History & Context of the Creative Industries: Culture and Avant-Garde

What is the Cultural Turn?


The Cultural Turn is a movement beginning in the early 70s among scholars in the humanities and social sciences to make culture the focus of study and research, no longer just history, English literature and politics. The experiences of daily life such as habits, rituals, celebrations and food became the focus and object of study. Our upbringing, education and the cultural aspects we are exposed to shape who we become and have a strong impact on how we behave, learn and engage.

The very sphere of culture itself has expanded, becoming coterminous with market society in such a way that the cultural is no longer limited to its earlier, traditional or experimental forms, but it is consumed throughout daily life itself, in shopping, in professional activities, in the various often televisual forms of leisure, in production for the market and in the consumption of those market products, indeed in the most secret folds and corners of the quotidian. Social space is now completely saturated with the image of culture.”


What is Culture?


‘Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.’ Tyler (British anthropologist) 1870: 1; cited by Avruch 1998: 6

Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behaviour acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiment in artefacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other, as conditional elements of future action.’ Kroeber & Kluckhohn 1952: 181; cited by Adler 1997: 140

Culture consists of the derivatives of experience, more or less organized, learned or created by the individuals of a population, including those images or encodements and their interpretations (meanings) transmitted from past generations, from contemporaries, or formed by individuals themselves.’ T.Schwartz 1992; cited by Avruch 1998: 17

[Culture] is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.’ Hofstede 1994: 5 ‘… the set of attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a group of people, but different for each individual, communicated from one generation to the next.’ Matsumoto 1996: 16

Culture is a fuzzy set of basic assumptions and values, orientations to life, beliefs, policies, procedures and behavioural conventions that are shared by a group of people, and that influence (but do not determine) each member’s behaviour and his/her interpretations of the ‘meaning’ of other people’s behaviour.’ Spencer-Oatey 2008: 3

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Culture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.

Culture and art are no longer restricted to traditional forms. My family comes from a middle-class background in which culture in a traditional way wasn’t part of our upbringing. It wasn’t disregarded, nobody had the thought, much less the habit, of including such things in our daily lives. Attending a private Catholic school, I quickly realised that the other students came from richer families in which culture played a central role in their education and family activities. Weekends were spent attending art exhibitions, watching alternative films, a certain literary genre was favoured, artwork was present on the walls and shelves and the discussions that I had with their parents couldn’t have been more different to the kind of topics we broached during my own family dinners.

Class plays an undeniable role in what type of culture we are exposed to. My family is no less cultivated than another, less versed in traditional art forms perhaps, more contemporary and instantaneous. It was more about leisure and entertainment rather than culture for the sake of culture, something which can be felt in the way we have been brought up, the personalities we developed and the views we adopt.


The Creative Industries


The term ‘creative industries’ began to be used about twenty years ago to describe a range of activities, some of which are amongst the oldest in history and some of which only came into existence with the advent of digital technology. Many of these activities had strong cultural roots and the term ‘cultural industries’ was already in use to describe theatre, dance, music, film, the visual arts and the heritage sector, although this term was itself controversial as many artists felt it demeaning to think of what they did as being, in any way, an ‘industry’.

‘Is culture returning to a traditional nation and time-bound definitions and uses – especially in light of BREXIT and American isolation?’ is an interesting question to ask oneself but shouldn’t the question be “Can it really?” Can it really go back to such a definition of what culture once was in spite of the rise of technology, social media and other means which have eradicated borders and time zones? Nowadays culture has become internationally accessible, elitism still exists in a way but what used to be reserved to a certain class no longer is, borders between social classes have been blurred, at least when it concerns culture. Everyone has access to that sort of knowledge through phones, computers and television. I doubt it can return to being entirely elitist, traditional and time-bound, not with the easy and instantaneous access to knowledge and culture granted by media- especially in a time ruled by images.

In a time where AI, robotics and algorithms are on the rise, creativity’s potential appears limitless. New doors are opening for every sector and creativity should and will take advantage of that. Far from being the most knowledgeable on the subject, I feel like, nowadays, creativity concerns all sectors and progress will continue blurring the lines between each sector, intwining them further with one another.




