Stakeholder Capitalism, Artificial Intelligence, & the Changing Role of Artists in Society
By Theo Edmonds
January 22, 2023

The role of the artist in society is often seen as one of creativity, imagination, and expression. But with the emergence of culture technology influencers like stakeholder capitalism and artificial intelligence (AI), this role is being expanded. For artists who desire to do so, these paradigm shifts offer new opportunities to explore realms of expression (and impact) while also pushing the boundaries that have traditionally defined their work. 

Bringing together artistry, scientific discovery, and industry, these two culture influencers are already changing what we consider to be possible and valuable in shaping our experience of life. Whether this change is for better or worse leans into a values perspective that will, no doubt, be hotly debated over the foreseeable future. In this article, though, I offer a few thoughts for artists to begin considering how, if at all, they might expand their creative practice at the intersection of these two culture mega-trends.

Stakeholder Capitalism

Stakeholder capitalism is a system in which corporations are oriented to serve the interests of all their stakeholders, not just shareholders. These stakeholders include investors, owners, employees, vendors, customers, and the general public. The focus is on long-term value creation, not merely enhancing shareholder value. Historically, considering all stakeholders was mostly the norm in the U.S. until Milton Friedman argued that corporate executives are only beholden to shareholders. 

Today though, culture is shifting again toward something different where the stakeholder model is gaining traction. As evidenced by its growing centrality at influential gatherings like DAVOS and its high-profile use by the world’s largest investment firms like Blackrock, stakeholder capitalism, also known as “long-term capitalism,” has opened a window of opportunity for radically imagining an expanded portfolio of options towards more sustainable, equitable economic futures.

PRACTICE PROMPT: More Americans are employed by the private sector than any other part of our society. Americans will spend more of our waking life at work than any other place. From big industry sectors like music and film, to place-based community arts, what new opportunities exist within stakeholder capitalism if artists thought about the workplace as a transient community?

Artificial Intelligence

The use of AI in art has been growing steadily in recent years as researchers have sought to understand how computers can be used to create works of art that can stand up to those created by humans. Needless to say that today, this train has left the station.

AI-generated artwork has already begun to make its mark on the art world; some experts predict that it could soon become commonplace across many artistic disciplines, from painting and sculpture to music composition. AI can help artists create stunning works with unprecedented levels of detail and complexity; it can even provide them with insights into their creative processes that would otherwise be impossible without the help of machines.

Less discussed, though, is how AI will impact the role of artists in shaping culture. A well-known team of researchers has noted that: “Culture is always a collective phenomenon because it is at least partly shared with people who live or lived within the same social environment, which is from where it was learned. It is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.”

PRACTICE PROMPT: What happens when the “group” becomes everyone, from everywhere, from all human history? (Or, at least that history which has been digitized). Where do artists focus when it becomes increasingly difficult to cleanly separate organic and synthetic culture?

Role of Artists in Society

In some ways, the role of artists in society has proved unchangeable over time. In other ways, artists’ adaptability — and ability to continually morph in response to radically changing technologies and societal agreements — is a role-defining trait. 

Whether it’s stakeholder capitalism, artificial intelligence, or any other of the wild and woolly culture shocks and shifts now intersecting to shape how humans experience life, one thing I know. Far from obsolescence or declining opportunities, artists have yet another compelling moment at hand. I am not suggesting here a “one size fits all” proposition or a that all artists should agree to move in only one direction. Like all humans, we artists are different from each other. 

One way I think about engaging with stakeholder capitalism and artificial intelligence is not to force myself into a binary corner of agreeing or disagreeing with them. Instead, from a lifetime of creative practice, I muster up the healthiest mix of curiosity, humility, and awe possible to explore the new intersections becoming visible as the edges of the two things begin dancing together. And, through their dance, kicking up dust from settled sand while leaving new footprints of possibility on the economic landscape that profoundly impacts the lives of every American. I then use my artistic skills and sensibilities to figure out how (or if) to engage. 

Here, I take inspiration from ― Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art

“There is no way to suppress change…not even in heaven; there is only a choice between a way of living which allows constant, if gradual alterations and a way of living that combines great control and cataclysmic upheavals. Those who panic and bind the trickster choose the latter path.

It would be better to learn to play with [trickster], better especially to develop skills (cultural, spiritual, artistic) that allow some commerce with accident, and some acceptance of the changes that contingency will always engender.”

As technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, so too does our understanding of the role that artists play in society today. Through the implementation of stakeholder capitalism and artificial intelligence (AI), businesses and individuals alike are afforded new opportunities for exploration. It remains unclear what impact these advancements will ultimately have on our myriad of human experiences over a lifetime. But they will shape the stories we tell, the kinds of transitions we make, and who we become. History has shown that this is where artists are most needed.

Theo Edmonds is a Culture Futurist™and Directing Co-founder of CU Denver’s Imaginator Academy, Theo co-leads the creativity work group for the global Brain Capital Alliance and is a newly elected member of Americans for the Arts national board of directors.

By Theo Edmonds
Culture Futurist™ | Creativity Strategist | Conceptual Artist | #WorkplaceWellbeing Researcher | Entrepreneur