Critique of The Warhol Economy
Last week (24 Jan) I published a review here of Elizabeth Currid, The Warhol Economy. I said there that, though I regarded it as a great book, I had some criticisms of it that I’d post subsequently. The point of this post is to outline those criticisms .
My criticisms are as follows.
1. In arguing the importance of the creative industries to the New York economy, Professor Currid is over-reliant on employment data. The number of people who work in these industries is obviously an important measure of their economic value. But it is hardly the only such measure. What of, for example, data on salaries, productivity, and profitability? Without such measures it is not meaningful to compare the economic value of the creative industries with other sectors, such as the ‘FIRE’ industries (i.e., finance-insurance-real estate). But in any case I can’t see why such cross-sector comparison is of such a concern to the author: it isn’t as if there’s a zero sum in play (more insurance, for example, needn’t equate to less creative industry).
2. Definitions are fuzzy. In particular:
(a) What counts as creative? John Howkins, in The Creative Economy, includes the following sectors advertising; architecture; art; crafts; design; fashion; film; music; performing arts; publishing; R & D; software; toys and games; TV and radio; and video games. Currid’s working definition is evidently much narrower – otherwise her assertion that “in order to fully participate in the art and culture economy, you pretty much have to be in New York (or Los Angeles)” would be even more of an exaggeration than it in fact is. But how much narrower and why?
(b) And what is the relationship between the creative industries and the cultural industries? Some commentators have found it helpful distinguish between the two, identifying the latter with such business areas as museums and the heritage industry. Currid appears not to make this distinction – she uses ‘cultural economy’ as an umbrella term, including for example fashion, music, and art – yet she takes relatively little interest in those industries distinguished by others as ‘cultural’ rather than ‘creative’. She seems to limit their importance to a gate-keeping function – but her view of their function(s) is left very implicit.
(c) Which statements apply to the US and which to elsewhere as well? Most of the time, Currid seems to have only the US in mind (as, for example,when she writes that ‘Besides Los Angeles and New York, no other metropolitan area has any significant hold on the broadcasting and television industry’). Yet in other passages she mentions cities such as London and Tokyo and in her historical account she comments on rivalry between New York and Paris. The result is that the geographical application of the discussion isn’t always clear. In particular, Currid takes very little notice of a place to the north of the US, named Canada (which appears in the index twice). Just a few hundred miles north of NYC, for example, is Montreal, a city’s whose literary tradition rather undermines any assertion that you need to be in New York or Los Angeles to be creative. (On literary Montreal, see this recent post from Ploughshares: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/literary-boroughs-42-montreal-canada/).
3. Currid’s recommendations concerning cultural policy don’t follow at all rigorously from her analysis of the creative economy. After Currid’s discussion of how strong and successful New York’s creative industries are, it comes almost as a surprise to hear that a cultural policy is needed at all. But any claim that such policy is needed must attend to the question of what government can do better than markets.* That is, it must argue both that markets fail and that government failure would not be greater. Currid, though clearly economically very literate, simply never gets to grips with such arguments. Indeed, her whole analysis seems implicitly to point in the opposite direction. For example, she argues that an edgy (bordering on illegal) street scene is a fertile source of creativity – which makes me want to ask, “How good are governments at creating that, then?”. Currid criticises previous cultural policies but never explains why she concludes from such failure that we need more policy rather than less. That government policy always has an opportunity cost is an idea that Currid never confronts.
These are, I think, serious criticism’s of Currid’s argument. They don’t, however, undermine my belief that The Warhol economy is a great book. Its great strength – the illuminating portrayal of how creativity happens in a world-leading centre – remains untarnished.
* In chapter 1 Currid writes “That art and culture can be optimized through policy and government intervention bodes well for cities and regions that are invested in cultivating their own cultural economy” – but there is no attempt of any rigour at all to demonstrate that the “optimization” assumption is valid. “Optimization”: really??