I have been both in classes and casual conversations where “Artist-as-entrepreneur” is raised as an explanation or model for behavior. It feels like a fashionable phrase. Its sounds nice, exciting even, in that million-dollar-idea kind of way. It suggests an inherent value in artistic merit: like a gold mine, if you just figure out how to tap that vein and harvest its treasures, the world will pay top dollar for Â your whims of fancy. It implies a level of control; your creativity is like a racehorse, and something to leverage in a competitive environment.
The phrase bothers me. When it comes up, it feels like it’s been taken for granted as a truth, as compelling today as “inner child” was in the 90s. What’s interesting, however, is examining what the term implies about the artist’s relationship to his or her work and its place the world. In Mark Fisher’s book,Capitalist Realism he suggests it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. “The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect Â of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious, iconography, pornography or Das Kapital, a monetary value…Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics” (Capitalist Realism, Zero Books, 2009).Â Â By calling ourselves entrepreneurs we resign whatever resistance (or even, more bleakly idea of resistence) we might pose via ideology.Â We internalize the expectations of entrepreneurship, welcoming them into our studios as a means to thereby measure success and failure. Even the artist must justify him or herself according the terminology prescribed by capital.Â It is this latter point that I find most dangerous, precisely because of how difficult it is to shed those values once they have been adopted.
Jean Baptiste-Say coined theÂ entrepreneur in the 1700s. He suggests “the entrepreneur shifts economic resources out of lower and into higher productivity and greater yield.”Â The artist therefore becomes an intermediary between the lower work (the labor of making), who make that process more efficient and brings it to a public. The goal is a yield, what can translate into revenue or cultual capital. Under this light, the goal is not the work itself, but the yield to be gained.
It’s worth pointing that, based on that criteria, artists are inherent failures. We are terrible entrepreneurs. Assess the cost of a single work you make. Tally up the number of hours it took, the cost of supplies and then compare that with your prospective price point (if there is one). Consider the percentage you have to give up, if you are represented by a gallery: art making is a fool’s errand. The yield is very very low. While that might be different for those at the top of the ladder, they are nevertheless exceptions with a tenuous hold on their economic standing. There are very very few among us who look anything like Gorden Gekko.
I don’t deny the useful application of business strategy. There are daily issues of sustainabilityâ€”how does one feed oneself, pay rent, and even disseminate ones work? There is much to be gained from businesses Â strategies, both on operational and administrative levels. However, I distrust unreflective applications of terminology. Rather than legitimize one’s cultural contribution through ready-made titles, I would like to discuss new terms by which to articulate the artist’s position. Terms reflective of the awkwardness in our easily marginalized but, I would argue, essential civic participation. We could just as easily call ourselves spirit hunters or visual philosophers: what happens to the expectations we have of ourselves under other labels? At the very least could we find terminology that reflects the holisitic relationship between the work itself, the process of making, its modes of dissemination and use-value.