Is Good Business Bad Art (Publishing)? — by Martine Syms

In a back issue of Proximity Magazine, now-defunct research group InCUBATE published a syllabus titled “Art/Life” that sketched the parameters of social practice. They interrogated the hierarchy between artists and other people who are creative by asking “[w]hy call oneself an artist, and how does this added layer detract or benefit from the work?”


Although the entire syllabus is noteworthy, Week 5 was particularly relevant to me.


WEEK 5: Is Bad Business Good Art?

Andy Warhol once said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” Yet, for artist-run businesses that are run more as conceptual enterprises, there are perhaps more open-ended standards of success. But what is the difference between an ethically minded, creatively organized small business and an artist who is basically starting the same thing, yet making money is beside the point? How can we talk about the privilege to experiment in this way and also appreciate creative failures?


I’d like to consider why making money is beside the point? In other words, why do artists (whose practice includes publishing) begin (and continue) failing businesses. By ‘failing’ I mean that the enterprise doesn’t make enough money to operate at a profit, which in turn prevents the hiring of employees. The owner is crushed by an overwhelming workload and eventually closes the business.


Why do we do this? Are we masochists?


For five years I was the co-owner of an art book shop in Chicago. I derived no meaningful income from the project, although I obtained substantial loss. I also gained friends, a professional network, knowledge, skills, and experience, but I would never do it again. Still, I didn’t start or continue to run a failing business for any of those reasons. I did it because I felt it was needed. I suspect you feel the same way about your own project.


Perhaps the primary difference between the artist and the “ethically minded, creatively organized small business” is that the artist allows his or her feelings to go unchecked. The small business owner begins with the same nebulous notion, but lets the market determine whether or not it is correct.


The indicators of success are different for each business model. However, if making money isn’t a key performance indicator, a project isn’t a business and shouldn’t be evaluated as such. That said, what about those of us who want to profit from our activities—are we still artists?



Next week I’ll look at business models.