Will Gompertz, BBC Arts Correspondent, has interviewed countless artists. The role call of inspiration for his new book includes such influences as Ai Weiwei, David Hockney and Bridget Riley. In Think Like An Artist, Gompertz examines the habits and attitudes that unite successfully creative people, and looks at how we can apply those traits to our own endeavours.
All those innovative, aspiring twenty-first-century enterprises say they need people who can conceive ideas of value and know how to realize them. And yet the majority of businesses still retain traditional authoritarian structures. There are exceptions, of course. The American animation company Pixar springs to mind, with its Braintrust, feedback forums, and open invitation to employees to come up with ideas for a screenplay.
But such instances are still quite rare. Companies are not set up in an optimal way to create the conditions where staff have the opportunity and confidence to express their talents if the employer–employee relationship is to be largely based on subordination, not collaboration. Being employed can be a stifling and infantilizing experience, which is hardly conducive to creativity.
But what if we had an economy more akin to the one in which artists operate, where the majority of people are self-employed? Each of us would have our own specialism, operating with the enterprising mindset of an artist. Businesses would still exist, big and small, but we would no longer work for them, we would work with them. The association might last for twenty years or twenty minutes. True, the full-time employee’s sense of security would be lost (often a delusion anyway), but it would be exchanged for a greater sense of self and independence.
This scenario is already a reality for millions of freelancers across the world, but they continue to be the exception, not the norm. And in most cases they are still viewed as outsiders, fringe players, and specialist hired help, as opposed to being an integral part of a business. I doubt that would still be the case if the majority of people were free agents: the dynamics of employment, and, by extension, society, would change.
The upside would be a highly motivated, extremely creative, flexible workforce who felt masters of their own destiny: a new generation empowered by their careers. The challenge would be the need to design new support structures to help a population of freelancers enjoy the good times and survive the bad ones.
I suspect it would prompt a review into the nature of the current systems of remuneration. The added value and exceptional skills provided by this community of creatives would need to be taken into account. Incentives or bonuses are fine as far as they go, but shouldn’t there be a more equitable share of the spoils? If the freelancers are sharing the risk by not being full-time employees, then perhaps they ought to share the upside too?
If you have helped create or develop a commercial service or product, should you have a share in it that is commensurate with your contribution? Perhaps the current convention that sees freelancers sign over their intellectual property rights should be changed too? Could it be replaced with a new system that represents a more proportionate way of sharing wealth, which recognizes and rewards the creative majority and not just the executive minority?
Even from the position of a casual observer, it seems increasingly obvious that there is a developing trend towards the mega and the micro. The middling, the so-so and the average are finding life harder in the world of instant online feedback and vast consumer choice offered by our global economy. Okay is no longer OK.
There is a clear division opening up. On one side there are the global super-brands, huge out-of-town shopping districts, and dominant websites; while on the other there are the artisans making and providing authentic, bespoke and local products and services. Many of these skilled craftsmen and women are trading from their local high street in shops that were once boarded up. It is this growing band of individuals and small collectives that is evolving into the new creative class.
Perhaps we are already edging towards a society that will once again be filled with cabinet-makers and artisan bakers, Sunday painters and part-time inventors – most of whom will be working in or benefiting from the digital world. The false divide between the creative haves and have-nots will finally be removed as we come to realize that everyone has the gift for producing imaginative work of merit.
I think it is reasonable to argue that the shift towards a broader creative community is already happening in business. It is said, for example, that last year more start-up businesses were founded by enterprising entrepreneurs than ever before. Some will become rich and famous, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg; others will remain less well known. It is quite possible that the twenty-year-old woman who served you a coffee this morning is a part-time app designer of note, and that the young guy who emptied your bin last Friday is the lead singer of a band with an impressive international online following.
More and more people I meet, young and old, have taken up a creative sideline or two. Some are happy enough to combine their making lives with their working lives, while others support themselves with a portfolio of jobs and enterprises. And then there are those who have been able to establish their creative concern so successfully that it financially supports them.
This is the sort of professional balancing act that artists have perfected over the centuries. They are well used to combining their art practice with a more secure job such as teaching. It is a high risk/low risk mix that I can see becoming a more common model across society. It could be that the time-honoured system of a single boss overseeing a strict hierarchy in which full-time employees obediently fit into the corporate straitjacket will start to seem very old- fashioned. Particularly for any business that prizes or profits from creativity. A traditional system based on a vertical chain of command is the optimum way to run an army, or a chain- gang, precisely because it is a sure-fire way of suppressing the human imagination.
And that is something we can no longer afford to do. The problems we face will not ultimately be solved by brawn; they can only be truly overcome by using our brains. It is our creativity that will save the day, when we are not behaving like animals but thinking like an artist.
Extract taken from Think Like an Artist, Will Gompertz.
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