Against Entrepreneurship

The picture has been painted for us. Adapt or die. We in the theatre know this much is true: jobs are scarce, good pay and benefits scarcer. Funding, like audiences, seems to be dwindling. The solution, we’re told, is just as clear—embrace the market, become creative entrepreneurs. This may be a stopgap measure to survive this state of precarity, but it doesn’t alter that state. Indeed, this proposed solution short-circuits the questions of why audiences are dwindling, of why we aren’t paid well for our work. What if, instead of changing ourselves and our art practices to fit the market, we could alter the conditions of the field itself? It is possible. Indeed, it is necessary for the survival of our field.

Why, then, do we have such an investment in the question of entrepreneurship? It is no oversimplification to say that we’ve been told it’s the only option—capitalism is, after all, practically the official ideology of the United States. It is important to remember that just a few generations ago our field was the target of an ideological purge against so-called Hollywood radicals by the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 and 1951. The Protestant ethic runs deep in America: we have to work hard to succeed in the fair and free market of ideas. What we’re not told, what our histories leave out, is that the market is not fair. The market favors that which will make money, it favors the exploitation of resources and labor for profit—that is, it favors entrepreneurship.

In a series of popular posts on HowlRound in 2014 and 2015, Seth Lepore argued that it is a fact that artists have to be entrepreneurs. If you read the entire series, you may notice he is not exactly arguing for entrepreneurship (especially when he asks the reader to imagine what a strike would look like). In “Facing Facts: Artists Need an Entrepreneurial Mindset Part 2,” he concluded with this:

Be an advocate not only for yourself but also for the field as a whole. An entrepreneurial mindset is not one of autonomous isolation but altruistic noncompetitive transparency. It is possible that we can all succeed beside one another.

an uber screen
Uber- enterprenurship personifed. Photo courtesy of Matthew Sekellick. 

What we’re not told, what our histories leave out, is that the market is not fair. The market favors that which will make money, it favors the exploitation of resources and labor for profit—that is, it favors entrepreneurship. 

Good advice. But entrepreneurship is competitive by definition, and Lepore is jumping through rhetorical hoops in his continued advocacy for it. Which begs the question, why? What do we really mean when we say entrepreneurship? Entrepreneurial ability, according to classical economics, is the skill of identifying market opportunities and exploiting them for profit. This is fundamentally at odds with Lepore’s advice. Lepore is really arguing for cultivating business acumen in order to better navigate the market: that we, as artists, learn the skills usually reserved for development officers, administrators, marketers, and producers. For hundreds of years, from Shakespeare’s day until very recently, these skills went hand-in-hand for companies often led by actor-managers.

What happened? The short version goes like this: the twentieth century saw the rise of specialization and professionalization alongside union-earned protections for working actors and tradespeople. Professional arts administrators emerged as part of a growing middle-manager class. Mass media emerged and begin to take over as dominant forms of entertainment. National arts funding grew, peaking in the 70s and 80s, then collapsed: first supporting professionalization and transforming how theatre artists were trained, then leaving us divided by professional skillsets (and increasingly burdened by debt) with a massive skeleton of nonprofits atrophied by defunding. This is a history that deserves much more in-depth telling, but for the purposes of this essay the important part is professionalization followed by defunding.

In the wake of this deprofessionalization, we find ourselves without professional careers, and so observe with common sense that we must go into business for ourselves, we must be entrepreneurs. Common sense, of course, as an expression of dominant cultural ideas, is the most ideological of the senses. We’ve become hybrids, hyphenates—just like actor-managers were. While we can think of this positively, that yes, we have diverse interests and opportunities as artists, we should remember the economic conditions that force us to be hybrids: single professional career tracks that would pay for our bills and our retirements are closed off. Lacking single dominant professional identities (as supported by traditional unions), we instead pursue all means: actor, writer, director, marketer, graphic designer, front of house manager, bartender, server, teacher, and so on. I do not mean to impugn hybrid artistic practices, nor to imply that professionals of one stripe lack interests in other specialties, only to point out the realities of the job market. If there are no stable jobs for us as one thing, we must be all things; we must be more creative in order to make a living.

