Understanding the Art of Thinking

May 18, 2017  • Amy Whitaker

Amy Whitaker is the author of Art Thinking and an assistant professor at New York University Steinhardt School. As part of the Inside Creativity program track at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, she’ll give a workshop based on the core tenets of art thinking. In preparation for the festival, she agreed to answer a few question about her book, the intersection of art and commerce, and more.

You teach and write at the intersection of business, creativity, and everyday life. What made you explore similarities between these seemingly disparate facets?

In the early 2000s, I finished an MFA in oil painting at the University College London’s Slade School of Fine Art, after I already had an MBA from Yale. That decision—to get an MFA after an MBA—will probably always be the most narratively incoherent thing I have ever done. I spent a decade afterwards feeling like I was the weird one, as if I had a foot in the far corners of the Twister board. Over time I realized that all of us are juggling our practical and creative selves, and what’s strange is that we don’t have better language for this overlap of creativity and commerce.

I believe everyone is an artist, and that creativity is a basic human birthright.

I am a child of specialized academic parents. My mother is a Beowulf-loving medievalist, and my father was a neurologist. But they could explain esoteric topics in straightforward language. My father described multiple sclerosis, his specialty, as being like a tree with a bark problem (a tree-shaped neuron with scarred myelin). My mother taught freshman composition so tirelessly that she was often invited to sit on the bench with various sports teams. She would always go and wear team colors. I think it’s important to be able to teach the first and second gears of any topic, rather than expecting people to mentally start the car in a rolling third. I think you want to meet people where they are, with respect and wholeheartedness, and without dumbing anything down.

You say that creativity and commerce are connected. How do you see that connection?

I believe everyone is an artist, and that creativity is a basic human birthright. We also live in the largest, most complex market economy of all time. Creativity and commerce are connected within each of us. We are all artists of our own lives, but we also have to live in a practical world based on price and value. In the workplace, creativity and commerce are inextricably tied. Joseph Schumpeter argued in 1942 for what he called “creative destruction”—the idea that change is the nature of business. Refusing to change leads to stagnation. Instead, creativity—in the form of bravely moving past or even destroying previous success—is the only way to pursue long-term value creation. Microeconomics has a similar storyline: innovate to make profits and then over time, those margins get competed away; innovate again to make more profits.

I’d love for the book to be read by anyone who is wrestling with how to lead a life of originality and meaning.

The problem is that culturally, we lack language to talk about this middle space between creativity and commerce. Stereotypes persist of the “suits” and the “creatives,” and this labeling does a disservice to all of us. Commercialization is part of the creative process. For heady ideas to take real form in the world, they need the whole spectrum of creativity, from the idea to the structural support to the people who inhabit it. Especially as work becomes more automated and algorithmic human tasks get replaced by artificial intelligence, creativity—the ability to move forward without a template—becomes that much more important.

Who is reading your latest book, Art Thinking? Is it meant for a particular audience?

It’s always interesting, as a writer, to see who reads your book. Based on the title and cover, a few people thought it was a business book for artists. A few others thought it was another design thinking book. I’ve delivered talks to a number of corporations, across science, media, and consumer goods. I’ve also been able to speak at liberal arts colleges.

I’d love for the book to be read by anyone who is wrestling with how to lead a life of originality and meaning, at the scale of their everyday projects, or on a larger scale, of running an organization. Art Thinking is more open-ended and less subsumed into commercial outcomes than design thinking. It is also tied closely to business itself as a design medium. It isn’t just a pie-in-the-sky brainstorming tool but a consideration of how we build corporate, organizational, and social forms to create the world we want to live in. Some of my favorite parts of the book—beyond the inspiring stories of people in the first half—are the sections on ownership and property rights, and on thinking about creative projects through the lens of risk and portfolio management. I also believe that we live in an age of democratized creativity—Instagram, and beyond—but not yet democratized ownership. Technologies like the blockchain make it possible to shift from an economy based on salary, to a system of work based on ownership and the creation of value.

I gave a talk in January to the annual meeting of public school board trustees of Canada. I had no idea how much I have in common with them. We care about exactly the same things—the education of the whole person, and the possibility that art is less a discipline and more a hub for true interdisciplinary conversation. I would argue that CEOs of multi-national corporations face the same questions about the future of work and the whole-person productivity of the workforce.

When I teach, I always say that there are two levels of creativity: writing the letter and designing the envelope. The letter is the work itself. The envelope is the structure in which the work can happen. Business is an art form of the envelope maker.

This post originally appeared on the Aspen Ideas Festival site.