What work does art do?

Photo credit: Daniel Thomson

Photo credit: Daniel Thomson

The highest state to which humanity can aspire is wonder
— Goethe

While walking with my wife and daughter on a busy summer street in Banff, Alberta we came upon a busker playing the fiddle. A young boy of eight or nine turned to his mother and remarked that “he should get a job” in a way that seemed to seek her approval. She approved and they continued walking.

The idea of work has become so powerful, so pervasive, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to see the world through a lens that isn’t defined by labor, an eternal striving to achieve, to know, to do. Minutes and hours of the day are converted over to the logic of work. Breaks, weekends, holidays are no longer ends unto themselves, but rather intermissions so that we might approach our work with more vigor. And work is no longer confined to defined spaces where wages are exchanged for sweat or furrowed brows. We work at relationships, hobbies, self-improvement, our faith, and our parenting. When we define ourselves by what we produce or how we contribute, a kind of emptying out can occur, that leaves us incapable of experience, of wonder. In fact, when we become accustomed to applying effort to feel something, a numbness invades that requires greater intensities of spectacle for a response to emerge.

The creative sector has long worried at how to justify its existence in a language of utility that existing power structures might understand. What work does art do? Some have deployed an economic argument, as attested by the numerous reports that delineate the financial impact of the arts. Others beat a path with the social nonprofits, using complex formulas of impact to rationalize another year of funding. Regardless of the preferred approach, the narrative is still constrained by a logic of work. The arts and creativity serve.

This isn’t an argument for “art for art’s sake”. Art can, and in some contexts, must serve moral, didactic or cultural functions. Rather, we need to critically inquire into what functions we value as a society and how we organize ourselves to achieve these functions. Leadership in the creative sector has long been borrowed from elsewhere. Models in the creative industries are predicated on transactional logics, contracts, and exchange. Nonprofit arts organizations organize around mission in ways very similar to social charities. And yet the function of creative work differs. Creative work understood only in reference to utility creates divisions that are personally and collectively damaging. The separation of love and sex, work and play, ethics and business, and the individual from the community are all byproducts of a culture numb to wonder and awe.

The separation of love and sex, work and play, ethics and business, and the individual from the community are all byproducts of a culture numb to wonder and awe.

Organizations and individuals that serve wonder require models of leadership that navigate the tricky paradox of fostering contemplation, awe, and curiosity while meeting the requirements of life, honoring the advancement of craft, and contributing to community.

At Intervene Design, we believe in the transformative power of ideas and the need to explore edges that others avoid. However, understanding the generation and communication of ideas and the exploration of difficult spaces by their utility does a disservice to the parts of our lives that are not open to exchange. Work is the means, not the ends and leadership needs to do a better job of elevating the ends, rather than optimizing the means.