Contemporary Art is Useless


‘Useless, pretentious, always abstract, too easy, makes fool of people’ were some of the statements that participants expressed about contemporary art. We saw Duchamp’s ready made ‘Fontaine’, Carl Andre’s minimalist sculptures, the ‘Running Fence’ by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Rauschenberg’s ‘White Painting’ and many more. Participants were transported inside a large painting by J-M. Basquiat and produced a mind map of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Teahouse’, an installation composed of 378 cubes and 54 prisms of compressed Pu’Er tea.

But what is the connection between all this and personal and organizational transformation, which was the purpose of an experiential lab held at the CEF on 25 and 26 August this year?

Let me share the flow of what happened during the lab.

Acquiring cognitive information through training is often not sufficient to address the rapid and profound changes that impact organizations as well as individuals in the workplace. Such changes require a deep transformation in the way people think, contribute and engage in solving problems or making decisions. Achieving that by analyzing real life hierarchical, procedural or team challenges can be difficult, while critically looking at contemporary art and talking about it helps immensely in opening up.

Preconceived ideas, mental and cultural rigidities are usually the biggest obstacles towards change, be it in the workplace or in life. Finding positive counter arguments against one’s own prejudices allowed to let go the normative system that we build and use to be defensive and resist change.

Participants were now ready for interpreting and taking in new knowledge much more freely and easily. They explored contemporary artwork wide and deep, and created linkages between apparently unconnected areas. By doing so, their creativity was stimulated and all together they found avenues to explore that were not obvious at the onset.

The three steps (in bold) above were the foundation for the creative part of the lab during which participants generated, in a limited time and in a non-artistic environment, their own artwork. It was remarkable how all participants felt at ease to produce their own artwork that had to contain an element of newness. They did it with the right artistic perspective, namely asking questions about a context or a given circumstance and providing options that expand the range of possible responses to the issues at stake. The participants’ artworks were all questioning their personal relationship with the work place (‘am I able?’, ‘the HR process’) or the wider context (‘Mama didn’t tell me’, ‘Blahh’).

Finally, a short assessment of the works by questioning their newness stimulated critical thinking among participants who meanwhile had acquired a multifaceted and creative approach to the professional challenges which they will be facing. All have integrated the creative process of the artist and will be able to use it any time. Everyone ended up convinced that contemporary art is useful, within easy reach, concrete, helpful and yes, easy, not too easy.

* The experiential lab was structured around five practical steps (in bold), which are relevant to most people’s personal and professional development, and can be strongly stimulated through contemporary art.


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About Robin Poppe

After a full career with the UN, Robin spends most of his time as international consultant in learning solutions and creating his own artwork. He is convinced that many individuals and organisations face challenges that cannot be addressed by conventional learning approaches. He has developed a process, based on art, that supports groups achieve transformational change.

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