ARTISTS routinely deride businesspeople as money-obsessed bores. Or worse. Every time Hollywood depicts an industry, it depicts a conspiracy of knaves. Think of “Wall Street” (which damned finance), “The Constant Gardener” (drug firms), “Super Size Me” (fast food), “The Social Network” (Facebook) or “The Player” (Hollywood itself).
Artistic critiques of business are sometimes precise and well-targeted, as in Lucy Prebble’s play “Enron”. But often they are not, as those who endured Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” can attest.
Many businesspeople, for their part, assume that artists are a bunch of pretentious wastrels. Bosses may stick a few modernist daubs on their boardroom walls. They may go on corporate jollies to the opera. They may even write the odd cheque to support their wives’ bearded friends. But they seldom take the arts seriously as a source of inspiration.
The bias starts at business school, where “hard” things such as numbers and case studies rule. It is reinforced by everyday experience. Bosses constantly remind their underlings that if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count. Quarterly results impress the stockmarket; little else does.
Managers’ reading habits often reflect this no-nonsense attitude. Few read deeply about art. “The Art of the Deal” by Donald Trump does not count; nor does Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”. Some popular business books rejoice in their barbarism: consider Wess Robert’s “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” (“The principles are timeless,” says Ross Perot) or Rob Adams’s “A Good Hard Kick in the Ass: the Real Rules for Business”.
But lately there are welcome signs of a thaw on the business side of the great cultural divide. Business presses are publishing a series of luvvie-hugging books such as “The Fine Art of Success”, by Jamie Anderson, Jörg Reckhenrich and Martin Kupp, and “Artistry Unleashed” by Hilary Austen. Business schools such as the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto are trying to learn from the arts. New consultancies teach businesses how to profit from the arts. Ms Austen, for example, runs one named after her book.
All this unleashing naturally produces some nonsense. Madonna has already received too much attention without being hailed as a prophet of “organisational renewal”. Bosses have enough on their plates without being told that they need to unleash their inner Laurence Oliviers. But businesspeople nevertheless have a lot to learn by taking the arts more seriously.
Mr Anderson & co point out that many artists have also been superb entrepreneurs. Tintoretto upended a Venetian arts establishment that was completely controlled by Titian. He did this by identifying a new set of customers (people who were less grand than the grandees who supported Titian) and by changing the way that art was produced (working much faster than other artists and painting frescoes and furniture as well as portraits). Damien Hirst was even more audacious. He not only realised that nouveau-riche collectors would pay extraordinary sums for dead cows and jewel-encrusted skulls. He upturned the art world by selling his work directly through Sotheby’s, an auction house. Whatever they think of his work, businesspeople cannot help admiring a man who parted art-lovers from £70.5m ($126.5m) on the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed.
Studying the arts can help businesspeople communicate more eloquently. Most bosses spend a huge amount of time “messaging” and “reaching out”, yet few are much good at it. Their prose is larded with clichés and garbled with gobbledegook. Half an hour with George Orwell’s “Why I Write” would work wonders. Many of the world’s most successful businesses are triumphs of story-telling more than anything else. Marlboro and Jack Daniels have tapped into the myth of the frontier. Ben & Jerry’s, an ice-cream maker, wraps itself in the tie-dyed robes of the counter-culture. But business schools devote far more energy to teaching people how to produce and position their products rather than how to infuse them with meaning.
Studying the arts can also help companies learn how to manage bright people. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones of the London Business School point out that today’s most productive companies are dominated by what they call “clevers”, who are the devil to manage. They hate being told what to do by managers, whom they regard as dullards. They refuse to submit to performance reviews. In short, they are prima donnas. The arts world has centuries of experience in managing such difficult people. Publishers coax books out of tardy authors. Directors persuade actresses to lock lips with actors they hate. Their tips might be worth hearing.
Corporations chasing inspiration
Studying the art world might even hold out the biggest prize of all—helping business become more innovative. Companies are scouring the world for new ideas (Procter and Gamble, for example, uses “crowdsourcing” to collect ideas from the general public). They are also trying to encourage their workers to become less risk averse (unless they are banks, of course). In their quest for creativity, they surely have something to learn from the creative industries. Look at how modern artists adapted to the arrival of photography, a technology that could have made them redundant, or how William Golding (the author of “Lord of the Flies”) and J.K. Rowling (the creator of Harry Potter) kept trying even when publishers rejected their novels.
If businesspeople should take art more seriously, artists too should take business more seriously. Commerce is a central part of the human experience. More prosaically, it is what billions of people do all day. As such, it deserves a more subtle examination on the page and the screen than it currently receives.