State of Change

Because I teach, research, and blog about arts entrepreneurship, I have to thank The Atlantic for the great year-end gift of a platform on which to build my Creative Infrastructure anniversary post. In an article by literary critic William Deresiewicz and a companion reaction piece by Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic has outlined the state of the arts and artists today – that state is a state of change. Although Meyer derides him for doing so, Deresiewicz pretty accurately sums up the last 500 years of art history: the master craftsman of the Renaissance studios evolved into the Romanticized lone genius, then into the mid twentieth century “professional,” and is now evolving again into the entrepreneurial artist.

Deresiewicz thinks this is a bad thing, that in this interactive age, artists will “spend a lot more time looking over their shoulder, trying to figure out what the customer wants rather than what they themselves are seeking to say.” There’s another way to look at this – that in the age of interaction (to use Claire Chase’s term), the artist needs to get to know her audience and community, to find out what that audience or community needs, and to make art that meets that need. Not just what the popular consumer “wants,” but what the audience – the society – needs. I had an interesting talk yesterday with Jim Griffin, former Geffen records director of technology and currently principal consultant at OneHouse, who said that the concept of a “consumer” of the arts is misguided – it’s a one way relationship that uses up that which is consumed. Instead, and I’m paraphrasing, we need to think of the audience for the arts as partners in an ongoing two-way relationship in which art is not consumed, but appreciated. Yes, we are in the age of interaction as well as integration.

Bob Dylan at St. Lawrence University (public domain)

Bob Dylan at St. Lawrence University (public domain)

To achieve that partnership, artists must, quoting Claire Chase, “be willing to change – this is the entrepreneurial act.” Deresiewiscz warns that training student artists to access this change, teaching them to craft a website, to distribute their work, to create across the traditional artistic platforms, may lead to a focus on breath instead of depth; quality will suffer. MacArthur fellow Chase’s artistic quality hasn’t suffered from her embrace of an entrepreneurial approach to art-making and, as Meyer points out, neither did Shakespeare’s. Yes, the times they are a-changin*, Professor Deresiewiccz. Change is scary, change is dangerous, change is uncertain. In the new year, I’ll be plowing ahead to empower artists to not only manage that change, but to make it happen for themselves.

(To find out more about the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship, see

*”You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.” – Bob Dylan


About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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