In 2004, Daniel Pink declared in the Harvard Business Review that the MFA was the new MBA. That same year, I graduated from an MFA in painting program at the Slade School of Fine Art—after already having an MBA.
Having an MFA and MBA as of 2004 made me somewhat exotic. But what was surprising was to realize how intertwined creativity and commerce actually are for all of us.
After spending more than a decade working and playing in those different worlds, I set out to write a meditation and a manual, a manifesto and a love story, for how art—creativity writ large—and business go together. I wanted to develop more language for the common human problem of how to construct a life of originality and meaning within the real constraints of the market economy.
To even talk about art and business together, the first thing you need is a more versatile, Swiss Army knife definition of what art is—beyond objects like paintings or sculptures and institutions like museums.
If you are making a work of art in any area of life, you are not going from a known point A to a known point B. You are inventing point B. You are creating something new—an object, a company, an idea, your life—that must make space for itself. In the act of creating that space, it changes the world, in however big or small a way.
By this definition, art is less an object and more a process of exploration. Many things outside the art world are art—computers and 747s, counterinsurgency manuals and business models, afternoons and lives inventively spent. And, conversely, many things inside the art world are high-end, branded commodity products that trade on an art market—objects that are just recognizable enough and just scarce enough to function as alternative currencies.
Business prizes being able to put prices on things and to know their value ahead of time. Yet, if you are inventing point B—in any area of life—you can’t know the outcome at the moment you have to invest money, time, and effort in the point-A world.
This is the central paradox of business: The core assumptions of economics—efficiency, productivity, and knowable value—work best when an organization is at cruising altitude, but they won’t get the plane off the ground in the first place. That is to say, the history of business—the way we got here— follows from the kind of creative and open-ended work that the structure of business makes hard.
Another way of saying that is that companies can grow by two means. They can grow by scaling up to the most efficient level of production. Or they can grow artistically by the alchemy of invention.
Art thinking is a framework and set of habits to protect space for inquiry—to dream big in ways that are completely lifted above yet still tethered to reality. It is about how to structure and set aside space for open-ended, failure-is-possible exploration and to move forward by asking the big, messy, important questions, whether you know they are possible to answer or not. It is a form of optimism in the face of uncertainty.
Art thinking shares some similarities with design thinking, the framework for generalizing the process of designing a product into a creative problem-solving tool. The differences between art and design are somewhat academic, especially as fields of conceptual and speculative design flourish. But whereas a framework originating in product design starts with an external brief—“What is the best way to do this?”—art thinking emanates from the core of the individual and asks, “Is this even possible?”
Design thinking values empathy with users and rapid prototypes so that you can build a better airplane. Art thinking is there with the Wright brothers as they crash-land and still believe that flight is possible.
Adapted from Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses (Harper Business, 2016).
Amy Whitaker is the author most recently of Art Thinking (Harper Business, 2016), which has been featured in the Financial Times, the Boston Globe, Vanity Fair, Success, Self, and elsewhere. Amy holds both an MBA from Yale University and an MFA in painting from the Slade School of Fine Art. She is an assistant professor at NYU Steinhardt. For many years, Amy has taught business to artists and designers. She also lectures widely about creativity in the workplace. Amy is passionate about developing better language for the space between creativity and commerce, and starting a movement of “inventing point B” in any area of life.