No, we're not all artists
Working at the Banff Centre, the world’s largest arts and creativity incubator, puts me into close contact with thousands of artists each year. I have been watching with some interest the growing prevalence and presence of arts-based approaches in MBA and executive education programs. The language of creativity has become almost overwhelming, with thought leaders sprouting up everywhere to help individuals and organizations be more creative. While I appreciate the growing interest in creativity and the focus on the arts and artists I cringe a little whenever I hear someone state, either tacitly or explicitly, that we are all artists.
Context and choice
There is nothing inherently wrong with the assertion. Like many, I worry that while most Kindergartners self-describe as artists, Grade 5 students almost overwhelmingly do not. I see the need for people to embrace artistic expression as a means to a fuller and more beautiful life. I advocate for craft and quality across disciplines and to view one’s work as art is a wonderful way to enter into the work day. All that being said, the arts and artists are embedded in a social, cultural, and material context that cannot be fractured from the artist or the art product.
Like any profession, there is a process of validation, dialogue and feedback that supports the capacities necessary to succeed and sustain oneself as an artist. By making a claim that we are all artists, we unintentionally marginalize the broader ecology within which the arts are situated and the sacrifices made in order to serve this critical cultural function. The myth of the lone artist, suffering alone, is being leveraged to support free-market arguments for self-sufficiency and below-market compensation in service to the intrinsic value of creative work. I’m not arguing for a romanticism of artistic work. Rather, I am positing that there are fundamental differences between a tree in a shopping mall and a tree in the forest.
We can laugh at the idea that trees in a mall are ‘nature’ and I would like to extend the same courtesy to the arts, and the cultural products, including the introduction of new meaning, that they offer.
Nancy Adler, S. Bronfman Chair in Management at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, has long been an advocate for the importance of arts in business education, and as a practicing artist has an appreciation for the complex ecology and the symbolic products of the sector. A passage in a journal she has designed speaks to the need to pay attention to the work of artists and their craft and the systemic products that they generate.
“A good artist, it is often said, is fifty to a hundred years ahead of their time. The artist must depict this new world before all the evidence is in. … Leaders must learn the same artistic discipline, they must learn to respond or conceive of something that will move in the same direction in which the world is moving, without waiting for all the evidence to appear on their desks. To wait for all the evidence is to finally recognize it through a competitor’s product”.
The word “discipline” is meaningful here. Expertise in a discipline is a social construction incorporating expertise, people, projects, communities, challenges, studies, inquiry, and research. Emerging art forms are occupying landscapes unimaginable decades ago. The mutability of digital content allows for new forms to emerge in a constant back and forth as the breadth and depth of the digital world extends.
Street artists and participatory art asks us to step into stories being told around us and to question the nature of public and private and the lines that are drawn between art and audience. While the “disciplines” of these media are still growing, the process is dialogic. Artists are often at the forefront of dealing with ‘reality as it is’ as they are the (un)fortunate few that sense the change before the rest of us take notice.
As Dr. Adler says, “Art doesn’t serve up answers to specific business problems on a plate. But what it can do is get you to step back, reflect, and come up with your own solutions – solutions that are often beyond the constraints of accepted practice”.
Similarly, we don’t all need to be artists to meaningfully participate in conversations inspired by the arts any more than we need to be a doctor to meaningfully participate in conversations about medicine. While I applaud the egalitarian ideals that underpin the assertion that we are all artists, the claim unintentionally diminishes the complex ecology of artistic creation and the opportunities for renewal that the system provides.
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Image: VC Arts Council.