The Entrepreneur as Jester.

imagesCACYS744In popular discourse, the identity of the entrepreneur is described as an individual’s life story, achieving entrepreneurial success in the face of adversity, thus creating a strong association with the innate attributes of the entrepreneur, acting as an autonomous ‘free agent’, and often against all the odds. For instance, Alan Sugar’s profile is that of someone who from humble beginnings has become a highly successful entrepreneur. This narrative is depicted by Warren and Anderson in their study of the ‘aesthetic performance of an entrepreneurial identity’ which illustrates the personality of Michael O’Leary, Chief Executive of the airline Ryanair (2009). For the authors, O’Leary’s entrepreneurial character is playful in his interactions with the media; he adopts a ‘jester-like pose, where the freedom of the clown’s cap allots a broad license to lambast both figures of authority influential in setting governance structures and also, the greyed ranks of august established competitors’ (ibid, p. 149). Warren and Anderson expose O’Leary’s ability to use entrepreneurial rhetoric as a means of challenging the structures which stand in his way, as a business man (ibid). Here, the idea of the entrepreneur is similar to that of the maverick, the disruptive individual who acts differently from the establishment. According to Warren and Anderson, O’Leary is empowered by performing this role and employs the character of the entrepreneur to meet his business needs in a competitive marketplace.

But O’Leary’s jestering acts as and provides an emotional shortcut, where the ‘people’s champion’ narrative amplifies the ascribed values of being enterprising from a valuable personal identity into an enterprising corporate identity for Ryanair. (Warren and Anderson, 2009, p. 149.)

As the authors argue, O’Leary’s narrative fits with the notion of entrepreneurship as ‘creative destruction’ based on innovation and change. In this case, O’Leary makes use of the media to communicate the story of change as better value for the general public, namely cheaper flights, and in opposition to larger, established companies who are his direct competitors. This is achieved through humorous and emotive behavior by O’Leary, who performs ‘selected components of the munificence of entrepreneurial identity’ to appeal to potential customers (ibid, p.161.). Warren and Anderson also describe how this instrumental approach to adopting an entrepreneurial identity and endearing himself to the general public, backfires on O’Leary, when his meanness towards his staff is exposed by the media (ibid).

O’Leary’s story is acted out in a public sphere; his style is depicted as adversarial and provocative. The cultural entrepreneurs I interview are not necessarily interacting with the general public through the media, rather, their public space is Birmingham’s cultural milieu, a space in which they jostle alongside their peers to perform their role. For instance, Tom presents his entrepreneurial character as being driven by social objectives rather than purely focused on financial gain. Tom describes how his entrepreneurial activities have to have ‘an element of goodness through the relationships we have with other people’ (Tom, 2012). In his story and actions, Tom performs the ‘good guy’, a person who should be perceived as the antithesis of the money grabbing entrepreneur, Richard, who he describes as: ‘you know, he’s a serial, power hungry person’ (Tom, 2012).  Tom’s dramatic language (power hungry) ensures that he is positioning himself in direct opposition to Richard within Birmingham’s cultural milieu.

When I ask Jack if he is a cultural entrepreneur, he compares himself with Dave, and distances himself from the idea of the entrepreneur by describing his role and work as opposite of entrepreneurial. It is often in relation to others, as Hall states, that we are able to identify our own behaviour. Jack imagines how he wants to be portrayed or, how he wants to be viewed by others, in relation to Dave. Jack articulates an awareness of performance associated with Dave and prefers to identify with different aspects of his work, starting with the idea of being a designer which he describes here:

Design is the actual rigorous application of trying to do something creative, on time, on budget, to meet client expectation – it is a really difficult job and you know, you try to satisfy you own expectations and needs and aspirations and preferences but really you are trying to do something that is always, I think it is far more like an engineering process than an art related one. Art being at the opposite end. Art being a pure form of creative personal expression. (Jack, 2011)

Since his company has grown, Jack has moved on from being involved in the creative process and now seems himself as a manager, involved in telling people what ‘to do in the right order, at the right time and being a lot more organised’ (2011). Jack is keen to describe his work as a set of tasks which are process driven and managed rather than the entrepreneurial style epitomised by Dave. For Jack this reaction to the idea of the cultural entrepreneur is more than a reaction to Dave, it is also about his other relationships with friends and family. In this statement, I find Jack to be very thoughtful about his work, how it has changed and how it compares to others.

