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How Rembrandt weathered the recession

Holland Cotter, in yesterday’s New York Times describes how Rembrandt handled the great recession in the mid-17th century. Although a very wealthy and prosperous businessman (selling art, his and others), he was mortgaged to the hilt and lost everything — business, home, and all his art — when the Dutch economy tanked. What Rembrandt found in economic disaster was the freedom to do what he wanted to do and produce his late, great masterpieces:

But when he was put to the test by circumstance, he somehow turned catastrophe into opportunity; turned his weakness into strength.

If you believe, as the economist George Shackle believes, that entrepreneurs are primarily creative people rather than managers, then the current recession with its bad numbers (double digit unemployment by the end of 2009) can also mean an unleashing of creative forces from the under- and unemployed. Harsh circumstances produce the ideal environment for the highest, most energetic, and most individualistic creativity.

I’m reminded what Jed Perl, the art critic of The New Republic, wrote recently about artists and their relationship to the times:

But whatever the complexities of the artist’s shifting social and economic situation, the artistic act is also an individualistic impulse rooted in the sense of self that is at the heart of the human condition. . . . If you believe that art is, in all times and places, a reflection of the possibilities of individuality, then you must embrace this as an a priori conviction . . .”

Creativity of all shapes and sizes, from painting to writing to entrepreneurship, fits exactly this definition. Take the word “artist” out of that paragraph and replace it with “entrepreneur,” and you’d be making just as true and just as powerful a statement: “the entrepreneurial act is also an individualistic impulse rooted in the sense of self that is at the heart of the human condition.”

That’s what separates artists, writers, and entrepreneurs from “employees.” That’s why folks like me and you do what we do.

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