The Politics of Creativity

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Ugh. The ‘Creative Class’ (again)
by Dr. Nick Kouns

So yeah. Lexington is having a ‘Creative Cities Summit’ right here in Lexington.  While I’m all for it, I can’t help but be a little rankled by it. First of all, it tickles me to death to know that Lexington’s Ben Self is one of the keynote speakers.  This guy is a real powerhouse in INTERNATIONAL politics, particularly regarding new media. He and his wife, Becca, are prime examples of authentic and engaged citizens of passion and accomplishment. Becca works with Seedleaf and if you’re not familiar with this organization, do yourself a favor and look into it.

But back to the Creative Cities Summit—I appreciate the hard work that has gone into landing the forum. As part of a group of interested citizens called ‘ProgressLex’, I’ve been privy to some wonderfully exciting discourse on the event. Some are all for it, and some are vehemently opposed to it. The argument goes that Richard Florida’s ‘Creative Class’ theory has been discredited while he continues to make a killing from the lecture circuit. What always seems to to get almost everybody’s hackles up is the ‘creative class’ designation.  Oddly, it’s members of the conventionally defined ‘creative class’ who seem to have the biggest issues with it.

For those of you not familiar with the ‘creative class’, it was first “described by” Richard Florida, one of the speakers at the Creative Cities Summit.  Personally, it sounds like a retread of the “yuppies” and “guppies” and “bobos” from a decade or two ago.  I’ve never made much of it, although by conventional definitions, I would fall into all of these categories. As such, I will forgo every modicum of decency and humility, and speak as a member of the ‘creative class’ simply within the confines of this post.  I will name names.

In my realm of existence, the creative class is (and has been thriving) for some time in Lexington.  Collectively, I believe we’ve endeavored to make changes in ways that we can and simply go about our business.  You can find us on boards of every non-profit in town, on state committees, national, and international boards.  You may have read some of our blogs. You may pick up our newspapers.  You can find them in think-tanks like ‘Progress Lex’ and you can read their writings in Ace.  You will find us on twitter, facebook, and LinkedIn.

You will see us working with organizations like Seedleaf, and you’ll have seen us at Farmer’s Market for years and years.  We get together for brunch, we text one another until our fingers are numb, and you’ll see us at just about every LFUCG council meeting.  I’d say just about every single one of us votes and many of us slog up and down the streets during campaign season.  Some of us stuff envelopes while others of us either host or attend fundraisers.  We do our homework and, more often than not, we are the voice of the informed opposition. Some of us leave Lexington (Lexpatriates) and some of us stay. The fact is that most of us are not much affected by the designation one way or the other.

When the city landed the summit, we were all, I believe, scratching our heads a little bit.  When people continue to carry on (and on and on) about the ‘ever elusive creative class’, I, for one, want to throw myself off the roof.  The fact is that particularly astute leadership has been working with us all along.  To whit:

1.  Diane Lawless

2.  Jim Gray

3.  Kelly Flood

These three elected officials should serve as paradigms for the folks who appear to be out snipe hunting, or serve as the collective ‘Johnny-come-lately’.  These three, as far as I’m concerned, set the bar for community engagement—and they all started the dialogue LONG before they ran for office.  It seems like the ‘Creative Cities Summit’ is more of a political move than an honest attempt at engagement. That’s not to say that it won’t be enlightening or worthwhile. It just seems a little contrived.

There’s also the argument that the ‘creative class’ designation smacks of elitism.  I’m not really sure what I think about that argument.  Most of my friends are not particularly wealthy. Very few have positions of power, but almost ALL of them have positions of influence. Personally, that simply defines an ‘activist’—people who are trying to get other people to look at things in a different way; ostensibly, a ‘better’ way.  If we were to substitute the words ‘activist class’ for ‘creative class’, I suspect everyone would feel better about the designation.  Right now, nobody even wants that label, me included.  It just seems a little bit snotty.

So to re-frame, I have TONS of activist friends.  Most of them are creative.  I don’t agree with them all the time, but I always take the time to listen to their ideas. There are Progressives, Marxists, Libertarians, Republicans, and Democrats; some are foodies, some are academics, and some are unemployed; there are doctors, lawyers, laborers; housewives, economists, and chefs; marketers, business owners, waiters, and students.  The thing that binds us together is a real and dedicated interest in making our own part of the world a better place. It really is as simple as that.

Am I happy that Lexington is hosting the summit?  I suppose I am.  It’s bringing an estimated 600 people to Lexington, and that’s good for business.  However, the Lexington Art League brings out over 60,000 people to the Woodland Art Fair every year (and all the revenue that follows).  Unfortunately, we don’t see everyone touting it every year all over the airwaves; yet it brings out 1000% MORE people than this summit.

The Kentucky Classical Theatre Conservatory brings out around 25,000 people to the Arboretum for some great live theatre in July alone.  Most of those people have gone out and bought provisions to bring to an evening of theatre under the stars—food, wine, utensils, etc.  The ‘creative class’ writes about it and, more often than not, sponsors it on our own dime.  (I should note here that Diane Lawless was on the original Board of Directors of KCTC, and Jim Gray showed up at the ACE press launch because Mayor Newberry ‘couldn’t make it’.)  Representative Kelly Flood was so impressed with the Lexington Art League’s ‘Side by Side’ variation that she is putting up a piece of legislation in front of the General Assembly during this legislative session to fund a statewide initiative for arts programming for children and young adults with special needs. 

The ‘activist class’ has been here all along.  I’m not crazy about the ‘creative class’ designation, but it seems that it’s one we’ll be dealing with for some time.  I can only hope that the ‘activist class’ doesn’t throw itself off of the nearest roof from the ‘done to death’ panacea that the label implies.



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