In an essay in The Altantic, ominously titled “The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur,” William Deresiewicz discusses this at length:

Now we’re all supposed to be our own boss, our own business: our own agent; our own label; our own marketing, production, and accounting departments. Entrepreneurialism is being sold to us as an opportunity. It is, by and large, a necessity. Everybody understands by now that nobody can count on a job.

Deresiewicz goes on to argue that this is, ultimately, an opportunity for artists. I agree, it is an opportunity—a market opportunity for capital, but not for us artists. Looking at another field is illustrative: the Uber driver is celebrated for using their car and time to be entrepreneurial and make extra money, but in reality is doing the same work as a taxi driver for less pay. Meanwhile, Uber, deploying a true entrepreneurial mindset, harvests profit. And how many of us in the theatre moonlight as Uber drivers? This is the opposite of opportunity, it is exploitation.

We, who should be the mythmakers ourselves, too often glorify our oppression to make it look even more like the freedom that it claims to be.

When we embrace our new hybrid identities and work to defend and justify them, we are trying to make peace with our situation. Fair and reasonable. But too often we celebrate our circumstance when we should condemn it. Our professions are collapsing, being starved by the circulation of capital. We have bought the hype. We, who should be the mythmakers ourselves, too often glorify our oppression to make it look even more like the freedom that it claims to be. What difference is there between the hybrid company manager-producer-director and the glorified Uber driver? While we’re sold the ability to drive our own car on our own schedule or to pursue all of our diverse interests as freedom, we’re actually being forced by capital into being “flexible” just to put food on the table. The starving artist was perhaps always a romantic bohemian myth, and as a romantic myth it has appeal—but I, at least, prefer to eat.

When we say we are entrepreneurs, we accept that we don’t deserve to be paid for our work, but are instead assuming some risk, investing for some potential future payoff—and if it never comes, it is because our business plan wasn’t good enough, or we didn’t work hard enough. This is wrong. We deserve to be paid for our work.

Can you name a single playwright who makes their living strictly from writing for the theatre? Whether it’s in a classroom, bar, office, or even in a TV writer’s room, we must all do things so we can eat. Rather than decry this situation, we justify it. People love to tell the story of composer Philip Glass as a plumber and taxicab driver even when he’s a rising star, as if it lends him more credibility. What this story does, instead, is normalize this unacceptable situation—even he had to do it! When we say we are entrepreneurs, we accept that we don’t deserve to be paid for our work, but are instead assuming some risk, investing for some potential future payoff—and if it never comes, it is because our business plan wasn’t good enough, or we didn’t work hard enough. This is wrong. We deserve to be paid for our work.

When we embrace entrepreneurship, we focus our attention inward, struggling to make lemonade from these lemons, rather than on the systems that hand lemons to us. We try to control what we can as individuals, but the problems that push us to have “creative” careers are not individual problems. When we accept that we must move through the world as entrepreneurs, we are accepting that we cannot alter the conditions that demand we do so, the same conditions that hold us and our industry in a precarious state. Entrepreneurship fundamentally pitches us against each other, organizing us for the gain of the few rather than the collective growth of the many. Having internalized the logics of late capitalism we are prevented from working collectively to build a future for our industry. Indeed, it often prevents us from even imagining that we might do such a thing. This, in turn, prevents us from imagining just futures for our communities and fulfilling our roles as mythmakers. We must, instead, build collective power to demand fair pay, to demand jobs in the arts, to take what is rightfully ours as workers and citizens.

Learning how to better market ourselves may help sell a few more tickets, but it will not address these systemic problems. It is an individual solution to a society wide problem: a massive failure of the market that can only be corrected through concerted collective action. We must take what territory we can as artists, and that does include gaining business skills to become self-sufficient; doing our own budgeting, grant writing, and marketing. But it also includes building infrastructures and relationships that support rather than exploit; support networks that, through their intentionality, can resist capitalist hegemony. The market has failed us. We shouldn’t expect the market to save us.

