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Art and communication.

Art and communication.

We face a complex world. In order to be able to discuss the issues, we need to share common terms of reference about them. If we are to create this, then we need to anatomise our times. To do this is far more than an analytical exercise, however, for we may need to create a way of speaking that captures what is going on. It is said that the indigenous Carib peoples found it hard to find terms in which to discuss the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean - until, that is, dreamers dreamed dreams about great sea birds, which bore iron men upon their backs.

As we moved from the rustic to the urban, from autocracy to self-determination, so we needed to invent terms which captured the relevant experiences. Modern dreamers had to invent the idea of social progress, of integrated economic activity and of political sovereignty, for example, just as earlier dreamers had crystallised and expressed religious awe, romantic love and military glory. Individuals and peoples, corporations and self-defining groups all need to find ways of summing up their experience in ways that go beyond analysis, such that they can build maps from the resulting insight, govern their affairs in the light of these and so set their course.

Societies are the most complex objects in the known universe. Analytical approaches to their problems will be right or wrong, but surely similarly complex. More approachable, more useful structures will be narrative, exemplary, holistic, tacit, created from the rub and friction of pragmatic life and its little solutions. Almost of all of these heuristics, categorisations, symbols and icons are built from - draw upon - concepts and terms which have already been worked into the framework of discourse.

The least accessible issues - those which address states of mind, which explore delicate relations or which envisage alternative approaches to the world of experience and potential - are frequently ill-handled by linear narrative and by the vivisection of analysis. The entities that emerge from our need to fill these vacuums in our experience are equally non-linear, subtle things-in-themselves. They are art, and serve as a mirror to the least accessible elements of the times. As such, they are relevant to the issues which this web site discusses.

The first section considers the arts in this light. It reviews some of the social roles of some of the arts. It is concerned to see how the arts, the media and 'culture' can contribute to understanding (or denial) of the forces of change. It does not pretend to a general theory of anything - let alone of art - but it may raise some issues of interest to relevant policy-makers and managers.

The second section takes the lessons of the first and applies them to the knowledge economy, discussed elsewhere. There is much to be learned from the arts about the early stages in the life cycle of knowledge. How complex new ideas are to crystallise and become a recognised part of the ensuing debate is badly understood and, for the most part, badly handled.

If this web site shows anything, it is the depth of change which we all face. We need to wrap this up in a form which captures common experience and the uncommon insight that we have acquired through the new forms of visualisation that we have acquired. Below, we show M16, a cloud of dust in which new stars are forming as dull interior glows. The nursery of life, a thing of vast forces, eldrich beauty and latent tragedy. Such scenes have barely touched contemporary aesthetic sensibilities.

Figure 1: The M16 nebula, with suns being born

The flow from 'art' to 'utility'.

It is pointless to seek absolute statements about what is or is not "art". The term is assigned in retrospect, by consensus. The elite consensus of any one time may disagree profoundly with a more general perspective. Societies absorb much of what the elite has digested, however, and the more grit there is in this crop, the better ideas and insight become generally accessible. A vast range of endeavours are undertaken, in every style from the historical pastiche to the self-consciously innovative, in every situation from the hermetic to the public platform, in teams and in barricaded sheds, to every motive and from every background. Where the elite searchlights happen to point is itself often driven by accidental, academic or commercial forces. The rationales of the public evolution and the private ecology of art are distinct.

In the end, of course, it does not matter what some people see as art or as not being art. A latent artefact undergoes a Darwinian struggle, in which its memes are either propagated or eliminated. Our societies have, for the most part, learned to tolerate many cheap experiments. We pick up the most useful of these and cross-breed and develop them. A vast network of practitioners and critics, curators and dealers, bowdlerisers and synthesists has arisen in order to do this. Each has something to say, and what they say survives or fails on its capacity to resonate.

This resonance may occur in all manner of empty vessels and trim ships. Artefacts are, of course, valuable for their rarity as for their innate appeal, for their academic quality as much as their capacity to confer status. There is a huge industry which creates, augments and extends such collateral value. High-status art forms have always been accumulated by the vainglorious and by those who need to prove that they have arrived, as Figure 2 suggests.

Figure 2: Highly priced paintings and the Japanese boom.

At least three sets of dynamic play themselves out in the art world. One of these is concerned with creation of the new: the endless cross-breeding of past work and current sensibility, new media and prepared minds. Some practitioners may be commercially-minded. Others are repelled by material values. Some may seek to reach out and to communicate, whilst others may be sadhus, renunciates in pursuit of individual transcendence. Some are poseurs or the operators of raree-shows, others possessed of a governing daemon with which they must wrestle for release.

The anthropological concept of 'transgression' is often at play at the heart of the very new. Societies mark important differences in lives and life stages with signs and patterns of behaviour. Crossing a life threshold - puberty, marriage - forces a shift from one state to another, often marked by a rite of passage. Transgressive forms combine dissonant signifiers: Amazon women were dressed as warriors, at a time when all soldiers were male. Old men are dressed as babies to symbolise time. Animals are dressed and said to act as humans, from shamanism to Disney, creating a powerful charge. This is different from the common 'artistic' trope of shocking the bourgeoisie, which is usually no more than flicking one's baby food on the carpet to annoy Mama.