Avant-garde is originally a French term, meaning in English vanguard or advance guard (the part of an army that goes forward ahead of the rest). It first appeared with reference to art in France in the first half of the nineteenth century and is usually credited to the influential thinker Henri de Saint-Simon, one of the forerunners of socialism.


Avant-garde artists can be described as a group of people who develop fresh and often very surprising ideas in visual art, literature and culture at large. In fact, the French political writer Henri de Saint-Simon first introduced the term in declaring that artists should serve as the avant-garde in the general movement of social progress and radical reforms, even before scientists, industrialists and other classes.

In 1825, Saint-Simon wrote: ‘We artists will serve you as an avant-garde, the power of the arts is most immediate: when we want to spread new ideas we inscribe them on marble or canvas. What a magnificent destiny for the arts is that of exercising a positive power over society, a true priestly function and of marching in the van [i.e. vanguard] of all the intellectual faculties!’

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‘L’origine du Monde’, Gustave Courbet (1866)

The Avant-Garde has as its basis the use of art, design and culture (broadly) to challenge the status quo. By this, they are not only challenging the elites of society – but also ideas, ways of doing and explaining the world. The purpose of the Avant-Garde was to hope that the disruption caused by modern progress in the arts and sciences will result in the end not only in the control of nature to humanities benefit but will also promote universal justice, moral progress and happiness.

The start of the Avant-Garde can be linked to the end of the Enlightenment in 1789, a period in which the authority of the monarchy and the Church were severely questioned. New ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, constitutional government and separation of church and state became central points of the Enlightenment. As the foundations of society shifted, what once might have been right and irrefutable was now being questioned. New foundations had to be built and it was the perfect time to get things moving and introduce new ideas and ways of doing.

Enlightenment philosophers believed that rational thought could lead to human improvement and was the most legitimate mode of thinking. They saw the ability to reason as the most significant and valuable human capacity. The notion of elitism and the views on all human beings, in general, were disrupted, which probably aided in the slow move towards universal education, wider access to culture and the notion that all have equal rights.Related image

‘Declaration of Independence’, John Trumbull (1818)

In my opinion, Enlightenment and Avant-Garde are intimately linked. Amidst all the change, I believe culture prospered and was at the forefront of it all, taking advantage of the surrounding chaos and changes to question further, bringing new ideas and outdated conceptions to light.

In the years following the revolutions in France, the Romantics venerated the artist’s creative powers; based on their creative talent, they were held up as a special and sublime class, somehow separate from ordinary mortals.

Prior to the 18th century in a mostly preliterate society, visual images were the way you got information about the world. Wealthy and powerful patrons knew this and used art and artists to persuade and teach.

In the 19th century, the spread of democracy and the rise of the middle class changed the equation. The salon became an important institution which allowed artists to present an immense variety of visions and messages, judged and driven by a rising middle class that could now afford to patronize the arts. Annual exhibitions or salons were held, and the public avidly followed the latest innovations.

There was still a belief, as there had been in the past, in the power of art to mould human minds. But now the artist controlled his own visions. His duty, according to the Avant-Garde ethic, was to provide moral and spiritual leadership and to show beauty and meaning for the dawning industrial age. That is, he was to reinvent and expand the visual language to meet changing times.

These ideals led to the birth of Modernism in the later 19th century through such movements as Impressionism, Expressionism and Symbolism. Modernism is a concept born in the industrial revolution. It was the expression of an urge to embrace the new realities and materials of the industrial age and was expressed through literature, art, decorative arts and design. Underlying most of the modernist movements have been earnest efforts at social engineering- utopianism for the new industrial state that was taking shape.

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‘Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather’, Claude Monet (1899-1903)

The term avant-garde is applicable to all art that pushes the boundaries of ideas and creativity and is still used today to describe art that is radical or reflects originality of vision.

The notion of the avant-garde enshrines the idea that art should be judged primarily on the quality and originality of the artist’s vision and ideas.

Trying to resist the lure towards complacency and conformism; it is not about shock tactics nor is it about transgressions for the sake of being different – Avant-Garde is a state of mind (how can we, why do we, how should we, what can we …)



The Definition of the Avant-Garde



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