Arts & DesignEducationEssaysFeature


In /and /as the University

Every day brings more talk about the role of “creativity” in shaping urban futures. Most of such talk consists of paeans to personal and social development through art and design, technology, healthcare, and higher education.

The University of the Arts in Philadelphia has even produced a graduate program to study creativity. Like similar programs at other urban arts colleges, and in keeping with the mandate to modernize and professionalize higher education in general, the new Ph.D. claims to offer a novel form of education that is porous, worldly, and integrative. “We’re doing something no one else has done,” the program boasts, “we’ve radically reconceived the Ph.D. degree based on the premise that creative thinking lies at the heart of innovation in all fields.” The website features photos of a social practice project by Theaster Gates and the world’s first Apple computer (accompanied by a caption praising the inventors as “two young people working in a garage with no funding”).

This feckless homage is totally in keeping with the use of creativity as a program of urban development. “Creative place-making” is a known surrogate for the real estate industry, the principal engine of urban economies and thus is a major source of material dispossession across the US and elsewhere. Such an agenda necessitates the recruitment (sometimes exploitation) of artists and intellectuals as part of a broader system of a taste-identified consumerism. To speak of creativity is, in other words, to name the interface of human capital and its environment.

The result of such efforts might be referred to as “creative destruction,” a term coined by Joseph Schumpeter in 1942 to describe the cannibalistic nature of economic growth. The rationalization of mass society through the constant destruction of extant spaces and ways of life, Schumpeter argued, has proven a durable expression of capitalism’s transformative capacities. Capital necessitates the production (or the illusion) of empty time and space, a theme on view today in the conversion of minority neighborhoods into a terra nullius for the creative mind.

The art market has played an obvious role in the gentrification of neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, Bushwick, and LA’s Boyle Heights. Contemporary art’s reliance on novelty and cultural appropriation as producers of value, to say nothing of its record of overt racism and predation, affirm a general attitude of proprietary chauvinism. This is a clear indication that what Cedric Robinson called “racial capitalism” — the foundational status of race in the global division of labor and its spatial entrenchment — remains the basis for the creative economy.

Many in the art world, embarrassed by their centrality to this system, have performed minor acts of contrition. But the tech industry makes no such overtures. Its fortunes lie in converting apparent consumers (“users”) into commodities and impelling their cooperation in cycle after cycle of planned obsolescence. The shameless colonization of the Pacific North West and the Bay Area by technology firms and their bureaucracies, and recent revelations about the working conditions and corporate politics of these firms, also suggests that the culture of corporate technology — from Facebook to Uber to Amazon — is among the greatest forces of incivility in contemporary society, and certainly an antagonist to the generativity of urban life.

Surveying these processes, the artist and critic Gregory Scholette describes the “paradox of the creative city,” in which creative development destroys the very potential for genuine creative pursuits. Artists and students in today’s cities must contend with rent inflation, informalized creative labor (the “gig economy”), and chronic debt. Scholette extrapolates from such conditions “two conflicting obligations that the creative city imposes on itself and its residents”:

on one hand there is the demand for a steady supply of creative products and services, but these are generated by precarious workers who, on the other hand, will increasingly collide with the dictates of capital for ever-compounding rates of profit. […] These profit rates are most easily realizable — in fact, they might only be ultimately possible — by way of such mechanisms as real-estate schemes, credit bubbles, and other desperate financial methods that in turn leave even less informal space for those who attempt to survive on the outer margins of the global 1% city.

While global cities like New York, San Francisco, and London have long exhibited these trends, there remains a strong belief that second-tier cities in the US exhibit molecular creative aspirations that can transform and even nullify the long history of creative destruction from which they came.

Richard Florida has recently piqued interest for entreating tech giant Amazon to perform its role as a good corporate citizen by refusing tax incentives when it sets up a new headquarters in such a city (a choice to be announced, with great fanfare, later this year). But, if the history of technology as a means of conquest, social control, and naïve solutionism are any indication, no such concessions will occur. The flood of capital will merely alienate the new city from the old.


And what of universities, often billed as incubators of creative thought? The University of the Arts (despite exalting the widely disliked college dropout Steve Jobs) offers very little hope for the possibilities of creative enlightenment. Why? A recent article by CUNY chancellor James Milliken, written in glowing praise of universities’ creative potential, exhibits all of the reasons.