In an entry titled “This is About Us, Not You: A Call to Action,” Lepore wrote: “We are a part of this, not merely spectators, sidelined by the people who have more business prowess.” It would be more accurate to say that yes, we are part of it, that yes, we are spectators, and that yes, we have been sidelined by people who have more business prowess. We have been sidelined by the forces of capital. Not by arts administrators, but by the forces that propel business itself. Our field has been, and continues to be, marginalized by capital. It was fighting back as laborers and struggling together that won us the fair working conditions many of us take for granted today. We can, and must, win again. We have to fight for wages, for jobs, for public funding, for gender and racial parity. Angels in America, that sprawling masterpiece of the American theatre, was written on an NEA grant that no longer exists. Minneapolis, often cited as being second only to New York City in theatre seats per capita, has public arts funding to match. That is what collective struggle can yield. These efforts are all connected: public investment can be allocated towards parity, creating new jobs in communities ignored by the market, while continued disinvestment will make the fight for equity a struggle over scraps.

So there remains a truth to be faced together: we artists in the theatre are workers, whether we trade our skills, time, and labor for a union paycheck or for just a few dollars. 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. It is not enough to say we must take responsibility for the future of our field, we must actively take responsibility for our future. We should heed Mr. Lepore’s advice: “Be an advocate not only for yourself but also for the field as a whole.” This is a principle called solidarity, and it is a fact that, if we wish for the theatre to thrive, if we wish for our colleagues to not be forced out of the field, if we wish for our students to find meaningful employment, if we wish to be able to entertain, enlighten, and enliven in our communities, we have no choice but to stand together.

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I am a computer programmer by day, and a playwright by night. But even as a computer programmer I maintain a entrepreneurial mindset. I do freelance work to ensure that I always have a plan B if I unexpectedly lose my job. I often recommend freelance programming to anyone who needs a great way to make good money while still keeping a flexible schedule, so you can jump on an opportunity. But computer programming does require a massive investment in time and energy to learn even a fraction of what you will need to know. It also consumes a good part of your intellectual capital so you can't be thinking about other things. A lot of creative people have been sucked into the Information Technology industry because it is the path of least resistance for anyone with a good mind. As a computer programmer, I am seen as being something of a genius. (It helps to work alone). God knows how long it would take the theater community to recognize my genius, or at least my fine wit!

Thank you for the thoughtful response. It is useful to remember that public school teaching positions are excellent and highly sought after jobs in many states, states without so-called right-to-work laws. Where teachers have strong unions, teaching is well paid.

But we fundamentally disagree: I am arguing explicitly that entrepreneurship is a capitalist framework that, as we have deeply internalized it, prevents us from imagining and enacting different ways of being - especially as it casts our struggles as individual rather than as collective. My argument is precisely that to think beyond the capitalist market we have to abandon the language of the capitalist. I don't really get into alternative terminology here, but I believe the frameworks of artist and worker are useful and instructive.

Your response, I suggest, is symptomatic of this: entrepreneurship becomes a fuzzy catchall rather than the explicit organizing of enterprise - which has nothing to do with creating something new. (Here, Uber, once again, provides an example: their service replicates existing taxi services only offering a hailing system that relies on less labor). Most of the behaviors you ascribe to entrepreneurs could just as easily be labeled as the behaviors of an artist, with no meaning lost.

Whether or not we're able to take risk has more to do with our access to resources than it does with entrepreneurship.

As for Uber being contract workers while artists aren't? Most artists I know get contracts for commissions, and most theatre artists I know are quite literally contract workers - myself included. My comparison foregrounds our labor: we're all trading our time for wages. Artists are no more entrepreneurial than Uber drivers, but the narratives that Uber promotes talk about their drivers as entrepreneurs, just as the language of capital suggests that artistic labor is entrepreneurial.

