“On the culture of creativity” / Gerald Bast

Dr. Gerald Bast - Rektor der Universität für angewandte Kunst Wien

The time is now

— Gerald Bast

More than two centuries after the first industrial revolution, we again find ourselves at a social and economic crossroads. In this situation, can we really afford to leave to chance the teaching of the key cultural techniques, the creative skills, needed for participation in our 21st-century society and economy? Non-linear thinking, imaginative potential, the ability to make unconventional connections, and the willingness to question what is familiar in order to develop new scenarios, are the cornerstones for constructing a creative society.

If ever there was a need to stimulate creative imagination and initiative on the part of individuals, communities and whole societies the time is now. The notion of creativity can no longer be restricted to the arts. It must be applied across the full spectrum of human problem-solving.”¹

If you run through the history of humankind in your imagination, what spontaneously comes to mind? What do you see when you think of the Stone Age? Cave paintings, perhaps… the outline of a hand on the rock wall that is created when the hand is placed on the rock and dye dust is blown onto it… or ochre-coloured hunting scenes with mammoths? What do you see when you think of the history of Egypt? Pyramids… the death mask of Tutenkhamun? And what image emerges in connection with Greek history? The Acropolis?

What does it mean when for years, every TV report about the Greek financial crisis was accompanied by the Parthenon Temple in the background? And TV reports about the global financial crisis usually include a picture of the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. It looks like a Greek temple- and you don’t need to be of a sarcastic mind set to interpret it as being a symbol of the real underlying power structure. And yet what continues to have an impact over the centuries is art. What remains is art. Everything else has an expiry date – even the most outstanding technical achievements. We no longer work with hand axes. We no longer illuminate our cities with gas lamps. We no longer travel in horse-drawn carriages. Our technology museums show whole cars, not the naked engines.

Innovation is the driving force of human civilisation. However, innovation is a process, the success of which is not based solely on science and technology. The first petrol-driven car, which was built by Siegfried Marcus in 1889, was wholly unsuccessful in its time. Success came a few years later with the Benz automobile. The difference lay not in the technology. The basic technical principle of the engine was identical; indeed, most cars are still driven by combustion engines today. The key difference was in the aesthetics; the difference that led to success lay in the design, as it still does today. Rationally speaking, the speed that can be achieved is to a large degree a psychological factor. The Marcus vehicle drove at 6 – 8 km/h, while the first Benz built in 1896 reached 14 – 16 km/h, and the 1907 Benz already achieved a maximum speed of 95 km/h. Today, most cars are driven in cities – with an average speed of between 19 and 35 km/h.

Look at the iPhone. It is an object of fascination across all cultural and social boundaries. It is not fascinating because of its technological perfection – there are devices available with better and more wide-ranging technology. The key attraction is its aesthetics, the social positioning, the emotive image that transports and produces “lifestyle”. What is the decisive factor for its success? It is not the individual capabilities that are of importance, but rather the interplay between capabilities and possibilities.

Our brain is a myriad of nerve cells. The simple growth of nerve cells in the brain is not sufficient in order to increase memory capacity; instead, it is the connections between the nerve cells, the synapses that are important. It is the synapses which enable the potential of pure information to be of productive use. Of key importance are the quality and reaction speed of the connecting paths and the synapses between the individual cell regions. The same applies to knowledge-based society: the lines of connection, the communication between the branches of knowledge determine the degree of effectiveness of the knowledge in society. Without sufficiently well-functioning knowledge synapses, the pillars of knowledge remain isolated and self-referential – however impressively towering they may be!

Culture is a complex, synergetic system of knowledge, a will to create, and values that are shared by a group. In an increasingly sensory-deprived desert of economism, the shareholder value appears to be the only one that is still flourishing. Knowledge is becoming fragmented and isolated, and art and science are treated as separate spheres which are more concerned with the development of their own discipline or sub-discipline than with the development of society. And then some of us wonder why young people who are socialised in Europe or the US join up to fight holy wars against the values of the Enlightenment. About 20 years ago, Jürgen Habermas spoke of the “enlightened perplexity”² in which society finds itself. Today, it rather appears to be the case that our society is increasingly in a state of detached perplexity. Values are no longer even relativised, but are more likely to be regarded as an interference to the system and ignored. While today, we are confronted with the fictionalisation of reality (money, assets and debts become fictitious financial constructs which only a small number of people understand in their complexity and in the multiple related mechanisms), art works with the notion of the realisation of fictions. For art, values are not interference factors within the system of functioning, but are necessary fundamental working principles. To illustrate this point, here are some examples from the fields of digital art, restoration, graphic design and social design at the University of Applied Arts Vienna:

In a piece entitled “Constraint City”, a mechanical corset which reacts to WiFi signals makes the virtual architecture of the city visible and tangible. The stronger the signals, the tighter the corset is drawn, making its wearer painfully aware while walking around the city how real the invisible architecture actually is.

