First Principles, Inadequate Soil, and Artist Entrepreneurs

On June 8, I participated in a virtual symposium sponsored by the Arts, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Lab at Indiana University entitled “New. Not Normal.” Some panelists were invited to pre-record ~15 minute talks, while others, like me, were invited to respond to those prerecorded talks. What follows is the prompts I was given in advance, and my responses to them.

Prompt from Doug Noonan: “In her presentation, Lucy [Bernholz] talked about the importance of first principles in thinking about our systems. She pressed us to push beyond the ‘mushrooms’ that are on thesurface and to examine the ‘soil’ underneath. I’d like to go around the panel, and ask: in light of recent crises, what are the first principles that you think are most important?”

Before I answer the question about first principles, I want to Thank Doug [Noonan] and Joanna [Woronkowicz] for the opportunity to share my thoughts with my esteemed panelists and the many others watching. I also want to thank Indiana University for allowing me to defer its modest honorarium to an artist in need rather than accepting it myself. I’m not sharing this to highlight my own righteousness, but rather because her story is emblematic of what working artists who serve communities of color are facing right now in the world of Covid-19. Martha Carrillo is a member of the Self-Help Graphics and Art Census Atelier, working toward a full count of all of the residents of East LA as well as, under different circumstances, a resident artist with their Barrio Mobile Art studio. She lost that contract work as a result of the pandemic. I’ll come back to that…but on to the matter at hand.

If it’s possible to have TWO first principles, I want to share my observations of them

  1. One. The free market economy has been our default first principle. The neoliberal version of it we’ve lived in since 1980 is the “soil,” to use Lucy’s metaphor, but it is soil that does not provide the nourishment we need as a nation; a soil that has proven to be completely inadequate to the task of nourishing us during this time of crisis; As a system, it is inadequate to the task of producing and distributing necessary goods equitably in a time of crisis. The free market, as a first principle, has not provided masks, or testing kits or even toilet paper efficiently or effectively. The current regime’s responses to Black Lives Matter protests is one the “mushrooms,” growing out of this sick soil (and I note for my colleague Tyler Cowen who in his pre-recorded comments called these “riots” – they are not, they are protests). This response favoring property rights over human rights exposes the sickness. As Marc Bamuthi points out, there is a tension between public good and private wealth. Our free market soil helps the latter grow, but often at the expense of the former.
  2. Second: the second “first principle” is the healthy soil of communities. Community-level actions really matter for community and individual well-being. Whether it’s neighbors feeding neighbors or people in a café deciding to wear or not wear a mask, individual actions in community or neighborhood settings have life-or-death consequences. We need to look to community action during this time of crisis. (And I learned from Nwamaka Agbo that we can call this “resorative economics,” a term I love.)

Later in the panel, Doug asked me about the challenges and opportunities for artist entrepreneurs. Here is my response:

First, they should keep making art because that’s what artists do. But for a dozen of the last fifteen years, I’ve been teaching artists to navigate an economic system that really doesn’t work for them. Arts incubators, crowd funding sites like Kickstater, arts business workshops are all “mushrooms” that have sprung up out of necessity in this neoliberal freemarket soil. But rather than changing what artists need to do, maybe it’s time to change the soil, the system. The Pandemic shows this clearly enough, and the recent protests point out that it is just unethical to value property rights over human rights. One of the things I’m working on now in my writing is this idea of artists forgoing the organizations that have grown up inside the capitalist system and instead connecting their work more directly with their audience. I don’t really have any answers to that…but it is what I think about, when I’m not focused on my day job as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA.

[image: Mushrooms found growing in potting soil. Photo by WDavis1911; CC 3.0]

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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1 Response to First Principles, Inadequate Soil, and Artist Entrepreneurs

  1. Jeff McMahon says:

    Thanks Linda! Bamuthi’s presentation, and your comments, are getting me thinking more positively about what we can actually do with these multiple crises.

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