Creativity isn’t a commodity, it’s a fuel for community

In light of the Conservative’s proposed cuts to higher education funding, Priya Khanchandani examines how a lack of regard for the importance of the arts will devastate our cultural landscape.


If we look around us, everything we do or see is based on design. Yet possible career paths in our industry are not obvious enough to those still at school, even though there are so many. My own career as an artist is a testament to this, and we have to encourage the government, teachers and the national curriculum to recognise art and design as vital – especially on a local level. I believe that if we nurture, encourage and tap into young creative minds, the future of our design industry will not only be safe, but blessed.

To explore the importance of creativity within communities, this piece by writer Priya Khanchandani – an incredible writer who I first and foremost respect as a peer – makes clear how necessary creative practices are as part of our national soul. Mirroring her points are a series of drawings created in an afternoon of workshops I’ve led at St Jude’s Primary School, asking children from year one to year six to draw their dream mural or create a chair representative of a close friend, classmate or family member. Each drawing created by the class proves the endless possibilities of a child’s imagination which we should be uplifting as far as possible – Yinka Ilori.

The visuals for this article were created by students (year one to year six) at St Jude's Primary CE Primary School in a workshop with Yinka Ilori.


Yinka Ilori workshop at St Jude’s Primary CE Primary School


Yinka Ilori workshop at St Jude’s Primary CE Primary School

Romanticism elevated creativity to a form of “creative imagination” – an intellectual process attuned to finding meaning in the wider world. Over time, creativity became equated with more than an intimate reflection, or way of perceiving things, though. It became more akin to a form of production, so much so that today “cultural production” is a buzzword, and one which underscores creativity in a neoliberal society as something that results in a consumable good.

The question is, where does that leave the value of real imagination, new ideas, art and individual expression? The commodification of creativity has reduced the value of using one’s mind in a more reflective sense, apart from the creation of a product and for its own sake. Self-expression has been diminished to self-indulgence, and these days, the stillness inherent in the romantic notion of creativity, through the exercise of the imagination, is at best interpreted as introspection, and at worst a symptom of laziness.

“The question is, where does that leave the value of real imagination, new ideas, art and individual expression?”

Priya Khanchandani

Inseparable from this unfortunate shift in perception is the Conservative government’s plans to cut higher education funding, to the extent that universities will lose millions for subjects such as art and design, resulting in an unforgivable form of cultural vandalism, the repercussions of which will reverberate for generations to come. Adding insult to injury, the property crisis and the growing power of big developers have led to the creation of so-called creative districts within cities that do little for local artists, in many cases driving them out, while fuelling the purse strings of landowners.

Almost certainly, the lack of regard for the importance of the arts will be devastating for the plurality of the cultural landscape, because the cuts will erode working-class participation first. It will also devalue the role of the arts in making a healthy, thriving society. If creativity is already commodified, imagine it being applied to pretty much any form of production, including the crafting of a corporate memo or the musings of a marketing specialist, by people who are referred to by the fancy term “creatives”.

The fact that this year’s Turner Prize shortlist is dominated by inter-disciplinary collectives, whose work crosses the boundaries of art, design and community practice, is encouraging in terms of the recognition of an all-too-often marginalised genre of socially engaged work, but troubling in that it is a symptom of the ever-growing need for art to fulfil functions that are not realised by the present state.

The five grassroots groups are described by Tate as collectives which “work closely and continuously with communities across the breadth of the UK to inspire social change through art.” Among them are Black Obsidian Sound System, a collective which “brings together a community of queer, trans and non-binary people of colour involved in art, sound and radical activism,” and the Cardiff-based group Gentle/Radical, who launched the Doorstep Revolution project, a resource of stories and narratives gathered during the Covid-19 lockdown in the Riverside area of the Welsh capital. The other nominees are the artist duo Cooking Sections who examine the systems through which we consume food; Project Art Works, based in Hastings, whose work promotes the work of neurodiverse artists and activists; and the Belfast-based activist group Array Projects.

“If the cuts to the arts continue, they could result in fewer art galleries, but also an erosion of the national soul.”

Priya Khanchandani

Creative communities have the capacity to engage young people and create social peace. They can bridge divisions in class and race, shift opinions, and make us more minded, progressive and tolerant. During the recent lockdown, we have seen how creativity can be a source of hope and a manifestation of gratitude, in the rainbows drawn by children and displayed in their windows in tribute to the NHS, and the many ways in which we have all expressed ourselves through making, by way of mindfulness at a time of melancholy and disheartenment.

When the doors of our galleries and museums had to sadly close, the importance of creativity in the public realm, and its direct engagement with communities, took on a new resonance. The artist Farah Al Qasimi conceived of a magical series of photographs for spaces usually reserved for advertisements on 100 bus shelters all over New York City, depicting neighbourhoods favoured by immigrants, from a chandelier in a Yemini-owned bodega to men in a barbershop run by Palestinians.

As we emerge from the worst pandemic, as survivors contemplating the rubble of what we have left and figuring out what sort of society we wish to rebuild for the future, the value of the arts in strengthening communities is hard to ignore. Creativity is a primordial part of us that we must unleash; it is also something that has long thrived in Britain. If the cuts to the arts continue, they could result in fewer art galleries, but also an erosion of the national soul.

The Power of Storytelling with Yinka Ilori

This story along with many others are part of a guest edit of It’s Nice That by the artist, Yinka Ilori. To read further pieces from Yinka’s curation click on the link below.

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About the Author

Priya Khanchandani

Priya Khanchandani is a curator, writer and commentator. Previously the editor of Icon Magazine, she has also contributed to publications such as Frieze, The Observer and The Sunday Times on design, art and visual culture. She is currently the head of curatorial and interpretation at The Design Museum in London.

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