Market promotion works as well in art as it does anywhere else, and many producers of artefacts shape themselves to this. Just as many do not. However, the focus of the times may rest where promotion has placed it. Critics have copy to write, academics have papers to prepare and the media have space to fill. The narrative 'hooks' that allow the reader access to the story mean that short steps from the familiar are preferable to tracts of explanation.

Wherever the focus of the moment may lie, however, a vast range of unfashionable, unrecognised and partly-baked offerings are continually added to the bouillabaisse. New, useful things find their way by stages from this lumpy soup into fields much wider than those of their birth. A posthumous Juan Miró promotes sunny Spain, dead Magritte a firm of accountants.

It is probable that the pace at which this occurs is speeding up. It took impressionism decades successfully to assault the chocolate box. The first Surrealist railway poster appeared about 18 months after the movement was named. Current shows may find their way into wrapping paper in weeks.

Second on our list of implications is, therefore, the Darwinian process by which new cultural artefacts creep all unnoticed into daily use. It really does not matter what is done at the snowbound peaks of endeavour, so long as there is enough of it, so long as it is original and ultimately available to plunder. Whatever strange rains may fall there fall will lie, will evaporate and form clouds, will fall anew, will do so again and again, will become until distilled and clear, will flows down to the pastures of general utility.

Unfortunately, this process is slow. It is dependent on the relevance of what is done. Arts establishments which are self-consciously aloof from daily life weaken this relevance, as do interpreters who have been schooled only in the arts. Sadhu-groups that spurn the wider world are unlikely to create anything that is not self-referential, sterile and ultimately tired. It is a pity that Western art education has become so-self regarding as to so entirely believe its own myths.

Figure 3: Uplands of innovation and the lowlands of utility.

Seventy years of modernism tried to come to grips with a changed world. It did so by transposing the traditional skills which were associated with art and its analysis into new modes of expression. Post-modernism has, however, abandoned this attempt to project unity of structure. It limits its ambitions to the establishment of loose and temporary connections in a world saturated with images and signifiers, operating on whatever level or intensity of linkage that seems to work. To outsiders, such an endeavour can be opaque and, when it is understood, it may seem thin, pretentious or didactic.

Post-modern relativism means that there is nothing which cannot be said to be art. The state of mind of the agent and - where appropriate - of the onlooker which establishes the necessary connections: process rather than product. It is attitude which is is held to transform the banal - cosmetic surgery, for example, or mass nude sun-bathing - to the status of probationary art. This is world in which perception is reality. However, it should not be forgotten that it is mass perceptions which form consensus reality. Is a media creation - a talent artfully framed and made immediately recognisable, such as Steven Hawkin - also an art form? Post-modernism may not, therefore, have completely absorbed its own message. It is happy to suborn passing artefacts from the daily torrent. However, what it has not prepared itself to handle is the active migration of the commercial sector - the producter os these - into its own terrain. The flow from the hills to the terraces of utility may have become two-way, and art-in-a-ghetto may become increasingly marginalised as a result. Indeed, it is the found images of science and newsgathering, the artful creations of cinema and television which shape contemporary consciousness and 'ways of seeing'.

Third, the public purse funds the creation and performance of art, as well as the training of its practitioners. This has many justifications. One figure remarked to a military selection panel that he was the civilisation that they were fighting a war to protect. However, the public cannot be expect to fund solely or even primarily elite enthusiasms. Historically, most art and culture has been restricted: one needed to have cultivated the sensibilities and one needed access. Public performances, museums and galleries opened this to a wider world, at first through religion and patronage, ultimately through public subscription. Today, however, mass reproduction and dissemination generate easy access to almost all of the major performance and graphic arts. Such trends are certain to expand. The established portfolio of investment in the arts may need to be reviewed in the light of these developments. New technologies will certainly make this issue more acute.

We face unprecedented change and we need all the practical help that we can find in order to come to terms with this. The section which follows will suggest that knowledge-based commerce and the renewed public sector will both need put effort into humanising change. In the myriad roles and goals that characterise the arts, this need for connection remains a policy constant. Art can deliver a peculiar form of journalism. Dickens showed a mass audience a positive way to think about the urban poor, as rational people, rather than as a mob. He did this by building an approachable, entertaining narrative structure that resonated with common daily experience. Indirect communication - much of it in the form of conscious art - has, of course, formed our image of modernity. It took the bewilderment and irrationality of the First World War, the upheaval of industrial urbanisation and gave this a structure, all whilst retaining the fragmented and anguished nature of the experience. The art world of the new millennium seems unable to field equivalent synthesis, but rather academicism, self-referential games and denial. It is cinema and television, popular literature and new media which seem to be taking up the challenge.

Artful communication, brand and contextual compression.