Hi Matthew: I took a quick look for teacher salaries by state and found this: http://www.nea.org/home/201... The data is a couple of years old, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference between right-to-work and strong union states (with the exception of NJ, which appears to be an outlier) . That having been said, I strongly support the notion of using collective action (whether by unionization or other means) to help workers achieve equitable living (or living+ wages) Our differences appear to be largely semantic as well as grounded in my belief that entrepreneurial behaviors are not inherently capitalistic nor inherently bad for artists. Have the semantics been co-opted in ways that have put artists and arts funding at risk? Yes. Is a negative outcome inevitable? No. Thank you for the discussion.

My argument is precisely that this difference is more than semantic: "entrepreneur" hasn't been co-opted - it is and has always been the language of capital, and that this linguistic-ideological regime governs our work and how we think about our work in deeply insidious ways. I.e., when we talk about "entrepreneurial behaviors" as somehow divorced from the organization of enterprise; as somehow including entire categories of activity that have little or nothing to do with capitalist enterprises. When we buy into that language, we're identifying ourselves not as laborers (or artists), but with the capitalist class.

This is neither here nor there, but a number of "right-to-work" states have teacher shortages: Kansas, Arizona, Indiana, and so on, because they're awful jobs.

Last time I checked every dictionary refers to an entrepreneur as "a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses". John F. Kennedy, who planted the seed of the NEA, understood that the arts and business don't easily mix; something we seem to have forgotten in our neoliberal age.Talking about art and artists as entrepreneurs is to normalize the language of neoliberalism. Let's remember that this language is not artist driven. No real artist is walking around thinking of themselves as entrepreneurs. This language is politically driven. It is driven by institutions and advocates that have bought into the values and goal of neoliberal economics.

As a general principle you can say, Americans lack imagination, because they spend so much time thinking about money.

Nomenclature aside, I agree with the essence of this piece which, if I understand correctly, is that just as the establishment has been telling people in general that they should be happy with Uber and other catch-as-catch can jobs (despite the radically lower pay and benefits compared to traditional jobs) because of the flexibility and well, "that's just the way the world is evolving", theater people have been told for even longer that they should put up with extremely insecure lives that involve a lot of part-time jobs to make ends meet... and it is time for *all* of us to stand up and say no, this isn't right.

After all, theater people are intrinsically the natural ally of the the working and middle class -- but (as another commentor indicated) this was perverted historically by so much reliance on wealthy patrons and/or government offiicials. So is it any wonder the working/middle classes have limited sympathy for the plight of theater people? (As the author indicated, food and shelter come first.)

I've long said that theater people are the canary in the coal mine as far as the economy and culture goes. That it, while it has seemed for years that theater people have had it worse than anyone else, in recent years so much of the rest of the working and middle class has (alas) "caught up" and is doing almost as poorly.

So what is the solution? As other commenters have already indicated, general protests and demands aren't going to accomplish much. Nor (I would add) will blaming "capitalism" (a word that means so many different things to different people as to be almost meaningless).

Rather, the solution (as I've probably said before, but I think the repetition is warranted) is to realize that most of our country's problems stem from the decision decades ago by those in charge to make our country an Empire, forever getting involved in conflicts all over the world (and in almost every case making things worse). In particular the last 25 years of virtually endless war in the middle east has all but bankrupted and decimated our country, while just making things worse (especially in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen).

But the U.S. military-industrial complex has profited immensely, as have the people in government who get campaign contributions from them (and often eventually go to work for them as lobbyists).

It's time to realize that (phony Nobel Peace Prizes withstanding) BOTH sides are equally complicit in this. (For example, more weapons were sold under the current administration than any other in history, and many were used by Saudi Arabia to slaughter thousands of civilians in Yemen [and in Syria of course after the weapons "fell into the wrong hands"].)

In the most recent election we were given a choice between somebody who wanted to escalate things in Syria (even if it meant risking WW3 with Russia), and somebody who wants to radically build up the military and possibly escalate things with Iran and/or China. No major-party candidate was running on a platform of peace and prosperity. Thus the solution is to support a new party that does. (Or radically change the ways of one of the current major parties). Alas, from what I've observed most theater folks still want to believe that one of the current major parties is so much better than the other... and so long as this is the case little progress can be made.

