The Artist as Social Entrepeneur

The Artist as Social Entrepeneur

Activism June 25, 2012 / By Ben Irvine
The Artist as Social Entrepeneur

Social progress, like great art, dwells in a sweetspot between political extremes.

“Equality” – I spoke their word as if a wedding vow.
But I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.

Bob Dylan, from ‘My Back Pages’

When a disgusted audience member yelled out ‘Judas!’ during a concert at the Manchester Free Hall in 1966, the onstage performer, Bob Dylan, was out of favour with just about everybody. It wasn’t always so. Though he had spent his early twenties as an acoustic guitar-strumming singer-songwriter goading the establishment with warnings that “the times they are a-changin'” and “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command”, such outspoken lyrics had earned him a legion of ideological young fans and the tag of "spokesman of a generation."

But by the mid-sixties Dylan himself had changed. Denying he was a ‘protest singer’, he had recently acquired an electric guitar and a rock-and-roll backing group, and begun composing new material which was more personal, less overtly political. In the eyes of the folk traditionalists, Dylan had sold-out. On tour, he was repeatedly met by boos, slow-handclaps and mass walkouts, while previously sympathetic journalists criticised his ‘downright bad manners’ and ‘rude and uncooperative behaviour’. They had a point. After being accused of betrayal in Manchester, Dylan snarled back “I don’t believe you, you’re a liar” and instructed his band to “play fuckin’ louder”, before launching into a blistering version of his greatest song ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.

Dylan was a social pioneer as well as a musical genius. In rebelling not just against the powers-that-be but against the popular forces of rebellion, he steered a progressive path between right and left ideologies; one which is increasingly being walked today. On the right is a callous individualism which would allow economic forces to run riot through a graveyard of social values. On the left is a buck-passing statism that would allow a centralised government to mop up the resources it is supposed to reallocate.

As Dylan stood at the microphone, with his marketing men lurking in the wings, and a flock of frowning socialists arrayed in the stalls, perhaps he saw clearly how the mentalities of individualism and statism conspire, like two pendulums cajoling each other into motion. The individualist with his one-upmanship becomes trapped in the conformity of consumerism, condemned to be free to keep up with the Jones’s; the statist preaches the power of the collective yet selfishly delegates to someone else the exercise of its will. Like mania accompanying depression, the extremes of egotism and groupthink come to jointly characterise society.

In other words, Tony Blair’s ‘third way’ got it disastrously wrong. To create a fair society and a thriving economy we must minimise, not maximise, both statism and individualism. This amounts to a political position which is doubly contrary, yet far from nihilistic. Its adherents are social entrepreneurs: movers and shakers who seek to make ethics more economical and the economy more ethical, melding left and right in a way that obviates both. In improving the welfare of their client groups and running projects with integrity and conscientiousness, social enterprises can achieve the aims of a redistributive and regulatory state while minimising the need for one.

David Cameron calls it the ‘Big Society’; Neil Kinnock called it ‘neighbourhood’, ‘community’, ‘brotherhood’, or just plain old ‘society’. Whatever you call it, it is a far cry from the rich man protecting himself from antisocial behaviour by installing bigger bars on his windows, or the socialist achieving similar peace of mind by paying higher taxes and taking refuge in the amnesic properties of a bottle of wine. When a Conservative leader starts sounding like a Labour leader, you know that something significant is happening. A vital truth is rising like the sun over warring camps. The neurotic extremes of individualism and statism are giving way to the down-to-earth placidity of honest enterprises striving to make life better for their surrounding communities, up and down the land.

Of course, people will always want to better themselves, the state will always be required to supply public goods, and these two forces will always be complementary. But to the extent that social entrepreneurs succeed in doing good for themselves by doing good for others, the ideologies of individualism and statism, and their damaging consequences, will fade away. We will cease to use the economy and the state as vehicles for our neuroses.

Dylan is a fine poster-boy for entrepreneurialism, not just because in his early career he dragged himself up by his bootstraps in the biting cold of New York, but because art itself has much in common with social enterprise, and Dylan is one of history’s greatest artists. Paintings, songs, poems, sculptures, plays; the finest examples of all these originate in a mindset which is imbued with the dynamics of social enterprise. Such works hit a sweet spot. In their willingness to lay down a challenge, morally or aesthetically, they steer clear of the pandering groupishness of statism. And in their eagerness to please, console, educate or inspire, they avoid the self-indulgence of individualism; indeed, one of the most beautiful qualities of great art is that it embodies the artist’s selfless and painstaking efforts to understand and present truths in new ways that can help others come to terms with the world and their experience. Leonard Cohen once remarked that his songs are for other people to use.

In contrast, the worst examples of art thrive when right and left ideologies predominate. Creativity veers into frivolity; sympathy veers into derivativeness; conviction is found wanting. Nowhere are these wayward trajectories more obvious than in TV singing competitions, wherein conformity and egotism merge, and the result is noisy hysteria. The comedian Bill Hicks’s appeal to musicians – “play from your fuckin’ heart” – has fallen on deaf ears.

It has long been sensed by artists and critics that art is somehow inherently political, yet the idea that art should be ideological has never felt quite right to me. The best art is neither socialist nor indifferent to the needs of others. Rather, it is socially entrepreneurial. It glorifies the artist yet enhances all of our lives and acts as a true force for change. This is the kind of art that society needs more of, yet it’s these kinds of artists whose messages are all too often drowned out. When Dylan rallied his band in Manchester, he knew precisely what he was doing.

Ben Irvine is editor of the Journal of Modern Wisdom (

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