Hierarchies and cubicles are crumbling in the office; divisions and categories are merging in art, and in all the arts. How quaint are the terms highbrow, mid-brow & lowbrow now that everythings collapsing into the cultural melting pot, into one big no-brow.
Even the isms belong to the past cubism, surrealism, impressionism. Today, just about everything is lumped under the term post modernism, which is a posh word for chaos. Theres not even an avant garde anymore, because there isnt an accepted mainstream.
In art and at the office, everything is turbulent, fluid and feeding on each other.
Its likely this churn will get even churnier. Our premier, Bob Carr, is adamant that graffiti is a public curse, an act of vandalism, and many of you might agree. But graffiti is a vivid element in todays art just check out the wonderful work of Gordon Bennett at the Bienalle now on show at the MCA. His use of graffiti is copious, caustic and profound. Of course the journey from the gutter to gallery has happened before, but rarely so quick or so seamless.
You know those colourful crushed cubes of wrecked car bodies you on scrap metal trucks, bound for a meltdown? At New Yorks Museum of Modern Art, I saw a crushed cube of Pontiacs plonked on the floor between the Picassos and the Gaugins. It looked perfectly at home. Recently, in this very spot, art was represented by a nude woman on horseback the horse defiantly defecating under the steely gaze of the old Masters.
All this is small beer, really, compared to the boundaries crashing down in the world of commerce. Between wholesale & retail, work & home, the real & the artificial, night & day, east & west, the mind & the body, accountancy & law, children & adults, men & women though not in this room, I notice - between, work & education, mass market & customisation and - coming soon to a workplace near you - the walls between employer & employee, shareholders and society-as-a-whole, between short term profit and long term sustainability.
As we stand in the rubble of these collapsing boundaries, faced with vistas of open space, and of cyberspace, it can all become a bit confusing, especially with the acceleration of time and the disappearance of distance. Things are not clear cut and predictable, not even for a futurist, theyre contradictory and paradoxical. This is a world in which artists have long felt at home.
The Old Masters played around with good & evil, heaven & hell, magic and transformation. The surrealists blended dreams and reality, they melted the clocks, they defied gravity, they exploded logic, they shocked and surprised. How often have you seen this phrase in the financial press? The market is illogical! Wow. So is the world. Paradox is part of the scenery. Embrace it!
As the world becomes global, it becomes more local; the quicker everything happens, the faster time slips away; as information expands, our attention span contracts; the more we enhance our lifestyle, the more the planet becomes degraded, as the world shrinks, the role of ethics expands; the more connected we are to the world electronically, the more disconnected we are from each other in everyday life. While on the surface, our culture seems to be dumbing down, people also seem to be getting smarter. You figure it out.
Then theres the prosperity paradox. The more the American economy soars, the more its inhabitants becomes depressed. In a single lifetetime, weve gone from the Pepsi , to pot, to Prozac.
Finally, the more triumphant globalisation becomes, the more it stirs up a backlash.
Thats because walls are also going up between the plugged & unplugged, rich & poor, the city and the bush. Ad guys talk enthusiastically about two tiered marketing one level for the cash rich & time poor, another for cash poor & time rich.While artists have often been concerned with focussing on the tribulations of the dispossessed, giving them voice, giving them identity, and jolting our awareness; business too is now being asked to come to grips with the deeper implications of its calling.
Artists are urged to widen their focus to include the bottom line, without sacrificing the search for meaning, so surely its time for business to do the opposite, to move beyond the bottom line and embrace the world of meaning not as lip service, but strategy.
We live in a world of fluctuating values. In art, what was once deemed unacceptable and obscene is now enshrined and venerated. Business practices once considered normal & acceptable are now seen as corrupt, harmful, degrading and immoral. Such practices can range from pillaging the planet and polluting the commons, to trying to keep your customers on the dark. It can range from the harassment of employees to the secretive use of sweatshops.
One of the pluses of the information age is that sooner or later we get to find out about everything. This outcome, plus the biting realities of global warming and the surge of interest in ethics means that we are approaching a time when a firms social reputation will outweigh the reputation of its brand.
For all of that, todays test of a successful business is profit, its level of return on investment. Whats the test for a work of art? Some would say its the same. But what turns a canvas splodged with paint into something worth millions? Its ability to move the viewer, perhaps, its life enhancing verve, its social or spiritual insight, its uniqueness, above all, its originality
Ultimately, the power of a great work of art is its level of creativity. And strangely, in the information age, thats exactly the quality thats driving business.
To transform information into knowledge and knowledge into something useful and original and marketable, you need the alchemy of creativity. To be fast & agile in a volatile world, you need an endless fount of this magical elixir; you need it to out innovate your competitors, to respond to fluid markets, to read the footprints of the future on the sand. In the 21st century, creativity will become the interface between commerce and art.
How do you nourish creativity, how do you reward it? How do you feed it into an organisation
at every level? And todays creativity, like everything else, isnt what it used to be. It thrives on collaboration.
Most artists arent sitting alone in garrets anymore, struggling in isolation to be original. Theyre innovating on the web, making movies, music, workshopping plays, working in teams to transform the artistic experience, so that even a piece of graffiti, such as the humble chalk scrawl of the word Eternity by Arthur Stace that once adorned the footpaths of our Sydney childhood, ended up crowning the harbour bridge in shimmering neon on screens the world over, flanked by fabulous fireworks as this country entered the new millennium.
