"A shark in formaldehyde?": With a title like that… …why "Change”?

Note: This post first featured on “The Art of…” blog, under my name: David Atkinson http://davidsartof.blogspot.com/

I read with great interest the title of a recent column by James B. Rieley on Emerald Management First: “A shark in formaldehyde?” How could I resist such a title? I looked on in further interest as I read:

“And in the art world, it stimulated the question, “is it art?” A similar question arises from most change programmes; “when is a change effort really creating a new environment and not simply as effective as re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?”…

However, while James Rieley provided a good call on the art metaphor in his column’s title and opening remarks, I felt that it did not capitalise on the value of the metaphor itself.

James’ use of the art metaphor was to adress a question posed by another reader of his column: “how can I show [my management] what they really need to do if they don’t see it themselves?’ The point being made is that there is a precursor to this question. The initial question to be asked is “how can I show them what I believe they need to see?” This is straight out of the art world – a question which artists, their critics, patrons and historians have struggled for many years to come to terms with.

My own argument, which I do not see as contradictory to the point James was making, is that the art metaphor can be used to examine “how we see”. How do we (…or at least some people!) come to see Damien Hirst’s shark as art? Can we use the same reasoning that an “Artworld” might use to persuade us that the Hirst “shark” is Art to adress this precursory question of “what should we see”?

The danger, from my own writing, is that once something like Damian Hirst’s Shark is accepted as an “Artwork” by the established “Artworld” it gives licence to the phenomenon that copies of Damian Hirst’s Shark Set in Formaldehyde sell at multiples of the original’s value (see quote below). And there we have, I suggest, part of what is wrong with much of the consultancy industry, and the notion of change for change’s sake.

Indeed, when I asked James about this he was kind enough to largely agree with me, particularly on the point about the consultancy industry. As James expressed it to me, he saw the goal of many consultancies as being to “breed an addictive environment, in which the client begins to believe that its only sound option is to keep the consultants onboard.”

The answer to the question “how can I show them what they need to see” provides a scource of potential realisation, overcoming the problematic of “how can I show them what they need to do”. This is, however, not simply a matter of adopting some pre-determined “cultural change” practices in order to manage change. Unless a vision for change is, first and foremost, both rooted and cultivated within the present culture, no amount of subsequent consultancy will persuade some organisational doubters that the emperor now has new clothes.

The Sunday Times, March 19, 2006: ‘Hirst earns £2m at the shark factory’. It was reported that Damien Hirst is to earn £24m [sic] by turning out versions of the works that made his name in the 1990s as the leader of the Young British Artist movement. A version of the “pickled shark”, 1/3 size, sold for £2.28m, 45 times more than the artist first received for the original work.