By Dan Elias
Philosophers have observed that business is war by other means. The phrase is arresting because — one hopes — business is a bit more restrained in its methods. The fact is, though, that business and war are united in the very “fundamental-ness” of both activities. You survive or fail by the creativity and insight you bring to bear, the skill with which you handle your tools, and the strength of your team. Theory, tradition, ceremony can all be dispensed with, since no plan of attack survives first contact with the opponent. Innovation, creativity, determination and desire win the day every time.
Into this category also falls another basic human activity: the experience and practice of art. In this sphere, too, creativity is king. As business culture embraces innovation, critical thinking, nimbleness and the acceptance of failure as a healthy part of a successful innovation ecosystem, it becomes increasingly art-like.
For artists, failure has always been simply a first approximation of success. That’s why artists use inexpensive materials like paper, clay, charcoal, strings, breath or sticks to express thoughts and ideas. Artists make lean, efficient use of materials; communicate complex ideas in an instant through multi-channel sensory input; manage and direct attention of viewers and listeners through skillful use of color, line, sound, breath, fingers, words.
Artists also know that viewers will make their own judgments and develop their own relationship to the product, so that artist and audience become partners in making meaning of a work of art — a lesson that executives, designers, programmers and retailers have been learning only recently, and still only half believe.
It comes down to the daily practice of creativity, the disciplined act of observation, interpretation and engagement with the world around you. Medical, dental and law schools across the country offer courses in looking at art in order to teach close observation. Physicians and lawyers trained in this way are demonstrably better at sizing up patients, families, and situations in a holistic way, seeing relationships and implications that others miss.
What is the profile of the ideal worker in the knowledge economy? An individual inspired by challenges they set for themselves; who owns the problem AND the process and takes personal delight in developing and improving both; who is not deterred by the need to go back to the drawing board over and over again in pursuit of perfection, but who can let go of one project and apply the knowledge gained to the next one.
The practice of art provides a perfect training ground for such a worker. Internally driven, pursuing personal growth and insight, using simple materials to create the most complex representations of thought and feeling of which humans are capable, artists are the original knowledge workers.
Highly successful and innovative industry leaders such as Fidelity Investments, Wellington Management and MIT have invested in world-class collections of sophisticated art, both indoors and in public spaces, as ways to enrich their environments, attract and retain top talent, and keep open to new ideas.
Increasingly, cities like Boston, London and Chicago see that involving artists in development of new, livable neighborhoods and communities is not just pleasant, but is an effective way to add value and identity to projects at every scale.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s recruitment of an arts “czar” from Chicago; the partnership of the Boston Foundation, Massachusetts Cultural Council and Futurecities — an arts development planning group from London — which is developing plans for Boston, Worcester and Springfield; and the current proposal to include the New Art Center in plans for a mixed-use development at the corner of Walnut and Washington streets in Newtonville are all intended to create distinctive projects and communities that attract diverse, innovative and engaged workforces and provide the cities in which they are located with a vibrant, fun, engaging environment for all residents.
Art installations, participatory experiences and performance venues also provide real value to neighbors who may not otherwise find much benefit in growth, whose peaceful lives may be disrupted by newly energized and activated spaces. The lovely neighborhoods that attract people to these two cities were created by those neighbors, who only stand to lose if the new activity provides nothing they can use and enjoy. The arts provide a wide range of ways for them, too, to participate fully in the city’s success.
Building a successful, thriving live-work community, as Newton and Needham propose to do along the N2 Innovation District, is not easy. In order to feel alive, engaged and energized, human beings need rich environments with intellectually stimulating and spiritually fulfilling activities in which to invest their time and energy.
The plugged-in life that many of us now live is both motivating and productive, taking place day and night, at work, at play, at home, out on the town and on vacation. But introspection, meditation, thoughtful extension of one’s own intelligence into a space created by someone else are necessary as well.
The arts provide exactly such an environment. Hip, interesting, engaging and exciting, a world with art is a world in which human beings feel at home. Concert halls, artists’ studios, exhibition and performance spaces, sculpture parks, poetry in the sidewalks, an a capella band on the corner make a place feel not only alive but electric.
Dan Elias is executive director of the New Art Center in Newton and a member of the chamber’s Non-Profit Committee.