Art in the Hour of the Startup

by Stavros Pavlides

November 2012

Between the apotheosis of the startup, the recent culture-altering economic crisis and the near-universal canonization of Steve Jobs, we may discern a new kind of hero emerging from the fabric of society: that of the self-made, self-employed entrepreneur. Alternate invocations of this sublime meta-modern entity include the “job-creator” and the “small business owner.” The entrepreneur, as an ideological apparatus, is the perfect summation of current American values: resourceful, creative, diligent, frugal, resilient and, above all, morally (read: fiscally) irreproachable.

“Artists should learn to see themselves as entrepreneurs,” opines Camille Paglia, professor of Media Studies the University of Arts in Philadelphia, and indeed every professional artist is already his/her own startup. They are perennial innovators, they have formed their own brand identity as a contractual agreement between themselves and their clientele. They facilitate all operations, production, marketing and promotion. The argument being put forth here is that the similarities between art making and entrepreneurship, being far too numerous to ignore, suggest a very specific free-enterprise fueled moral code, a “creative morality,” which has led to an ever-increasing exchange of tools and methodologies in the pursuit of entrepreneurial sanctity.

What we call “art” is a fluid concept that changes alongside the society it reflects. In western cultures, art serves three primary deities: innovation, aesthetics and expression. If art is to stimulate the senses, innovation is a necessary constant, as familiarity erodes the impact of every subsequent form. The Futurists, particularly Marinetti and Russolo, were keen to pick up on this, and opted to jar the senses through industrially inspired art, the hallmarks of which remain effective to this day. Expression, as an inevitable trait of human communication, has always been present in the arts, but only truly became a creative imperative during the Romantic era and as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. This has begun to change in recent years.

The tech-information revolution of the past few generations has done something curious to the expressive capacity of the arts. By radically increasing the accessibility and facility of creative tools, and most recently by offering direct and immediate self expression through myriad social media platforms, self expression has become impotent in its universality, and thus has ceased to be a salient trait of art. The remaining aims of art therefore are innovation and aesthetics.

The modern businessman, on the other hand, is built on the self-made man. An American hero par excellence, the self-made man, the master of destiny, has found his expression in the Rockefellers and Henry Fords of the world. The latest entrepreneurs, however, possessing all the basic tools for living, have evolved their pursuits beyond mere utility, and espoused those other two goals of art. Steve Jobs, that messiah of innovation, perhaps most famously married aesthetics and design to performance, and doing so became certainly the most famous, though not the first, entrepreneur to appropriate the tools of visual art and aesthetics. Jobs’s debt to the avant-garde does not end there however: he found, as did other notable entrepreneurs (Richard Branson and Jann Wenner come to mind), his moral justification in the artist identity. In aligning themselves with the rebelliousness and progressivism often attributed to creatives, as yet another iteration of post-industrial artistic values, such businessmen manage to escape being part of the establishment, while mastering its rules. In this clever sleight of hand by way of artistic moral usurpation, entrepreneurs manage to be at once progressive, idealistic, untarnished, as well as powerful in the ways already outlined by the history of American capitalism.

Thus has art, lacking the financial achievements necessary for social heroism, been eclipsed as the primary domain of creativity and change. This results in statements like the one made by Dr. Paglia above, beckoning artists to be more entrepreneurial. “The entrepreneurial comes to stand as the very definition of success. No one can be as innovative, enterprising, or creative as entrepreneurs, and no one else is as valuable to a society as an entrepreneur. The result is that entrepreneurial imperative becomes the hallmark of success in any profession, or even more generally, in any role in life,” states Dr. Rohit Chopra in The New Inquiry. Artists therefore become startups of their own personal brand—if financially successful, they are vindicated, if unsuccessful, they are social dead weight.

Lest we appear too one-sided, this phenomenon has, in practice, borne good fruit as well. Artists are led to work harder, their work is held under a higher standard, ideas are put into focus and uniqueness rewarded. In short, this entrepreneurial drive may produce, arguably, better work. Business has also benefited from this intermingling, and we increasingly have companies thinking outside the box and actively pursuing unorthodox solutions, much like the artist that uses both method and intuition. This has invariably led to more flexible business, greater and faster evolutionary strides and, naturally, innovation.

The problem, however, is that good work and good business are not synonymous, and one form of success has overshadowed every other. It is difficult to determine the ultimate implications of this “creative morality.” Rather, it is what it is, a social force as morally accountable as any tsunami.