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Knowledge Art

Introduction and Background

Defining Knowledge Art

Knowledge Art and Compendium

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Defining Knowledge Art

Since that day, I have been interested in understanding just what the term “Knowledge Art” means. Since it was not a product of conscious, deliberate thought or research – it was more of a flash of inspiration – I can’t tie it to any specific set of ideas. But there are some things that can be said that begin to describe it.

Knowledge Art is not a set of techniques or a theory. It more refers to a phenomenon and a potential – something that emerges from particular practices. It involves seeing a problem from multiple perspectives; enabling a kind of multidimensional seeing; matching the representational and dialogic needs of a group at particular moments; expressing, holding, and interrelating multiple meanings; aggregating elements and relationships over time, and enabling insight at any level, time, or slice.

Let’s look at some fundamental definitions for Knowledge and Art separately, then bring them together.

Knowledge, in an organizational setting, can be thought of as what is needed to perform work – the tacit and explicit concepts, relationships, and rules that allow us to know how to do what we do. Valid knowledge can be multiple or divergent in a single situation. To provide benefit in organizations, knowledge must be shared within and among communities and individuals. It must be visualized or spoken to be communicated and understood (informally or formally). People must be able to comprehend and internalize any knowledge representation (whether informal verbal speech or formal documentation). This often requires negotiation, reflection, and reconstruction.

There are many more articulate and detailed explications of organizational knowledge available than the above, so I won’t say more here. But less is written about art in this context, so I’ll go on for a little longer on that.

Art is concerned with heightened expression, metaphor, crafting, emotion, nuance, creativity, meaning, purpose, beauty, rhythm, timbre, tone, immediacy, and connection. We call people “artists” who have attained mastery of a medium, whether ‘small’ (such as the way Yeats could compress of multiple levels of myth, history, and meaning in a few lines of poetry) or ‘large’ (such as Andre Fougeron’s rich social realist paintings of life in late 1940s France). Artists are capable of what seem like perfected utterances; great art has a kind of ultimate quality -- whatever it’s saying, it’s the perfect way of saying it. To do this artists often employ bizarre, surprising, unfamiliar techniques, juxtapositions of the commonplace and strange. Artists seem to focus and go deep on razor-thin subject matter, repeating their treatments of it over and over. For example, the long series of “geometrical” paintings that Piet Mondrian did towards the end of his life. For Mondrian, these were not just arbitrary collections of rectangles and primary colors; they were attempts to get to a purity of expression of the relationships of forces in the universe, attempts to represent and balance the elements. He painted hundreds of them over the years; each one was a unique constellation of relationships. Why did he do it that way? He would have answered: It’s the only way it can be done.

Art is also concerned with a build-up of resonance over time. For example, Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures represented a slow aggregation of perspective and insight over time, leading to an astonishing density of expression. It often took him fifteen years to make and remake a small sculpture. This time and aggregation leads to a crystallization of meaning. The artist’s work attains a quality of depth, luminosity, and resonance. For example, one can hear in Shawn Colvin’s performance of Tom Waits’ “The Heart of Saturday Night” both her innate talent and her years and years of playing the same songs in a thousand coffeehouses and clubs.

Rudolf Arnheim provides a useful set of distinctions: 

“The artist’s privilege is the capacity to apprehend the nature and meaning of an experience in the terms of a given medium, and thus to make it tangible. The nonartist is left “speechless” by the fruits of his sensitive wisdom. He cannot give them adequate material form. He can express himself more or less articulately, but not his experience. During the moments in which a human being is an artist, he finds shape for the bodiless structure of what he has felt.” (Art & Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye)

So how can these discourses – Knowledge and Art – come together in the service of making sense of organizational dilemmas? The answer has something to do with these questions: How do you make the normally unseen or unspoken visible; provide ways of seeing what’s actually there but what normally can’t be seen? How do you achieve the depth and breadth of insight and representation that art provides, in the face of all the pressures and partiality of organizational life? Normally, it’s impossible to spend the time, effort, or focus that art-making requires in most organizational situations.

Knowledge Art seems to hold out some possibilities. We’re still far from a conclusive definition of Knowledge Art, but here are some first steps. In organizations there is rarely the time or focus for perfecting utterances, for slowly and carefully crafting and honing representations. Too much happens too fast for that. But each moment can yield a bit of the picture, if there is a way to capture the bits and relate them, piece them together over time. That capturing and piecing is the domain of Knowledge Art. Knowledge Art requires a spectrum of skills, regardless of how it’s practiced or what form it takes. It means listening and paying attention, determining the style and level of intervention, authenticity, engagement, providing conceptual frameworks and structures, improvisation, representational skill and fluidity, and skill in working with electronic information.


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Copyright © 2003 Albert M. Selvin

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