearly an idea in need of yet another revision. Yet it is striking how environmental aesthetics has mostly wanted to return to some version of the imitation of nature, rather than rethinking what human creation might mean.

Wark concludes by outlining Williams' vision of culture as everyday:

In sum: Williams sees the creative dimension of social practice as an important one. It is not limited to either the artist as a particular social type, nor is it restricted to specific moments of dramatic change.

Art has functions related both to novelty and continuity. Art does however have to be thought as the superstructure to a base (even if Williams does not quite put it in these terms). That base is culture, described in The Long Revolution as a "structure of feeling".

Culture is at once institutional but also very everyday. In both respects, culture is ordinary, a means of constructing and modifying realities, practiced by everyone, and not just at special moments. Culture, for Williams, has a material history, shot through with power and economy, but not reducible to either.


Thus the ‘creatives’ hunched over their laptops in coffee shops may not be doing anything particularly special. What they do is ordinary, but that is no bad thing.

Culture is ordinary. Creation is something anyone can do. Indeed, it might help creatives to see themselves as belonging to a class, and taking strength from that belonging, to know this — and feel this.

If the structure of feeling of the creative type was more shared and less fetishized, it might be better for everybody. The long counter-revolution, which Williams did not live to see, reversed the tendency to see creation as a shared human capacity. Perhaps we could flip that back again.

More here. (Incidentally, we are always interested in contributions from those who might self-define as "creatives" - see here. )