With the piece below we introduce a multi-part series that invites you to “think big” about the The Aesthetics of Change. In the coming months, we will explore how art and design facilitate change at the personal and organizational level through case studies, expert interviews, and dialogue.
“Every work of art must have about it something not understood to obtain its full effect.” —S.T. Coleridge
“Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Turn and face the strange.” —David Bowie
To Change or Not to Change
We may never know why Bowie stutters exactly four times before getting the word out of his mouth, but here’s a theory: CHANGE IS HARD. To say we are creatures of habit is an understatement. The fact is the anatomy of our being is constituted by a vast series of repeated actions—by us and our hairier ancestors. The way we look, think, eat, and socialize are by and large the result of the cumulative strokes of repetition over the millennia. We are our habits, and we dare not diverge from them, lest the whole thing fall apart, from the middle on out. So, change is hard—at the individual and organizational level.
And yet, from another vantage point, we as a species are defined by change. We simply wouldn’t be here if we had always stayed the same. Adaptation is kind of our thing, and we’ve been getting busy with it since before we squiggled onto dry land (cf. The Origin of Species). Renowned philosopher and founding father of psychology William James put it succinctly:
“Life is in the transitions…often, indeed, it seems to be there more emphatically, as if our spurts and sallies forward were the real firing-line of the battle.”
Change is hard for us humans but it is also the most human thing of all. We are at once continuity and flux.
Ok, but if change is so deeply human, then why is it so hard for us to bring about meaningful change in ourselves and our organizations? You’d think we’d just have to do what comes naturally. Right you are, William James would say, but that’s just it: change is hard not because it’s unnatural to us; it’s hard because we too easily forget how to act natural. Forgetting that to be human is to embrace continuity and change, we give over to existing habit. To bring about change in people and organizations is to remind them how to be human, which is to build change out of the depths of habit. And for that task you need more than logic and reason.
The Inherent Conservatism of Mind
William James puts the blame for our attachment to the status quo on the slippery goop that makes up our mental space. He thinks that basically all of us are possessed by an “inherent conservatism of mind.” Our brains are instinctively suspicious of change and innovation, giving huge preference to the stock of ideas, opinions and notions that we’ve already amassed. That’s why we LOVE to hear facts that corroborate what we already believe and we are made uneasy by facts that do not.
If we do hear something that challenges our existing ideas, our mind “preserves the older stock of truths with a minimum of modification, stretching them just enough to make them admit the novelty,” says James, “but conceiving that in ways as familiar as the case leaves possible.” The mind likes maximum continuity, minimum disruption.
And so under the influence of our brains we like it when things just flow smoothly—without disruption—through our minds; and we give specific names to that feeling: “reasonable”, “common sense”, “logically”, “obviously”, “no shit, Sherlock.” Because we get hooked on that smooth-flow feeling of the logical and the reasonable we stay stuck in the same place. To move forward with meaningful change requires not just more logic and reason, but a different kind of experience. We must, as Sir David Bowie* implores, “Turn and face the strange.”
The Power of Aesthetic Experience
There are several sorts of human experiences capable of entering our worlds from a different angle—and rendering strange the ground beneath our feet—without being constrained by logic and reason. In this piece, and in the series of posts to come, the focus will be on that range of concept-altering experiences that we call the aesthetic, for lack of a better term.
We’ll try to think through how it is that mere colors and lines on a canvas can transform the conscience of a nation, as did Picasso’s Guernica; or how carefully selected words on a page can unleash the wanderlust of a generation, as did Kerouac’s On the Road; or how a collection of static, monochrome images can reframe the experience of people, as did Dorothea Lange’s Dustbowl photographs; or how a mayor’s decision to solve the social ills of his city by asking himself, “what would an artist do?”, could cut homicide rates by 70%, as did Antanas Mockus in Bogota, Columbia.
These examples are of big scale cultural change, of course. But we’ll likewise ask how we who seek to bring about meaningful change in ourselves and our organizations—even on a relatively small scale—can harness the power of the arts to achieve these ends. We’ll probably never figure out exactly why the arts are capable of bringing about such vital change, but in thinking with some of the great aesthetic theorists we may be able to pick up the clues that we need.
Where Does This Power Come From?
The venerable philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, suggests that aesthetic experience hits us so hard because it disrupts conceptual thought, which is a key facet of logic and reason. Kant is the guy who came up with the idea that we make sense of the world by sorting everything we come across into a limited, far-too-generic set of concepts or categories. When we see something, we immediately and unconsciously apply one of our quick-draw concepts to it, sort it away in one of our preexisting categories, think we’ve understood it, and move on.
BUT, says Kant, when we engage with a work of art something different happens. We still instinctively look for the concepts and categories to file the artwork away under, but we can’t find them. The mind kicks into overdrive, looking for the concept, but eventually just spins its wheels. Logic and reason held suddenly in abeyance, the mind let’s go its grip on the habitual, the status quo, allowing for a pleasurable flood of new insights and imaginations to burst forth. Its in this way, thinks Kant, that art changes the way we think; changes us and our organizations. Its in this way that art humanizes us—and it feels good too.
Coleridge may have had Kant in mind when he said that all great art must have something NOT understood about it to obtain its full effect. Coleridge is suggesting that art asks questions of us for which we can have no immediate, logical answers. It forces us to pause, sit with our unknowing, and wonder. In states of wonder, new ideas enter the scene.
The Forest and The Trees
In a sense, we have stumbled across a paradox in aesthetic experience. It oscillates between two interconnected poles. On the one hand, art grounds us in the immediate, sensuousness of the particular, focusing our attention through a lens, within a frame, to seize upon very particular details. But, on the other hand, in so narrowing our gaze it forces us to broaden our attention to that which lies beyond our existing habits, categories, and reasons. Art asks us to engage with what William James calls simply, “The More.”
This is just one way of trying to sort out how it is that art can be such an agent of change. In the coming months, we will explore others. And, of course, we will reflect more specifically on how graphic facilitation and other visual tools (perhaps some that we have yet to imagine) can help facilitate change within professional organizations. In doing so, we will have an opportunity to hear from experts within our own organization at Collective Next as well as other thought leaders in the field, and beyond.
In the meantime, keep your eyes open. Something strange may change you.
*My fact-checkers tell me that Bowie actually turned down the offer knighthood. How gallant of him. “Sir” is retained in this article in a non-technical sense.