Writing in a special section of the Brooklyn Rail devoted to creativity, Milliken argues that universities are “failing to respond creatively and quickly enough to the challenges of the 21st century. ” He observes that universities today would be “easily recognized by a time-traveler from the 17th century” before asking, “where’s the creativity, imagination, and experimentation for which the faculty and students in our institutions are so well known?”

What does this argument imply about the already existing work of universities? Is it knowledge, or just information, that drives creativity? What about free education? Wouldn’t it maximize the creative potential of faculty and students?

Rather than attending to these questions, Milliken defers to a specious list of measures lifted from a recent book by CUNY professor Cathy Davidson. He proposes “investing in the resources that we know work to improve performance and accelerate graduation; using technology — as almost every successful human endeavor does—to improve our effectiveness; working more collaboratively with employers to develop degree programs and certificates with greater economic value; and eliminating the peripheral bells and whistles at our institutions so we can adequately fund the essentials.”

What is particularly galling about this passage is Milliken’s last remark about overspending. There are no rock-climbing walls at CUNY, which leads me to suspect that Milliken is referring to what he calls the “cost disease” of faculty salaries. He makes this remark in the context of widespread austerity, meaning tuition hikes, departmental closures, and adjunctification — genuine forms of privation that threaten the welfare of public universities. CUNY tuition is going up, salaries are stagnant. I don’t see any “bells and whistles,” except Milliken’s $500k per year salary and free housing in an Upper East Side penthouse (market rate is $18k/month) provided by CUNY.

The irony is not funny, but instructive. Creativity, for Milliken, is a form of individualized responsibility — a mode of survival — for underpaid contingent faculty and indebted students and alumni. As Milliken goes on to say:

Our colleges and universities are not job training institutes; if we view our role as preparing graduates for their first job, we have failed them. New graduates will change careers far more quickly and more often than their predecessors, often many times before their thirties are over. We need graduates who are creative, entrepreneurial problem-solvers, tech-savvy, and prepared to learn and retool throughout a lifetime.

It is alarming enough that the head of a large public university would so glibly dispense with an argument for class mobility and job security. But Milliken’s greater point seems to be that we should accept the permanence of economic instability by churning out workers flexible enough, indeed desperate enough, to “retool” their lives endlessly throughout the peonage of late capitalism. This is a defeated statement, a clear sign that the logics of creative destruction will face little opposition as they attenuate social ties, compromise dreams, and (here is a paradox) conform good minds to the demands of the moment. You’d better be creative, Milliken seems to say.


There is undoubtedly cause for introspection at public universities. The rampant corruption in college administration (for example former City College president Lisa Coico, who has been accused of embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from the school’s research endowment) would be a good place to start. But Milliken has nothing to say about those responsible for these trends. He does not mention the role of the state and its chronic underfunding of CUNY and SUNY. Nor does he impugn the real culprits of higher-ed malfeasance, neoliberals like Scott Walker and Bruce Rauner — enemies of true pubic enlightenment who are trying, and succeeding, to axe tenure, increase student loan burdens, corporatize university campuses, and decimate academic unions.

CUNY is far from the worst. Public colleges, in part because they are financially suppressed, remain significant places for resilient and meaningful politics. At many private schools, by contrast, accumulation is a primary, and not ancillary, consideration. NYU and Columbia are among the most successful developers in New York. Their success lies in signaling institutional liberalism as a mode of being, and thus drawing an ethical equivalency between creativity and social justice — a very challenging claim, given what these schools have done to Harlem and Lower Manhattan. My own institution, an art and design college and thus a motor for creative labor, is much the same.

It would not be a stretch to suggest that these schools have modeled the very program of real estate development through privatized education that has been most diabolically exploited by obvious cynics like Carl Paladino and Betsy Devos. The destructive effects of creative development are substantial, in other words, and are experienced well beyond any single institution, discipline, or geography.

A critique of higher education will help us address the question of creativity because it shows how the term operates most often and most perniciously — to obscure the logics of privatization and consecrate the actually very banal exploits of entrepreneurial free agency. The same is true across many sectors of the new economy. Universities play a special role, however, because they retain the capacity to resist contingency, to quarrel with their status as lodestars of creative development, to examine where this injunction came from, and (most importantly) to ask where it will lead.

Nicholas Gamso is a fellow at the Stanford University Arts Institute.

Also for you:

Nicholas Gamso

Previous post

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Presidential Pardons, and Separated Families

Next post

Making a Hostile Environment