Sometimes it’s hard to find the words when we encounter something new and unfamiliar. It takes work to name an experience if it doesn’t match what we’ve seen before. If we run out of past words or patterns to associate with, we may actually ignore what we see. Like the islanders who did not design the sailboats and therefore did not see them approaching.
Some argue that this is the main reason we live – to make sense of our experience, especially the limits of what is familiar. This is also where art is found: at the border between what is our world and what appears to be chaos.
Through art, we fashion new symbols and forms from the unknown and bring them into our world. Art makes it possible to give meaning to the boundary between what is historical and what is no longer future, between the conscious and the unconscious. It contains spaces for us to have experiences and expressions of what we are still seeking to name. This is why art is fundamental to leadership, because it allows leaders to design a new world, while keeping space to face the world that is here.
Leadership as Art and Design
Leadership delimits the new world and the old: it begins with the creation of meaning or new ways of seeing our world. As my colleague and friend Gianpiero Petriglieri said it beautifully: “leadership is an argument with tradition”, much like art. But, for new meaning to be created, shared and debated, we often need new symbols, new shapes and new language. We rely on art to create these building blocks of meaning, but we need leaders to embody them and bring them to life. And when art and leadership collide, we begin to design or reshape the world around us, together.
Design is how we conceive and make things that are beyond us, that arise from the world within us: things that reflect our intention, but also our mystery. Our art helps us to deepen intimacy with this mystery; while our intention and our leadership elevate it beyond the impermanence and constraints of our body. What is then designed and made is the literal embodiment of this mixture: art gives birth to a story and, through leadership, it becomes a structure in which we can live. In other words, design is the embodiment of leadership in the things we make.
What if art was made by machines?
Viewing design as the embodiment of leadership can help us answer the question of what good leadership looks like in an increasingly artificial world. ‘Cause more and more it’s things that we meet, rather than people. Or shall we say — we meet through things and in things. But these things were designed: made with intention and informed by art, good or bad.
What if art was made by machines, as is increasingly the case with ai generated art? Generative art has been around since we were able to make machines, but this new technology creates objects that seem strange. As if they were made by the artists themselves. It’s beauty and creativity expressed through technology (as opposed to just “through technology”) – something we thought was uniquely human.
AI-generated images are entering our global consciousness at an astonishing rate, deepening our accelerated entanglement with technology. This explosion looks phenomenal, partly because the creation of these images can be fully automated, partly because it only takes a few moments to generate multiple versions of them, and partly because people who have never been capable of drawing or illustrating can now do so in seconds of sentences:
So is it still art? Yes, if it leads us to the creation of new worlds. But is it good art? As in: will we want to live, work and love in the worlds that will be inspired by them?
Well, we’ll see.
Art and technology
It is art in the broadest sense, not technology, that helps us make sense of the unknown. Technology pushes the boundaries of what we can see and experience, but it’s art and the humanities that help us make sense of it. As Jonathan Frazen expresses it: the intention of the techne in itself, its telos, is to make nature predictable to us, controllable and more malleable to our intention – it does not create new meaning in itself, but rather it tames the world. The purpose of technology is to displace nature, so that we don’t have to live in an unpredictable and hostile world. But there’s no need for art, or love for that matter, in an entirely predictable world.
This will not happen, because, to paraphrase Thomas Huxley: “the known is limited, the unknown infinite”. I am sympathetic, but do not share in the misfortune of the graphic design and illustration works taken off the markets by these algorithms. Being an artist is not a job. Neither is being a leader. It’s not a position, or a title, or even just a skill (lots of pretty meaningless pictures, just as many people with amazing resumes and no followers). But our world is becoming increasingly complex, so our art must also become complex – so that the next time someone creates a powerful algorithm, they do so with imagination and forethought rather than constrained by unexplored, artless will.
When technology is more seductive and beautiful than art…
As an amateur artist, I have to admit that when I first started playing with these tools, I was pretty speechless. The accuracy of the results and how quickly they worked shocked and stunned me at the same time. This combination made him even more attractive and alluring.
To me, these images show the ambivalence people share about this technology: from somewhat bigoted to deeply depressing. But although these images represent emotions, the neural network algorithm that chose the pixel layout and colors felt nothing. He had no understanding or moral sense of this context, and injected no more meaning into it than a brush touching a canvas, or a camera taking a picture.
But that was never how art worked anyway. The meaning is not in the object, but rather in the attribution. Art is in the experience of it, both as an artist and as an audience.
The meaning, or lack of meaning, of the images above comes primarily from the interpretive choices you and I have made while participating in this exchange through this essay. I put the images in context, told you how they were made, placed them in a certain space, and you made sense of them. Art requires work from the artist and the audience, and it is based on the principle that both parties are free in their co-creation. Just as followers create leaders, audiences complete art. And understanding context is as fundamental to living the art as it is to directing. Especially if the conception of what is happening in this context is captivating and seductive, but not necessarily truthful.
So let me share some of the images I created with these tools, as I have used them while brainstorming leadership ideas for my upcoming lectures. I played with these algorithms to help me think. To explore new meaning, access new words to convey ideas about authority and authorship, leadership, corporate role, to name a few.
First, here are some images I created with the help of #midjourney imagine a corporate culture that is one with nature and the environment:
This is a series in which I explore the idea of authority in its heroic forms, and the larger-than-life metaphors that are so often used to talk about leaders (titles are not the actual prompts I used ):
Here is an exploration of the characters we meet in the workplace:
And here are some image stitching experiments to explore the concept of space and how AI would represent corporate offices in the style of various artists:
I have to admit, I haven’t had this much fun online since the invention of usenet, the internet, and Photoshop. It’s kind of like DJing, but you work with artistic styles, cultural references, storytelling, and language to create visualizations of what you intend to convey. My experience was that to create interesting results, I really had to know my artistic references, my artists and my styles. So I appreciated more all the art history studies that I undertook a long time ago… but that also requires a lot of know-how. the algorithms actually work and interpret the language to get more meaningful results.
(I created an Instagram account for the more experimental stuff, if anyone is interested: @art.e.fish.al)
Yes, some technologies can change us literally and intimately, not just metaphorically (look at the kitchen). This one too. But technology does not determine us. We can choose to engage with it reflexively, rather than being consumed by it. It can help us create new meaning if we can turn it into art.
Leading in an artificial world is what leading has always been – an art that combines the science of the particular and the heart of the collective. Except that those with the power to create machines-that-create are leading new paths, paths that have never really been encountered before. Let’s hope that the places where these technologies and their creators lead us are not cradles of ideologies that make us less human.
Once, when we invented a technology that increased the power to create worlds, it was the introduction of mass media. This was a contributing factor to the subsequent explosion of global creativity but also to the emergence of totalitarian systems. This technology seems to have much greater potential. Will it become propaganda for the techno-utopian world? Or will it be a source of understanding our humanity and the mystery of life? And what other questions does this raise?