It may seem strange to talk so much about war and government in a theater magazine comment section. But I think the above article is a proper segue into it. For I think the only way that theater people (or most of the working and middle classes) are ever going to have good lives is by thinking "outside the box" (as much as I hate that phrase) and realizing the true cause of our problems is not "capitalism", but endless overseas wars.

I really think theater people can lead the country back to peace and prosperity, helping not only themselves but so many others as well.

(If you've actually read this far, thank you!)

1. Entrepreneurial action (which consists of recognizing or creating opportunity to create artistic work that has value (be it cultural, social, aesthetic, or economic value) need not be undertaken in the service of profit or capital acquisition. Entrepreneurship can be undertaken in the service of social good or even art itself.2. You write "When we embrace entrepreneurship, we focus our attention inward.." Quite the opposite is the case. When we embrace entrepreneurship, we acknowledge that we make work for an audience, that we create cultural value for ourselves and for other people. See: https://creativeinfrastruct...3. William Deresciewiscz views the past through rose-colored glasses, yearning for a system of patronage that reified exclusion and inequity. See https://creativeinfrastruct...I'll stop there, but if you're interested in learning more about arts entrepreneurship, feel free to reach out to me.

Linda, your first point doesn't make sense to me. Under capitalism, any sort of economic activity, which entrepreneurship inevitably is, must be undertaken in the service of capital acquisition or it will cease to happen. That's one of capitalism's fundamental ideological tenants, without which it would have no power.

Economic activity exists in non-capitalist systems, but that's not important here. What seems important is that there are many types of capital and entrepreneurial activity can be undertaken in ways that create value in the form of non-economic capital. You do this with your own entrepreneurial company.

But we don't live in a non-capitalist system. I'm not saying all economic activity in all historical places and times will necessarily be motivated by capital acquisition. That's clear. I'm saying specifically that all economic activity under capitalism is motivated this way.

My own entrepreneurial company does create non-economic capital, but we're forced to acquire economic capital as a first order concern in order to survive. Our non-economic motivations will always be secondary, otherwise we'll go out of business. To be honest, we wouldn't be entrepreneurs if we didn't have to be. I've taken it on in spite of what I believe to be its dubious political nature. The alternative would be not to make theater. So be it. But I don't think that means I have to get in bed with the ideology that makes entrepreneurship necessary, which is the stance I think this article was trying to take.

As someone who teaches creative entrepreneurship, I'm not sure I agree with your understanding of the word. I often find that people's opinions about the term entrepreneurship is confounded by a conservative view of "the business sector." I was also confused by the addition of McCarthyism but I will go back and read to try to see your connection. Here's the the thing, when I work with artists, I want to help them understand that the very nature of their work embodies entrepreneurial skills. We discuss fair valuation by virtue of their skills and talents. The framework of entrepreneurship allows artists to articulate their worth and to demand fair wage. This isn't just true for the arts, though. I cringe when people lecture artists and nonprofits about "using the business model." Most businesses fail within the first two years. And it isn't for lack of good ideas. This work is hard. A big chunk of the U.S. workforce is contingent (some estimates as high as 40%), so people, not just artists, are having to be their own marketing department, bookkeeper, promoter, etc. Part of entrepreneurship is understanding risk--perhaps a way to mitigate the stress of "the hustle" is through partnerships and collaborations (co-laboring).

Let's be very clear in the language we use. The "very nature" of artist's work does not embody entrepreneurial skills. The very nature of artistic work is, I dare say, the exact opposite of being an entrepreneur. The intrinsic success of an artistic idea isn't dependent on the bottom line, or profit margins, or capital, or depreciation, or labor cost. Do artist have to balance a check book or figure out how to pay the rent like everyone else? Of course. But those things are not the "very nature" of the work we do.

Art is explicitly what is not about making money. I attended a lecture by Richard Florida. There was a guy, he said, who realized that the colored disks—red, yellow, green—could be salvaged from discarded traffic signals, and transformed into beverage coasters. (At least so I remember the story.) He cashed in on it. That, for Richard Florida (his whole lecture had been building to that point), was the height of creative entrepreneurship. But it is not art. It takes no special prerequisite to recognize that.