Yes it is ambivalent because, partly it just feels like ok, when it was a creative role you just think, I think I always had a sense that you were not taken as seriously. I don’t think that people in the creative industries are. Like my two best friends, one is a consultant psychiatrist and the other is a human rights lawyer. And you know, amongst my peers, I always thought I ought to get a proper job sometime. And I never regarded what I was doing that seriously and it’s also parental expectations. Having done serious things, it was always kind of well this is fun, but it’s not actually that fun, there is quite a lot of stress as you know, to do with design rather than being creative. (Jack, 2011)

Jack is only too aware of the idea of the entrepreneur or the creative person, and the performative aspects of this role but chooses to distance himself from that personae. His ability to do that appears to rest on his social circle and his family context enabling him to decide on his own position by drawing on a range of experiences.

The idea of observing and rejecting entrepreneurial characteristics is echoed in some of the findings from Couldry and Littler in their research of the show The Apprentice (2011). Couldry and Littler’s investigate the ‘reality’ of work in an environment in which enterprise is normalized through the contestants’ performance on screen, emphasizing values such as passion and competitiveness as positive and highly desirable (ibid). Although Couldry and Littler are critical of the programme, suggesting that it offers a narrow view of entrepreneurship for both audience and participants, they suggest that viewers have the possibility to reject this reductive depiction of the entrepreneur (ibid). The stylised documentary approach creates a distance between viewers and the entrepreneurial norms being presented, offering some room for agency. In other words, the very limitations of the programme, point to choices we have as viewers. From our perspective as viewers, we can encounter the performer/contestant with the ability to make our own minds up as to how we view their entrepreneurial ‘performance’. Similarly, Jack can laugh or reject the cultural entrepreneur as performed by Dave.

In contrast, Luca identifies with some entrepreneurial traits and explains his position from a very different perspective. Luca could be described as an artist, but when I ask him about being a cultural entrepreneur, he states ‘That’s what I am. That’s how I describe myself.’ (Luca, 2013). He elaborates by stating:

Minimum resources, maximum output. That’s what I’m interested in. Anyone that’s worked with me will tell you how much you get from working with me on and what I would generate as an output. I often think that I’m really lazy and don’t generate a lot of stuff, whereas most people around me think I generate loads. So for me, entrepreneurship is about looking at maximising resources, and I think I do that really well… (Luca, 2013)

Luca is drawn to the ideas associated with the entrepreneur; a self-reliant individual and in particular this sense of achieving a lot from few resources. But as we discuss this further he also reveals a disapproval or dislike of being reliant on public funding, a position which is common to many artists.

So this will come from nothing. I will go for very little public funding if any at all. What I won’t do which I think is not anti-entrepreneurial but lots of people invest lots of their time in writing funding applications and going through administrations and bureaucracies around I need £500, and they’ll probably waste £1000 of their time generating £500, and I’m just thinking, just use the resources you’ve got, your time. (Luca, 2013)

The role of the enterprising individual suits Luca as a means of distancing himself from other artists providing him with attributes which suit that specific narrative. As Du Gay’s argues, individuals are capable of adopting certain habits through immersion in a specific context: ‘the practical means through which individuals are equipped with the capacities to conduct themselves as particular sorts of persons (2007, p.23). These attributes can be tested to see how they ‘feel’ and they are not fixed and learned by an individual coming into this milieu, but fluctuate both in form and dynamics.

The figuration, in other words, does not connect persons with already established identities but, rather, it provides those persons with their very dimensions or characteristics. The persons, their characteristics, what they are and do are all dependent upon the relations in which they are involved. (Du Gay, 2007, p.)

The language and characteristics associated with the entrepreneur can be adopted as a means of presenting a version of oneself or to explore new territories. It can help individuals project how they want to be perceived, for instance as pro-active or what they are not, such as Tom who does not want to appear as ‘power hungry’.

As I have argued, personality traits inform popular notions of the entrepreneur which permeates many aspects of contemporary work. Rather than contesting the mythical figure of the entrepreneur, I have tried to position him within this discussion.  I have found little resistance to the entrepreneur other than the character being made fun of and depicted as specific individuals such as Dave. For the cultural entrepreneurs I interview, entrepreneurial behaviour tends to not be associated with capitalism per say but with a positive attitude, with change and innovation. The character of the entrepreneur is adopted as and when an individual finds it helpful, creating ambiguity in terms of the cultural entrepreneur’s identity. McGuigan refers to Schumpeter who remarked that the very nature of capitalism creates societies in which individuals can be both supported by the system and critical of it, in particular, artists and writers (2009, p.23). As Jones and Spicer state:

By paying attention to the active contests around enterprise discourse we begin to become aware that the entrepreneurial subject is not simply given – rather it is a terrain of struggle, resistance and power. (Jones and Spicer, 2009, p. 25)

Furthermore, the authors suggest that enterprise can be met with ‘ritualised humour and cynicism’ in certain work cultures. The type of response articulated by Jack when describing Dave, as having a badge that would tweet ‘cultural entrepreneur’!

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