Attack of the Zombies – the arts’ fascination with ‘innovation’

Innovate as a last resort – Charles Eames

I have lately been spending some time looking after my godson, a beautiful, funny 12, nearly 13 year old. When we have a bit of downtime the conversation often turns to the Zombie Apocalypse.

These freewheeling discussions cover topics such as who’s in charge (him because he knows more about Zombies than anybody else), what weapons we’ll need, where we’ll make our stronghold and clear definitions of my role in his team. For those that are interested, I’m a lone wolf lurking on the shadowy fringes of his struggling settlement who doesn’t take orders but does what he “suggests”.

The term Zombie has its origin in the West African words nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish). It gained traction in the mid 1800s when it was used to refer to the victims of Haitian witchdoctors who drugged innocents inducing a deathlike trance that subjected them to their control. Over time it has come to symbolise a mindless adherence to authority or belief and has been used in popular culture to provide indirect commentary on the dangers of unfettered conformity.

While for my godson this dystopia where zombies roam the planet mindlessly seeking out human flesh is somewhere in the future, I feel like I’m already living in it.

And the fetish in my horror story is not flesh but a word — innovation.

Innovation is our new god, a thing to be worshipped that will make us great. It was the central plank of the Coalition’s electoral campaign that was otherwise devoid of policy. According to the Libs, innovation will bring wealth and of course we all know with wealth comes happiness.

Innovation is an inherently desirable quality that will lead us to love, companionship, courage, beauty, dignity and anything else you want. Innovation will put us on the top of the global pile of something and in the arts it will save us. From whatever. Innovation, it seems, is so important that I feel it’s worth finding out what this exotic quality we’re all scrambling for actually is.

Sadly, despite our sudden awareness of innovation, it is far from innovative. In fact as a political slogan it’s about as hackneyed as they come. The US had a long love affair with innovation that began in the 1980s characterised by young Californians creating global empires out of beach side garages.

Its content is neither market orientated nor capacity building; there is nothing innovative about Othello.

Soon the pursuit of innovation was giving both sides of politics a licence to ramp up their ideological agendas. Conservative politicians could gut government services and cut taxes in the name of spurring entrepreneurship, while the left could invest heavily in new programs aimed at fostering productivity.

In the US the fetish began to run out of steam about 10 years ago when it became clear that innovation was really just a neutered and morally corrupt version of that difficult word, progress. Innovation had provided a way to celebrate the accomplishments of a high-tech age but the cost was a collapse in moral and social improvement. It became a buzzword that masked America’s dysfunctional political system, its frayed social safety net, failing public infrastructure and its enduring fascination with flashy, shiny things and faster loading assault weapons.

Research in the US also found that innovation was not foolproof, failing to meet its projected financial goals 95% of the time. They were surprised to find that most of the things that surrounded them weren’t innovative. Fridges, motor cars, sewage, electricity, hot water services.

They “innovated” the motor car over a century ago. What should follow is progress: better roads, less congestion, safer drivers. They also realised that if you want to enjoy innovation, you need people to maintain it. Without the plumber, your broken sewer isn’t very innovative.

Innovation is good but it’s what you do after you have innovated that is the most important, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of innovation.

Yet here we are in Australia doing what we so often do, borrowing things from overseas that are already broken and enthusiastically innovating in all areas of endeavour from small business to health care.

One would have thought our artists, themselves fringe dwellers, would have resisted the temptation to innovate but instead they’ve gleefully joined in, mindlessly lumbering towards the word with a zombie like fanaticism.

It’s not hard to see why innovation has become the Australian art world’s favourite euphemism. We persistently believe we are an egalitarian society despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And ‘art’ sounds elitist and ephemeral; creative industry sounds energetic and essential.

‘Artist’ conjures images of unshaven layabouts in poorly fitting overcoats drinking lattes and smoking kreteks while discussing social issues; cultural innovators are forthright people with their shirtsleeves rolled up, covering whiteboards with magical diagrams of arrows pointing to words like ‘Audience’ and ‘Engagement’.

But best of all, the cult of innovation neatly sidesteps the problem that has befuddled the business case for art from the beginning. A recalcitrant politician may cheerfully admit to having no taste, but no one wants to stand accused of opposing innovation. Innovation is always good, whatever outfit it is wearing. To that end we have purged the A word from our vocabularies so much so that in Victoria we don’t even have an arts ministry anymore but instead the innovative sounding Creative Victoria.

The Australia Council, that champion of middle class distraction, talks about Art on its front page but dig a little deeper and innovation speak is everywhere. Reading various criteria for funding makes me wonder how Shakespeare may have got up a play like Othello, the decidedly modally old fashioned story of the noble savage brought down by another man’s pride.

Its content is neither market orientated nor capacity building; there is nothing innovative about Othello — or any of the Bard’s stories. It’s a play about jealousy, a simple meditation on the human condition that gives an audience a sense of what jealousy is like as a feeling: how it starts, how it builds, how it takes possession of our mind, how it can lead to catastrophic consequences. An examination of who we are that still resonates because while hopefully none of us will kill our partners in a jealous rage, through the drama of Othello we have the potential to understand how it can happen.

Shakespeare saw that drama was the nearest thing we have to real life without being real life and funnily enough we don’t innovate our lives. We progress, hopefully; sometimes slowly, often painfully, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Art was innovated a long time ago. Boring, mundane, old fashioned progress is what it now attempts and it will continue to do so long after shiny, flashy, fast loading “innovation” has been inevitably replaced by yet another zombie fetish.

Featured image: a zombie from the AMC series The Walking Dead

4 responses to “Attack of the Zombies – the arts’ fascination with ‘innovation’

  1. As a millenial I find this article oddly (and ironically) innovative? Anyways I read the whole thing and even enjoyed it which is high praise considering my goldfish-like attention span. Not sure I completely grasp the concept as strongly as the author but definitely believe cultural innovation might secretly be the equivalent of desperate retail therapy in an attempt to plug up your existential despair and forget that horrible Christmas with the in-laws (in which Joanne made that same racist joke she does every. single. year.)

  2. There are words we dare not speak
    The truth within them too hard to bear
    Too painful to have to hear
    Once heard, never to be unheard.

    There are words we cannot speak
    Words so delicate they would burst
    Like a soap bubble
    Words so fine they would break your heart.

    And there are words
    Mumbling, pounding, screaming, shrieking
    Pouring in pandemonic caterwaul
    Into the deafened, uncomprehending
    Ear
    Of
    The
    world

  3. This article struck me as directionless, largely meaningless and ponderously semantic.
    Maybe there’s an analogy here?
    I wish it contained more ‘progress’ or god forbid, ‘innovation’.

  4. Thanks Neil, I have to confess it was the Bruce Spence zombie pic that got me in (not Bruce? Clearly I’m showing my age).

    But in any case, as someone who works in the innovation space, and not in the arts, I’m shocked to hear you’re caught up in the innovation bubble too, poor sods.

    A startup today is what a small business with grand ambitions was yesterday. Innovation, what we did when we needed to come up with some new ideas. It’s not rocket science Beryl (although there’s a sizeable remora industry earning good bucks convincing us that it is).

    Unlike business, the arts (sorry, I meant the artists, the arts is something else) is better served staying away from the hype and just doing good, creative, work.

    Actually, business could benefit from that too.

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