Is this new art thinking’ or old management thinking?

Adventures with Megawords’ at the Art Museum

6 minute read
Lead image from the Megawords website, which asks: 'What belongs in a city?'
Lead image from the Megawords website, which asks: 'What belongs in a city?'
I happened to be present the very first day that "Megawords"— which describes itself as "an experimental media project" seeking to "to document our surroundings, experience, to have a voice free from the noise of commercialization and competing novelties, and to create an open and active dialogue between Megawords and the community"— opened in the Art Museum's South Auditorium Gallery.

I wandered quite serendipitously into this newly fabricated exhibition space (where the public telephones were formerly housed), attracted by a bookshelf of what looked like meaty, interesting reading material.

Picking up a copy of John Berger's Ways of Seeing, I flipped through the pages. This book happens to sit on my shelf at home, but somehow it now beckoned me to redelve.

An eager and purposeful young Megawords staffer asked me if I needed any help. Confused as to whether this was a typical bookshop experience or a conceptual art experience, I mumbled that I couldn't find my glasses. I had forgotten to bring them from home.

Without my readers, I couldn't browse the books the way I would have wanted. Here this young man, according to the Megawords manifesto, was poised to help me "evoke a sense of freedom of spirit and function" and bring me into the "contemplation of different worldviews." But neither he nor I could produce the one practical thing I needed to get started on the Megawords odyssey: my glasses.

"'Visual merchandising'

My father, a lifelong painter who nevertheless earned most of his living in "visual merchandising," often jokes that what he did for the windows of the Blum Store in Philadelphia was strangely similar to what is now called "installation art." For some time, "art" has been showing up in many unexpected places.

So I was greatly amused to discover that one of Megawords' many disassociated goals is to examine "structures and relationships" in the museum, "to ask questions about the way things are done and to discover what boundaries are in place, including the mundane and the bureaucratic."

That's what I used to do... for a living! As a "management consultant" or "project engineer" in offices, laboratories, warehouses and factories, I functioned as the person who, by virtue of my assigned role, could transcend the hierarchy, gather up perspectives from all levels of the organization, ponder and synthesize the findings, and finally make recommendations that ensured that individuals involved in a work system could optimize their contribution to mutual goals.

Did this mean that I was once an artist too? Perhaps a "business artist," like Andy Warhol or Donald Trump?

That profit motive

Megawords folk would probably lol ("laugh out loud" in Twitterspeak) at such a notion. After all, I did my work for pay, whereas the core of the Megawords philosophy seems to be that true inspiration and creativity occur only in environments "free from the noise of commercialization and competing novelties."

No doubt they believe in modern flattened hierarchies, or maybe even anarchy. But from my perspective, my success in my trade was facilitated by the fact that I was working in organizations where people were focused on specific goals. They were paid employees. Pay for work has the happy effect of focusing the energies of large groups of people.

That isn't to say that creativity and focus don't occur when there's little or no monetary reward. The best of human endeavor often springs primarily from an individual's sense of values and conviction. But Megawords artists seem to feel that loosening requirements spurs greater creativity and problem solving.

In my experience, this isn't always necessarily so. Creativity requires constant thinking and rethinking to keep a traditional organization supple and functioning well, and that thinking must stick to the business at hand.

Creative isolation

The Megawords credo of complete community engagement in problem solving might function much in the way that "brainstorming" has traditionally been used to unlock ideas and liberate thinking among traditional organizations: Everyone gets the chance to offer ideas.

Yet that approach too is being challenged now, as reported by in a January 13 New York Times article, "The Rise of the New Groupthink." Its author, Susan Cain, says that studies show that people create more when they enjoy privacy and freedom. Community and connection have their place in an innovative culture, but the best work— work involving complexities— often comes when it's done alone in one's own personal space, whether it's assigned by an employer or self-created.

The main benefit of brainstorming with many participants is that it serves to "sell" solutions in advance to people who may have to implement them. It solves the "not invented here" syndrome that always seems to come when "answers" are imposed.

Cézanne and rocket science

I would guess that the struggling population that Zoe Strauss documents in her photographs (currently at the Art Museum) might not want "solutions" imposed upon them. But who does?

If a Megawords-inspired artist happened to find his or her way into a traditional organization, he or she might be told to sharpen and clarify goals, make sure those goals are in synchrony with a stated mission or purpose, and identify concrete ways of knowing when those goals are met. Success or failure of one's project would be contingent on meeting these goals. This is how a man was put on the moon, a therapy for HIV was discovered and formulated, Cézanne worked his vision onto his canvases, and the bees make great-tasting honey.

It seems to me that the Occupy Movement, for instance, could learn much from these examples.

Scrawling on walls

It was fun to bump into this little enterprise in the Art Museum— its bookshop with pithy titles, its idea room with ratty but comfy pillows (ostensibly for hosting rousing discussions), its walls ready for the scrawlings of inspired museum-goers. But in reality this Megawords project is but a romantic simulacrum of how a society or an organization most effectively solves complex problems. I wonder how many "real" conversations have taken place there, or how many people actually will read a book from the Megawords selection. Does Megawords draw its participants from a cross-section of the population, or are they limited to the typical faithful museumgoer?

A report of the Megawords group's findings may be published in the future. I wonder how many people are awaiting that event, and with what degree of anticipation.♦

For another review of the Zoe Strauss exhibit by Martha Ledger, click here.
To read another review of the Strauss exhibit by Tom Goodman, click here.

What, When, Where

Megawordsâ€: A component of “Zoe Strauss: Ten Years.†Through April 22, 2012 at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benj. Franklin Pkwy. and 26th St. (215) 763-8100 or Megawords will sponsor a panel discussion, "What Belongs in a City?" on April 1, 2012 at the Perelman Media Room in the Museum's Perelman Building. Tickets are sold out.

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