I never stated that art is about making money. Many artists in my city, at least the people who are artists of color or women, are denied entry into the traditional networks of selling art. In my city, I have seen artists take on a more creative approach to finding new markets or even distribution. This never changes the art. Artists maintain their values and vision which actually gives them more ownership over their own lives and art.

You say above that the "very nature of their (artists) work embodies entrepreneurial skills". No it doesn't. Entrepreneurial skills are accounting, how to get a loan, marketing products, participating in the rules that govern capitalism. Every artist has to balance a check book and deal with bills but that's not the "very nature" of our work. It's actually the very opposite of what artists do.

And the "framework of entrepreneurship" doesn't "allows artists to articulate their worth" as you contend. The framework of entrepreneurism is a barrier to artistic worth. Those framework's try to contain and control the worth of artists. Neoliberal entrepreneurism turns everything into the commodification of products. Entrepreneurism caters to that commodification. It defines worth as things that sell. It says the best or most successful movie or play is the one that sells the most tickets. It demands that artist give people what they want to see when in fact art doesn't work that way. Artists lead. Art takes people places they never even dreamed of going. Entrepreneurism gives people just more of what they already think they want.

Innovation and creation are also tenants of science, of cooking, even medicine. Just saying you are innovative doesn't make you an artist. I don't have any special "powers" by which I can talk about art and being an artist. I have Knowledge. Philosophers, writers, artists, historians have for centuries understood the special and unique place art has held in peoples lives. Even John F. Kennedy said that the arts hold a unique place outside of our regular business economy. Creative entrepreneurship is a neoliberal concept. It's a political ideology that wants to reduce everything down to consumerism and products.

I agree with many things about this article, and want to add a couple points/questions.

1. A big part of why we're here is the "Creative Class" logic that took hold in the 90s. As artists, with dwindling resources (true during booms and busts), it felt good to have 'economic impact' arguments with which to advocate for funding, and it felt good, maybe, to think of ourselves as a separate class, I guess. But to me that helped us lose our way.

2. What do we do? I wish the article spent a little time on possible solutions, or even what a resistance might look like other than just, well, resisting. Fair Wage Onstage just did a brilliant job of advocating for and winning better pay for Off-Broadway actors (having been one, and having had to do the equivalent of Uber driving on the side, I can say this was long overdue, on an embarrassing level). But what's the equivalent for playwrights or directors, especially those of us working outside the mainstream? I think there's great and truthful rhetoric here, but a bit of a lack of helpful data. What the data prove to me is that most of us are both asked or forced to be entrepreneurial because of the lives we lead and the system we lead them within, and working toward some kind of change. But it is helpful, too, to imagine what that new system might look or even feel like, functionally, given where we are.

3. I grew up in Minneapolis, and while collective struggle was part of what garnered the resources that city (and the state of MN) has for the arts, it was also a concentration of robber barons seeking to maintain the status quo through philanthropy. It disproportionally has served white, straight, male artists. If we want a more inclusive or just system, I'd argue we should look beyond things that work now, because they are ultimately still part of an exploitive cycle.

Thanks -

That's a good point about the so called "creative economy." What's telling to me is that, even with all the economic impacts we've quantified, funding has still stagnated or been cut.

Great point about Minneapolis, too. You're spot on, we really do need to look beyond the present, which is the crux of what I'm arguing here: What kind of actions do we take? Unfortunately that was beyond the scope of this essay, though I've written about it a little before (http://howlround.com/acting... ) and suggested that the theatrical unions should expand their organizing mission beyond current members, like the Fight for 15 has been doing for fast food workers. Fair Wage on Stage is a good example of a successful campaign (and one that played out against the background of Fight for 15), but the expiring contract afforded the opportunity for that win. Those kinds of clear cut organizing opportunities are rare. But we can't do anything without having a picture of the power relations at play.