What can business learn from art? At first glance, very little. Business is all about industry and making money, while art is the enactment of dreams and true artists live in pious poverty. Chasing profit is an activity undertaken by greedy vulgarians.
The author and philosopher Alain de Botton thinks this is a thick-brushed picture to paint. The ideal scenario, he says, is to combine the best of both worlds to solve some of humankind’s biggest issues.
‘It’s the classic scenario,’ he explains. ‘The artist is lost in the highest thought and the industrialist is working out how to shift cement from A to B. The artist thinks the industrialist is crude; the industrialist thinks the artist is lost in space.
‘This is unhelpful to both sides. The world we want is one where the energies, logistical rigour and systematising ambitions of business are brought to bear on some of the higher pursuits of human happiness and the major themes of life.
‘It’s not about a picture or a statue, but what’s behind works of art. It is about happiness and unhappiness, the big themes of life. It’s often the case that business sees itself as incapable of approaching these issues.’
But de Botton sees a change coming. Businesses that are capable of addressing the problem of basic unhappiness are not here yet, but the building blocks are.
He points to Facebook, which has made a start at combating loneliness, and the dating sites that bring people together. Airbnb, meanwhile, is arguably a step towards creating access to cultural enrichment.
In time, he says, a business will rise up that meets these challenges – and when it does it will be one of the richest on the planet.
‘Consumer capitalism is focused overwhelmingly on running shoes, clothes, snacks and salads. It’s amazing that we have such choice, but we feel barren in many areas of our lives outside of commerce. The only people handling these are artists, poets and psychologists. I’m looking for a future where business gets to work on some of those higher-order needs. I think this will be a happier, richer future, but it will also bring many commercial opportunities.’
De Botton is talking ahead of a live Q&A event with BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz, part of Grant Thornton’s Inspiring Business series. Gompertz, who has private-sector experience as a former director of publishing companies Purple House and Shots, agrees that art and business are comfortable bedfellows.
‘Artists are one-man brands,’ he says. ‘They understand marketing, point of difference, presenting their work and the marketplace. They are some of the best entrepreneurs I have ever met. Damian Hirst is famously entrepreneurial. You could argue that for him and Andy Warhol, the amount of money they have made is part of their art, not just a by-product of it.’
But the links don’t end there. Newness and originality are increasingly important elements in a successful business. With each new launch of a smartphone Apple, Samsung and HTC are at pains to point out the ways in which it is different from the last. Steve Jobs was famous because he did that so well.
Any entrepreneur who has made a pitch for investment will tell you that without explaining your USP you won’t get your hands on the cash. If it isn’t original, why would anyone abandon an established product for yours?
‘Artists learned this lesson centuries ago. It’s a fundamental part of what they teach at art school – being derivative is about as shameful as it gets,’ says Gompertz.
‘You’re not allowed to be derivative, you have got to express yourself and the way you see the world in a manner that is unique to you.’
Technology has systematically changed business and art, too. The invention of mirrors and optics gave us Caravaggio and baroque, he suggests, while new, little steel tubes that could hold paint got artists out of the studio and impressionism flourished.
‘Technology has always been a fundamental part of art. What business can learn from that is how artists harness technology and use it.’
The other side [of technology], which gets talked about less and has surprised me, is how willing we have been as societies to cede our liberty to machines.
Time to step away?
De Botton has a theory that in advanced economies people – particularly young adults – are experiencing a wave of career anxiety that didn’t exist 20 years ago. At its heart is the notion of meritocracy – that everyone has the opportunity to do well and, if they don’t, it’s their own fault. People no longer crave a job, but a calling; a vocation with meaning.
Social media – in one sense a tremendous technological step forward – is a conduit for anxiety about our lives and careers. It confronts us with the best bits of everyone else’s experiences so that our own feel humdrum in comparison.
The answer to this problem, according to de Botton, might well be more tech that keeps us all sane: ‘I’m enough of an optimist to think that we should keep going, but there are people who say our diet was better before agriculture and we had more leisure time when we were hunting and gathering.’
‘Technology is democratising information,’ adds Gompertz, ‘the possibilities that it provides are exciting and endless. The other side, which gets talked about less and has surprised me, is how willing we have been as societies to cede our liberty to machines.
‘There’s an element of sleepwalking into a world where we are controlled, of our own volition, by machines. That seems like an extraordinary thing to do and somewhere we should be very careful about treading.’
Technology has given us the free time from which creativity has a chance to flow, but paradoxically it encourages us to pack more in to increasingly busy schedules. The trick, for people craving space to breathe, is to filter the important from the frivolous.
‘We’re at a party,’ says Gompertz. ‘But when we realise the party is vacuous, worthless and temporary, isn’t achieving a lot and is mostly noise, we need to step away from it – then work out what we want to do.
‘If we are going to achieve anything it requires focus and the realisation that there are limits to the number of things we can do to any great effect. Do things you want to do and don’t do anything else. It’s what artists are great at.’
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