The Artist as Entrepreneur
“Making money is art and working is art and being good in business is the best art.” -Warhol*.
A few thoughts to transition us into the post-Labor Day workweek and the last productive chunk of the year before the holidays…
One of the cornerstones of my point of view on building a career in the arts is that artists should think of themselves less as Romantic explorers submarining into the depths of the human soul than as entrepreneurs. The general agonies and ecstasies–few and far between as the latter may be sometimes–are the same for a sculptor or a filmmaker as for a tech startup or an inventor. For better and worse, every artist in every medium is her own small business.
I was reminded of this idea yesterday when, like plenty of other people striving in creative fields, I spent a good part of Labor Day misinterpreting the holiday’s name and working.
Would I rather have been on a sandy stretch of coastline with some friends at my side, some freshly grilled meats in one hand, and some cold booze in the other? I suppose some part of me would have.
But overall it was more valuable to me to take advantage of a market inefficiency and try to gain ground on my competitors. As I told a friend on Saturday when he asked me if I was excited about the rest of the long weekend, I was excited about it in the sense of, “Ha, these suckers are gonna be out having fun while I’m at my desk secretly kicking their asses.”
Yes, I realize how emotionally stunted that sounds on some level. But in a very real way, it’s an acknowledgment of the realities of entrepreneurship. (And hey, at least I didn’t use the phrase “killing it.”)
The simple truth is that, despite Jay Z’s best efforts, there is no blueprint for success in a creative sector. Whereas in, say, law or finance, an established career track stretches from departure station to the dreamed-of destination, artists in all genres have to dynamite their own route through a mountain pass with no trustworthy guidance.
This fact puts them in the same predicament as anyone trying to launch a business of any other kind from zero. It’s all the same hulking unknown.
Are there possible glimmers of daylight along the way in both cases? Yes and no. For instance, artists can try to get into a top MFA program like a Cal Arts or an Iowa Writer’s Workshop, hope to impress the right contacts while enrolled, and possibly emerge from the program with legit gallery representation or a book deal–just like a budding entrepreneur can try to get into a top MBA program like a Wharton or a Chicago Booth, hope to impress the right contacts while enrolled, and emerge from the program with backers for her next venture in place.
But even in both of those cases, the glimmers of daylight are far from a sure thing.
Sometimes you can’t blast your way through the tough sediment of a top MFA admissions process to track them. Sometimes the contacts you need to supply you with rations and oil in the darkness don’t materialize. Sometimes even if you complete the tunneling process, a landslide of debt buries you when you emerge on the other side, or you’re unequipped to deal with the equally harsh conditions in the alleged land of opportunity, or what you mistook for daylight was actually the fire warming a waiting gang of hostile competitors ready to transform you into nothing more than a lead-riddled mass of carrion and a cautionary tale to the next wave of would-be trailblazers.
Ultimately, we are all on our own. And we’re all guessing about how to get where we want to go.
At least, at the start. But the flip side is that we also have the freedom and the opportunity to figure it out–and with a few exceptions, everyone we’re competing with is just as lost.
So work smart. Work hard. Build relationships. Think strategically. Persevere, just like any traditional entrepreneur would. And with a little good fortune and a lot of awareness, we can each get there.
But it’s completely, totally, and absolutely up to us.
*Disclaimer: Yes, I realize no Warhol quote is ever meant to be taken completely at face value. But I also know that, like a good joke, each one has some level of truth to it, too.