Neurophysiology shows us that we perceive in categories, and that we speak from categories. That is, conceptual classes are held separately in the brain: things to be eaten are handled by different tissue from things which are to be feared, monkeys conceive of dogs in separate physical places in their brains from perceptions of cats, sleeping places and foraging sites are recognised, recalled and acted upon by separate classes of neurons. Sets are, therefore, deeply important to us. We collect, classify and create our world-view therefrom. Knowledge management schemes often (unconsciously) emulate such semantic structures.

Brands, icons, concepts and symbols stand in for percepts. Humans are, perhaps, unique in their ability to generalise back from a symbol of the set to a particular member of it, to the thing sought. A sign with a jolly drunk on it takes us to a bar, and to drink; a singing toothbrush on the television leads us to oral hygiene. A datum ("42") is made into information by context ("my hotel room number is 42".) Rich communication transfers context as well as data. It does this by evoking patterns of information already in our minds, establishing the way that the new information should be treated. We have limited knowledge of how this happens, but great skill in ensuring that it does.

Images and related information-dense bundles convey context. Jingles, images, celebrities and word-play may carry a freight of rich, context-creating information. The bundle tells us what quality of experience we can expect and the nature of the contract that we shall have to fulfil. At a glance, therefore, we can tell if this is 'for me'. If one was to program a robot to undertake a similar evaluation, one would have to cram vast amounts of understanding into it in order for it to perform as well as a human at this task. It would be a very complex object. Humans, however, deploy their complexity in order to carry out what seems a simple transaction very quickly. A high bandwidth, high computation task is managed effortlessly by the prepared mind.

This is the strength of the brand, the icon, the established model of the world. Huge amounts of information are bundled and transferred, and when we receive this information, we can make choices, extend trust, acquire additional benefits from the basic transaction, extend our repertoire of options. Brand, for example, goes through four stages of evolution in its relationship with a consumer:

First, the nature of the product is established ('for washing'.)

Second, the soap is differentiated from others ('better stuff!')

Third, the product takes on a role in the user's life ('languorous aaah!)

Fourth, the product is seen to confers quality on the individual, who buys it more for these intangibles than for its primary purpose ('lightly feminine, with a hint of coltish rebellion.')

In this last stage, the brand has become embedded in the generality of life and can become both a social marker and a metaphor for social choices. Life style branding offers an individual a generic class of solutions to navigation problems ("how to deal with boys") which is both advertised by the consumer ("she is perky and preppy") and internalised ("my sort do not get too close on a first date.")

These messages are deeply significant, as they constitute a large fraction of our cognitive maps. They influence what we see as an option and what we do about it. The change how we relate to each other ("social class is natural, class differentiation is a bad thing, class has become irrelevant".) Above all, if we want to use data successfully, we have to arrive at shared contexts that allow us to treat it as information. As we discussed above, however, analytical approaches are over-complex, fallible and dull. Synthesis, the catchy idea, the meme are what serve as our primary tools.

Consider the relevance of this to managing knowledge-based organisations. We have discussed some of the tasks entailed in managing knowledge elsewhere. However, there are four broad areas which have to be synthesised if this is to be a rounded success.

First, and perhaps most straightforwardly, knowledge must be accumulated, classified, made accessible and kept up to date. We know how to do this: to collect, collate, order and distribute explicit knowledge. We can create complex databases which offer diagnostics to engineers and suggestions to doctors. All of this is very helpful, in its place.

However, whilst this stage serves routine, well-understood activities, it is less successful where innovation and adaptation is needed. Where the issue are less clear cut - where, for example, it is the creation of context rather than the assembly of data which is limiting - then new processes are needed. This is, of course, the home of what we have called 'k'-commerce.

Three other requirements drop into place.

Unlike the 'knowledge heap' approach to knowledge management, therefore, these are intensely non-linear, social processes where what is useful depends on interpretative contexts that have already been established, audiences which have 'learned to see', groups which have found ways of operating that allow them to create the hopeful 'may be'. There is much in common with the processes by which art is generated, and with the steps which lead to the creative insights and conceptual leaps of non-routine science.

Prepared minds are favoured by chance. There are four or five '-shuns' that most mention as essential prerequisites. One needs immersion, contemplation, receives illumination, and is wise to seek verification before taking action. The way in which individual creative minds do this is well-studied and well-known. The way that teams and groups go through these stages is weakly studied and essentially unknown. It is clear, however, that the clarity of internal message-creation has much to do with the permission for immersion, the focus for contemplation, the target to which illumination is directed.

We are, in the main, poor at enabling or giving expression to ideas of this sort. Commercial managers, in particular, are usually embarrassed by the need and dreadful at the execution of what is involved in delivering a clear message. The problem is not one of setting bounds of general goals. Managers are usually clear about the resources that they want to dedicate and the general parameters within which they expect to find a useful outcome: its scale, its relations to cultural and practical baggage, its risk and so forth. Rather, the problem arises from the need to generate pithy, iconic, high bandwidth structures that tell a tale indirectly, but tell it well. These are essentially a product of art, rather than of the linear, declarative forms with which managers are most comfortable. There are tools which can be used. Scenarios, for example, are a step towards telling an engaging story. They are dry stuff, however, and we must be able to do better.

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