Should a Business Create Art?


At a marketing workshop I taught recently an attendee asked, “Is there ever a case where a business would create content that has no intrinsic business value?” I could have given a joke answer (“Isn’t that the way most businesses operate these days?”).

But it’s a fascinating question.

“Do you mean content for some sort of social corporate responsibility?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Content that’s created just because it’s good for the soul. You know, like art.”

It’s no secret that wealthy private citizens and businesses commission art pieces. The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel are all examples of commissioned art.

More recently, advertising magnate Charles Saatchi commissioned a preserved shark art piece called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. State Street Global Advisors commissioned Wall Street’s Fearless Girl statue. And companies like Amtrak, Facebook, and Siemens have all launched artists-in-residence programs.

But these commissions and residency programs aren’t art for the sake of art. Most of them share a corporate or publicity goal. The Amtrak example was an early social influencer program. Facebook owns all the artwork created in its residency program. Saatchi sold the artwork he commissioned for millions more than his initial investment. And State Street is suing the Fearless Girl artist for making replicas of the artwork she created. Fearless, indeed.

What the workshop attendee asked, though, is different: Should a business permit or empower its teams to create art with no expectation of it ever finding a business purpose?

In the 19th century, the philosophy of art for art’s sake took root, divorcing “true art” from productive function. Bohemians argued that art should be created simply for the experience of creating it, rather than requiring it to impart any political, moral, or instructive message to its audience.

This view had its detractors. French novelist George Sand critiqued the art-for-art’s-sake movement, saying, “If there is in my soul any good or noble sentiment, it is my duty to find an adequate expression to convey it to as many souls as possible.” In other words, in Sand’s view, art needs an audience.

But should a business ever create art solely for art’s sake, with no expectation of it connecting with an audience?

What if there was no motivation beyond the creative experience itself? Would a business ever want to do that?

I think it would.

Ultimately, when a group (or team) creates art, it fosters collaboration, dialogue, and teamwork – things that companies spend tens of thousands of dollars to cultivate. How many of us have taken part in corporate team-building exercises like trust falls, walking over hot coals, or playing Two Truths and a Lie? 

What if your company budgeted for art-related exercises for creativity’s sake? Even if the direct products of these exercises never found an audience, your content teams’ capacity for creative work would likely shoot through the roof.

Creating something with “no business value” might be the very thing that enables your team to deliver more value.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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