Grayson Perry’s Reith lectures are currently presenting an engaging discussion of art, culture and power. Back in 1982, there was a similar Reithian reflection on culture, but from a very different perspective and with very different conclusions. The literary critic Denis Donoghue presented a defence of what he refers to as the mystery of the arts.

Donaghue spoke in opposition to the market (governed by price and economics) and the state (governed by bureaucracy and political calculations). His central idea was that “the artistic vision is somewhat ineffable, unspeakable, it deflects every attempt to pin it down by knowledge or to define it in speech”.

Artistic creativity, in this vision, is something that demands emancipation from both bureaucracy and the market economy.

A version of this idea has become very popular in recent years. Creative work has become something of an ideal form of labour in the 21st century, at least for many politicians. It was important to New Labour’s vision of the creative industries, but it has also shown up in recent speeches about the digital economy from figures such as George Osborne.

It is creativity that has enabled cultural policy to branch out into areas beyond the arts, such as economic, social and health policy. Equally, creativity is seen as a capacity or personal quality that everybody possesses, a quality that we all carry around with us to be liberated or developed at will. And to do so will somehow free us to enjoy a work utopia that is not about the factory, but rather about self-expression.

Life is a pitch

What is creativity’s actual role in contemporary British life? Unfortunately, the hopeful visions have taken on a darker reality, summarised by a phrase used by the academic, Ros Gill, whereby “life is a pitch”. The self is a commodity to be worked on so it can be traded – there is little to separate your creativity from yourself.

The creative self as a commodity reflects some of the assumptions hinted at by Donoghue in the 1980s. Somehow creativity is transcendent and transformative, and creative labour will produce something which is excellent, rather than producing things merely for the market to buy. Cultural and creative endeavour is differentiated from other forms of work, and cultural production is not really work at all. Creative workers are seen as being paid for their hobby, rather than paid as workers for their labour power.

What a privileged and joyful position to be paid to do what you want to do anyway. However, being paid for your hobby renders questions of class, wealth and power, as well as those about gender relations and the representation of ethnicities, impossible to ask and answer. These questions are buried in the working conditions of job insecurity, long hours and low pay that shape the deskilled and deprofessionalised ‘hybrid’ job.

Doing what you love

In this vision of work, everybody who is working is a talented individual, expressing their creativity and therefore getting no less or more than they deserve. The cultural theorist Angela McRobbie argues that the narrative of “doing what you love” polarises our understanding of success and failure with perverse consequences for individuals and the rest of the economy. Not being involved in work you love, not expressing your identity, not being committed to the point of potentially damaging yourself, becomes associated with failure; both in artistic terms and in terms of your talent and sense of self.

Taking jobs in institutions that are the very support structures the creative industries depend on (such as schools or libraries) or those parts of the economy that are not creative industries, is also seen as failure. At the same time, creative workers attempting to get a big break may take short term or freelance work in institutional settings associated with non-creative labour, but lose the institutional structures that might support them with longer-term careers.

What does this mean for cultural policy? Few of us would deny that culture has a relationship to creative activity. But politicians and many in the cultural sector have entangled culture with ideas of artistic ‘specialness’ or uniqueness, packaging that entanglement into an apple pie and motherhood discourse of creativity.

The task both for cultural leaders and policy-makers is to found a new vision of the arts that is comfortable with culture as an economic activity, an activity that deserves fair pay and good conditions. This requires a fully thought-out industrial policy for culture that takes seriously questions of education, supply and demand for labour, and professional status, rather than settling for an assumption that rates of remuneration must be as ineffable as the artistic vision given in the Reith lectures more than 30 years ago.

This article was originally published by the Guardian Culture Professionals Network