Everybody an artist?

“I am not a business man, I am an artist”, said Warren Buffett and legions of journalists, bloggers, academics and business people joined in the chorus and repeated him happily. This is nonsense, of course, not everyone who calls himself an artist is one. At no time in history, building an empire made you an architect, nor did signing treaties (or checks) make you a painter or draftsman. Warren Buffett is as much an artist as the rest of us are billionaires, unless he shows us some of his artistic creations. Why does a man like Warren Buffett claim to be something he clearly is not, rather than what he really is — a business man and one of the most successful ones on the planet? We can only make an educated guess here, but it seems what he meant to say was that there is some special quality in how he does business, something comparable to art, something maybe better described as creativity.

For centuries, art — and art alone — was regarded as an act of creativity. Only in the last decades we have started to understand creativity as a basic human ability, a fact proven by neurophysiology, locating creative thinking in the middle prefrontal area of the neocortex — the area where thinking of the highest level of abstraction takes place. Creativity ranks among the most advanced human activities and, as so many pointed out, seems the only way out of the terrible problems we cause for ourselves. To deal with the challenges of our age our leaders — as much as anyone — need creativity alongside with a deeper understanding and empathy in order to bring about the necessary transformative change.

Creativity is a non-linear process with an uncertain outcome. It cannot be measured, it cannot be planned, and it can be messy at times. People, business men in particular, find that hard to accept. Most of us are still caught up in 19th-century thinking with romantic notions about art and beauty. But, the way of the artist is usually hard and uncompromising. It is this unyielding determination that we need in our leaders — the will to embrace creativity and to accept the uncertainty that comes with it. However, the transition from the traditional linear thinking to a more holistic, creative approach is not an easy one and we should not pretend otherwise.

Warren Buffett and Pablo Picasso — colleagues? What would Picasso say?

If what made Warren Buffett so successful can be called a more holistic, creative way of doing business may be judged by someone else. But he still doesn’t qualify as an artist. In his defense must be said that the deluge of information we are confronted with today, caused a babylonian confusion. Words are re-interpreted, sometimes in very grotesque ways. Communication becomes more and more a matter of context. Almost every social group uses at least some buzzwords whose “true” meaning only members of the tribe can understand. New words are needed to label new things, and new things appear with mind-blowing speed. It is hard to keep up and make sense of it all.

Making sense of it all seems to be one of the most important tasks of our age. We see ourselves confronted with all kinds of challenges. Some of them are so serious that many people despair and lose all hope for a liveable planet beyond this century. We have to change the way we are doing things, and we have to do it now. Instead of the limited, mechanistical thinking of the past we need to adopt a new, far more open and flexible approach, based on a cyclical understanding of the world — an agrarian model rather than an industrial one, sustainability rather than senseless exploitation of all resources. We need to tap one of our most neglected, yet most valuable resources: our creative potential. We need to find and foster creativity wherever we can — especially in our children. If we get that right, who knows where it leads us. We might even end up with a wonderful world where everybody is an artist…

Axel Wendelberger