The Artrepreneur

THERE IS THUS A VERY REAL DANGER that the range of those who have an opportunity to create, publish, and disseminate adventurous—what we might today call brave—political or critical scholarship and research may grow even narrower in the future. If much of the publicly funded, nonprofit university system is disrupted by the higher education information and data intermediaries of the sharing economy (and is becoming a less hospitable place for radical arts and humanities academics to work anyway), and if these for-profit platform capitalist businesses provide little direct support for research themselves, the writing of scholarly books and journal articles will be restricted increasingly to those who are acceptable to the forces of the market—or at least those parts of the market that are willing and able to provide authors with sufficient income to buy them time for their research. If this income is to be gained from their writing, it means far greater emphasis will be placed on producing articles, trade books, introductions, textbooks, and reference works that have the potential to garner a wide nonacademic readership. Even entering these more publicly accessible sectors of the market may not be enough to ensure that one has an opportunity to write and be published, however. According to the Zero Books website, approximately “one quarter of the titles on the list have an element of subsidy from the author, where the readers/editors liked the book but were not confident that [they] would recover the publishing costs.”[1] Taken together, it is a set of circumstances that risks creating a situation in which only those who are already comfortable financially can afford to be critical of capitalism.

Does this mean that academics who produce radical, critical, or avant-garde work (i.e., research that is often unpredictable and noncalculable) will have to look to very different sources of funding and support, much as many in the art world are doing? The Louis Vuitton Foundation recently opened an arts center in Paris, designed by Frank Gehry, while the Prada Foundation has opened one in Milan, this time designed by Rem Koolhaas. So we have privately owned companies, making their money from the sale of luxury goods, starting to fill the gaps left by the withdrawal of public funding. What these companies receive in turn is an enrichment of their brand and an extension of their reach into new spheres of society. Is something of this kind actually possible for the kind of critical work many arts and humanities academics are interested in? Even if it were (and of course there are numerous examples of cultural philanthropy being shown by previous generations of capitalists), would it not require them to again become, at best, entrepreneurs of themselves and of their research, much as “artist-entrepreneurs” such as Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, and Grayson Perry have become their own celebrity brands through their blurring of the boundaries between fine art and luxury labels?[2] As such, would it not discourage risk by rewarding primarily those who are able to deliver works that are recognizable as part of their brand identity on a regular basis, just as the art market does with regard to high-value artists now?

Another option—one that has become available to authors only in the last decade or so—will be to try to appeal to enough people who are prepared to pay a small amount each to see a book brought to publication under the kind of crowd-funding model that is championed by Kickstarter (which has attracted $2 billion in pledges since it launched in 2009), Unbound, and Readership. The latter describes itself as a “digital book publisher controlled by readers.” Writers first upload extracts of their work. Readers then vote yes or no and accompany each yes vote with a financial donation. Readership publishes every book that reaches its financial target.[3] However, the crowd-funding model represents not so much an alternative to free market capitalism as an extension of it. Basically, it functions as a “reverse market with prepaid investment,” as Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis describe it. Rather than “going to the banks for money” to set up the business, the crowd-funded publisher and author simply go to the people.[4]

Moreover, what if our research is not designed to provide prospective readers with what they already know they want—or think they know they want—and are thus willing to pay for, either pre- or postpublication? What if we wish to produce work that does not necessarily have a predefined audience or market it is trying to appeal to?