The Art of Business, and the Business of Art

In August, I taught a pilot workshop—business for dancers and choreographers.

A month later, something really remarkable and singular in my life happened:

Will Rawls and Kate Werble in front of Honorarium

The choreographer-performer Will Rawls, one of the workshop participants, made a work of art out of the workshop handouts. In the Kate Werble Gallery in Manhattan, Will created a piece called Honorarium, comprised of a performance and a set of paintings. As he introduced the performance, he spoke of opportunity cost and the value of money over time—concepts from the workshop. As we encountered the paintings, large rectangles of letters, stenciled directly onto the wall, levitated in abstract, tonal patterns of browns or blues or electric pink, replicating paragraphs from the workshop handouts as turned into word puzzles.

Will was making art about business.

(Photos courtesy of  the author, Will Rawls and Kate Werble in front of Honorarium, Painting - Will Rawls, Honorarium, Kate Werble Gallery)

When is business also an art?

It’s a question I think about a lot. Since getting an MFA in painting in 2004, after already having an MBA, I have taught business to artists and designers. This form of teaching started for me as a series of lunchtime talks for fellow painters at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.

What I loved about those talks was that we weren’t applying business to anyone’s art practice. We were exploring the art of business itself. If the world is a canvas, business is an artistic medium for how we build the kinds of societies, communities, and households we want to live in.

Business and art—creativity of any kind—have an uneasy but rich relationship.

Paradoxically, in the short term business makes it hard to carve out space for creative work, but in the long term depends on creativity for its survival. This is because business prizes efficiency—doing things as quickly and leanly as possible—and known value—being sure ahead of time that you are making something good.

For most of us, in the early stages of a project, you usually have to take risks and to try things before you have any idea whether they will work or whether they are good. Value is almost never known at the beginning, and the process of invention is not usually efficient. Yet, in the long term, business depends utterly on art. Change is the constant, and without creative breakthroughs, companies—and people and non-profits—stagnate.

Art projects also can develop over a long enough period of time that they require business-like tools of risk and self-investment. In another work of art about business, Michael Mandiberg  (an artist, professor, and co-author of mine on the 2014 book The Social Life of Artistic Property) has spent the past eight years amassing 527 logos from banks that have failed since 2008. Many of these banks are poignantly local—too small to save themselves or to be rescued. Michael laser-cut the bank logos onto the covers of old dollar-bin books on finance and investing, many with heartbreaking titles like The Business Bible. Michael dedicated time and resources to the project over several years, bank-like in his investment in a body of work titled FDIC Insured (Photo courtesy of Michael Mandiberg/Denny Gallery, NYC)

For artists and creative entrepreneurs in any field, the trick is to approach business itself as a creative design medium.

The market economy provides building blocks to do two different things: first, to protect and support the space in which to experiment and try new things, and, second, to amplify and extend the reach of that work once it is made.

To use those levers, you don’t need to be a businessperson. You just need to be a person who understands business. The tools of business can support many forms of personal politics, not just rapacious capitalism but also collaboration, gift economies, barter, and sustainability in the human and environmental senses.

I get really excited watching artists approach business through the lens and methods of their larger artistic selves.

The same way that Will—a choreographer—made paintings as part of his piece, anyone could choose to make a business model or plan. Perhaps one’s talent with form and movement in choreography finds an analog in business modeling itself.

The essence of creative process is to risk the open-endedness not of going from point A to point B but inventing point B. Perhaps business forms themselves are new frontiers for artistic practice—and the greater world is the next public art project. As Andy Warhol famously said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.”

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