Entrepreneurship Beyond “Market?”

Matthew Clinton Sekellik deserves a more considered response to his recent Howlround post, “Against Entrepreneurship,” than I provided in a brief (and admittedly slapdash) comment on it. Because I get it, I really do. “Entrepreneurship” seems in many contexts to be – and in some cases is – an ideological tool to excuse the lack of public funding for the arts and to justify a kind of social Darwinism in which only the “entrepreneurial” survive.

Sekellik’s post is predicated on the idea that the capital markets are unfair, and I agree. How can we make the market more fair? One way is through public subsidy; that is what public subsidy is designed at least in part to do: to correct the inherent market failure in a given sector.


Free beer at Art Basel Miami. Photo by Jakob Fenger, CC 2.0.

Sekellik uses Uber drivers as an example of people trying to make it in a gig economy from which only the corporation, Uber, profits; the drivers themselves are exploited. But Uber drivers are not entrepreneurs; they are contract workers. Unlike artists who create a unique product and send it into the world, Uber drivers pick people up and drop them off.

What if we separate entrepreneurship from “the market” all together? To be an entrepreneur means to:

  • create something new, something of value: aesthetic value, cultural value, social value, or, maybe, financial value
  • recognize or create opportunity to create that something new
  • make use of both internal resources (knowledge, skills, ability) and external resources (social connections, money, facilities, partnership) to create that something new
  • create a structure or process for connecting that something new its audience
  • start all over again if things go wrong – or if things go right – to keep making

These behaviors exist in non-capitalist economies and capitalist economies. In our own late capitalist economy, such behaviors can generate income that can be reinvested in the making of more art.

But is it enough income? Sekellik writes:

What we must demand is our fair share: wages, jobs, pensions, health care. We must demand dignity and respect so that the capitalists and entrepreneurs who think our work worthless must recognize our contributions to civic society. And we must ensure our demands our heard.

I couldn’t agree more. Our work as artists, playwrights, lighting designers, musicians… should be valued and compensated. But working as a freelancer, as Seth Godin recently pointed out, is not the same as being an entrepreneur and although I quibble with Godin’s focus on the financial goal of a profitable “harvest,” his distinction between the two is important. As freelancers, we must demand equitable pay for freelance work. As artists putting new work into the world, we have to be willing to take risks and may need to bundle our entrepreneurial and freelance work together; that’s not neoliberalism, it’s pragmatism.

Ultimately, it’s really hard to make a living as an artist. It’s also really hard to make a living as a public elementary school teacher (many of whom work second jobs as Uber drivers). Both artists and teachers are critical to the functioning of society and both are grossly undervalued by the market. We can’t ignore the market, but we can think beyond it.

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.
This entry was posted in Arts entrepreneurship, Institutional Infrastructure, Personal infrastructure. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Entrepreneurship Beyond “Market?”

  1. Linda,
    Looking up the word ‘entrepreneur’ in several dictionaries they all refer to “business”, a word which is absent from your definition above. John F. Kennedy spoke numerous times about the difference between the arts and business and how the arts existed in a different type of economy, a economy needing public support.
    I can appreciate you wanting to expand certain entrepreneurial ideas for artists to use but it’s important to distinguish the differences between the two and be aware of the danger of conflating the two.

    • lindaessig says:

      Richard: Thanks for your comment. Etymologically, the word translates literally from the French as “to undertake,” usually meaning to undertake an enterprise. An 1828 usage in English associated “entrepreneur” with creative producer – as someone who produces a theatrical production (what could also, I suppose, be called an “impresario”) so the word’s association with the arts, at least the performing arts, goes back almost 200 years. The entwining of art and business go back much further. Michelangelo, for example, was commissioned — and paid — by nine different Catholic Popes and via the Medici family/s patronage he employed scores of artisans and assistants.

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