Eternity - maybe thats a coded message to business to take the longer view.
People today put their faith in the acquisition of new technology, or in the hoarding of even more information. While it is true that technology is transforming the globe we inhabit, it is less understood that it is also transforming the globe between our ears. In other words, the information revolution has its psychological counterpart.
It demands a higher order of mental skills, such as openness to learning, a capacity for self criticism, low defensiveness and the ability to process multiple realities and values. It requires group empathy
in order to foster creative collaboration. A manager dealing with evolving markets needs sharper skills of perception. Awakening an ability to see unfolding patterns in consumer behaviour may be more important than another Microsoft upgrade. How is it others have asked - that some people get downsized & never recover, while others pick themselves up, re-sell their services to the same company & make more money than ever?
Its the same in politics. As the Ny Times recently put it: The old left /right guideposts are no longer reliable.They hark back to the conflicts of an industrial society, that is being eclipsed by the new economy. In the future, as the external guideposts disappear, what well want most is an internal compass. Is your firm fostering the skills required to build a psychological bridge to the future?
Can your managers live happily with contradictions, can they function without a fixed a job title, is your board adaptable enough to work within a vision that continually unfolds, and not be too hung up on a mission statement, a term best used for a military campaign. Like artists, are you open to synchronicity? Like Richard Branson, can you generate a sense of fun?
Can you accept a degree of failure as the price of being adventurous in a volatile age, relishing it to quote one CEO - as an unwanted outcome with a high learning curve. Or, as an Indian sage put it: failure is the last rung on the ladder to success? Just ask Van Gogh about that.
All in all, the parallels between art and business are numerous. Both are mobile and multi-cultural; both innovate across a range of new technologies. Both the artist and entrepreneur produce an end product, and yet behind this product, whether a piece sculpture or a four wheel drive, there lies a story. Today there is a growing curiosity about this story. A noble story can enhance the product, a dud story can diminish it.
Some of the most potent, fun and ennobling of todays art is collaborative and creative in a new way, a way that responds to the dynamics of globalism, the breakdown of borders and the need to foster deeper psychological skills.
At an exhibition earlier in the year, I found art that broke new grounds, told new stories and collaborated with its consumers in a way that transformed them from being passive spectators to being co-creators of their own experience which is exactly the direction that business is heading.
Let me quickly recount a visit to the Brisbane Art Gallery, where I came across the Third Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. The exhibition was entitled Beyond the Future.
To reach the exhibits you cross a large in-door pond on a slightly arched bamboo bridge, known as the bridge of the future. You see installations from unlikely places, about unlikely subjects, including truck art in Pakistan, the little known history of criticism poles in Tiananmen square. There is even a virtual travel agency, its booth fringed with pink plastic blow-up palm trees, offering honeymoon packages to a nuclear threatened archipelago.
In amongst all this amazing stuff I found an installation by a Taiwanese born artist, Lee Mingwei, called the letter-writing project.
Its an elegant structure of balsa & paper, a mini post-office complex, complete with desks, envelopes & stationary and a sign that invites you to write a note to someone living or dead, to tell them something you had always meant to say, but never had. You could seal it and address it, and the gallery undertook to post it, or you could even leave it unsealed in a rack for anyone to read
I wandered into a booth and saw scores of such envelopes and picked up one up at random. It was addressed to
In scrawly pencil, the note went something like this: Dear Dad, You need to hold me and tell me you love me. You need to stop criticising me all the time. You need to show me that you care about me & my future. You need to cherish me and make me feel wanted. Why do you need to do this? Because I am your daughter
At that moment I was thrust into another world, jolted from the silence, the shuffles and the anonymity of a gallery to the emotion charged realities of everyday people
. Like the ones milling around on that wet Thursday afternoon, many of them schoolkids. I looked at all the other envelopes, thought of all the other messages, the ones sealed and sent, the ones unsealed and read by strangers
strangers who, in that moment of connecting with a work of art, also connected to the unknown, unseen correspondent and thus - were strangers no more.
In this rush of empathy, I thought about the girl and wondered where her dad was. You can guess the answer, ladies & gentleman. He was probably at the office.
Oscar Wild said all art is quite useless, but I hold the opposite view. Art is a torch. In the 21st Century, both the work of art and the art of work will continue to cast a light across the bridge of the future, the bridge of eternity, the bridge to the unborn future generations, who will inherit the world that all of us here right now
whether artist or entrepreneur
are in the process of creating together. Let us make sure, ladies and gentlemen, that this world will be one worth inhabiting.
Authors Postscript: At an educational conference in Brisbane three years later, I again mentioned the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary art and quoted the anonymous daughters note to her dad. At the end of the session, a woman in tears approached the stage, sparking concern that some of my remarks may have caused offence. Thank you so much, she said, I have always wondered what happened my note. Whether anyone got the message. I could hardly believe it. What are the odds? We hugged. She was thrilled, and a bit shaken, as was I. If anyone is acquainted with Lee Mingwei, the creator of the installation, please pass this on.