Amy Whitaker on Art Thinking: Where Creativity and Commerce Intersect

amy whitaker by sheiva rezvani

Amy Whitaker, by Sheiva Rezvani

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).


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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.

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Published by Amy Whitaker

is the author of Art Thinking (Harper Business 2016) -- and a creativity champion, business explainer, and human Venn diagram.

25 Comments

  1. Wonderful article. Art is an invaluable ‘lab’ for conceptual thinking as a complement to theoretical process. Even CERN has included a robust art fellowship with their LHC research. Science could not thrive without art. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Hello Amy nice post… I would have like you to brief me on how i can become a successful business man in blogging and other areas like Entrepreneurship

  3. austindodsonblog August 29, 2016 at 9:18 am

    “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.” Wow. What an inspiring statement. Too often in the most important of places we forget the value of questioning and curiosity. Thank you for this lovely article.

  4. TheOriginalPhoenix August 29, 2016 at 9:26 am

    What a cool post! I never thought business was so closely linked to art like that. I look forward to seeing what else you write. 🙂

  5. I am rather suspicious of encapsulative generalities. As someone involved in art most of his life I agree that art is some form of search and as with any search effort success is very elusive. Art may be search, but all search is not art. Process is not necessarily rewarded with success. And everything novel may not be pleasing.

  6. As a former teacher, I see the value in art exploration for our students and just the other day saw a very interesting documentary about music and the connection to learning. It breaks my heart when art programs keep getting cut. Great article.

  7. Its a fascinating read!Your closing sentence is fantastic – indeed point B is in the making….

  8. Academically, you give me pause. Creatively, you touch my funny bone core. As most things are relative, up close or off in the distance, you address a communicable disease few are comfortable speaking about. Many of us are plagued with choosing between our dream and necessity. You offer an abundance of hope. Bravo!

  9. Refreshing – thank you!

  10. Great reflective piece – indeed there are different forms of growth but also different structures that can be created to make companies and organisations less hierarchical. Thank you for this!

  11. ‘Businesses can grow artistically by the alchemy of invention’ what a beautiful sentence! I work in marketing for a large corporate and I think often we are too busy with a manic inbox and lots of things going on to really take stock, step back and think artistically as the constant pressure to be productive looms. Your post has been a reminder to me to really carve out the time!

  12. I only expect more to come from this: MFA + MBA line of thinking. Sounds like the yin and yang to real world innovation. I’ll keep my eye on this camp and I look forward to more developments.

  13. “…to protect space for inquiry.” I love that! I am currently developing a kind of community lab for socializing with the thought that we can be great at improv, we just need to share a common language.
    Great article! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  14. Love this perspective. Smart and unique and eye-opening. The merging of art and business could be a beautiful bridge for a lot of people who struggle to pick one side or the other. Very, very cool.

  15. I love how you emphasized that artists “Invent point B,” and through our exploration and investigation to reach that point we are changing the world. That is why it is said that art is the reflection of humanity. Being a dancer, I truly appreciate this because the lines between business and art can be blurred and not so distinct. There is a silver lining between the two.

  16. I love when creativity and commerce intersect in my checking account.

  17. The definition of art is multi faceted and highly subject to interpretation. To say a person has elevated their business skill to an art form would be an acceptable accolade. Subsequently, art as a creative expression is a mainstream business. Getting hung up on semantics can cause a disconnect. To prosper in business one has to be creative, to prosper in art, one has to have business skills. I would call that a symbiotic relationship and a coming together of both sides of thought. Or better yet, becoming whole. You really hit the nail on the head in your inventing part B analogy. Nice post, It pulled me right in.

  18. ourjamaicanframe September 5, 2016 at 1:17 pm

    Most people I know see art as an afterthought, something that you are good at the is made soley to operate on the side of real careers and enterprises. This article helps to disprove that especially now art is lined into everything in advertising: I don’t buy a home unless it’s art offers me something, the design of my phone has to connect with me… “Art thinking is a framework and set of habits to protect space for inquiry” I like this. Art in one way gives us the a comfortable area to evolve in all all areas (especially business) my opinion. I really like your perspective.
    – DSW
    https://ourjamaicanframe.wordpress.com/

  19. Wonderful Post, art is truly the spiritual outpost, developing the world and driving artrepreneurs like you. Thanks for the great reading

  20. I found this post (and the comments) incredible informative. I love analyzing art because no matter who we are there is a part of art that resonates within us. Art and beauty is such an inevitable portion of this life. Thank you for sharing these thoughts, I certainly have a great deal to ponder after reading!

  21. I plan to share your post in my blog https://hellocreativestimes.com. Since you have enabled sharing on your post, I am assuming that you are allowing others to share this post. However, if you have any objection to sharing your post, please let us know as soon as possible. Thank you.

    🙂

  22. Using the analogy of the Wright brothers to explain, make me easier to understand the in-between roles of art & design.

  23. I would love to hear your thoughts on holding the space for these two ‘disciplines’ (can’t think of the right word here) at the same time. Example when you are building a business framework, and developing the brand collateral at the same time.

  24. As one who is always trying to balance and grow both the right and left sides of my brain, I often contemplate the lack of reward for artistic thinking in modern business. Both in my career and in my work in city government, new paths are rarely uncovered. So many people tend to look cost-cutting, efficiency, etc. Do the same thing while doing it cheaper or leaner. While serving a purpose, these paths are tired and do not often lead to the results that venturing into the unknown can. That’s where the artistic mind can lead us. Into the unknown. Thanks for the post.

  25. Thank you for this post. I’m a new artist who has just begun to dip his foot into the unknowns of the commercial art space, and I think your article helped clarify and ease my mind over some of the unknown and unpredictable aspects of art and its market. The fear of failure and of having no control of outcomes or being able to predict them with any kind of reliable accuracy is very real, and I want to thank you for summing up so eloquently why it is we must continue to strive to aspire in the face of the adversity and the unknown.

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