The Institute for Conservation and Restoration is supporting the salvage of Unesco-protected cultural monuments following the earthquake in Nepal, which for the local population are not only a key element of their cultural identity, but also a central economic basis of existence. The project is being funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Arts and Culture Division of the Federal Chancellery of Austria.

The “Expo of the Minorities” is dedicated to those among us who have little power in society, and who therefore also have little financial and political influence: the poor and the sick, the refugees, the elderly, and children.

The “Feel Dementia” project focuses on the social stigmatisation of dementia as a disease. Using artistic objects, visual and auditory perception is altered. People passing by public places are given the opportunity to experience the phenomena of disorientation and overstimulation themselves and to take time for reflection; changes in awareness through artistic intervention as a prerequisite for social inclusion.

Our world has become more complex, more multi-layered, more interwoven. While our scientific landscape is dominated by increasing splintering and is bringing forth a growing amount of specialist knowledge, it is becoming increasingly important to think and act in a connected way, because everything is related to everything else.

We can guess at and experience causal relations even if their mechanisms of action are impossible to understand. Perhaps this is because aside from quantum physics, scientists still work with linear, consecutive patterns of causality. Cross-discipline research is – if at all – practised primarily according to the system of adding aspects of knowledge and/or following the hierarchical pattern of the main and ancillary discipline.

During the 20th century, our planet – or at least large swathes of it – has been transformed from a world of certainty to a world of questioning and doubt. And the arts have had at least the same part to play in this influence over worldview as the sciences. Indeed, if you take a closer look at the parallels between the history of art and the history of science, particularly during the early 20th century, from the fundamental upheavals in music, the visual arts and design through to the paradigm changes in physics, psychology and medicine, it even becomes clear just how strong the interplay between these apparently separate spheres actually was. Here, however, it is also evident that the power of science and art can be further exponentiated when the two engage constructively with each other – with an awareness of both their own strength and identity and of their synergetic potential for social impact – beyond the citation indices and art market rankings. Artists are experts in dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity, which is by no means an unimportant trait in times in which populists are peddling simple solutions and cheap patent remedies. It is increasingly clear that our societies and human living conditions are becoming ever more complex at a dramatically accelerating rate. And we are becoming more aware of the fact that this complexity, with the linear continuation of what already exists, will soon become impossible to control.

“With a scientific theory, you know even before it has been proven that it is correct because it is aesthetically pleasing. Not because it is logically coherent, but simply because it ‘feels right’.”³ These are not the words of some obscure esoteric. No, they come from Professor Wolf Singer, Director emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research. He claims that when scientific theories are developed, criteria are used that go far beyond what is known as logical conclusion. For Singer, creativity in science, just as with the arts, is “the ability to see something in connection which has not until now been seen in connection, to create references that are not random”. The brain researcher is convinced “that with everything that does not use rational languages – the visual arts, music, dance – a knowledge is transported which cannot be transported through rational language […] But in order to do so, the language of art must be learned.”⁴ The art universities are the last bastions in this country that still teach the language of art in a serious way. And this bastion, of all things, has been systematically under fire over the past decades with arguments that seek to subject education to the dictate of short-term serviceability and usefulness in the interest of employability. In primary and secondary schools, art – if at all – leads a miserable existence, continuously subject to reductions, and paradoxically also through decisions made autonomously by the schools, often timetabled at the end of the school day, because the “more important” subjects are allot ted to times when the pupils are potentially able to concentrate better. Overall, art is taught in subject units that are usually entirely separate from each other. Austrian universities and professional higher education colleges offer more than 1,600 study programmes, and worldwide, the number of academic disciplines has grown to 4,000 – an impressive spectrum of academic diversity. Within these disciplines and sub-disciplines, which are becoming increasingly fragmented, research is primarily conducted with the opportunity to publish in mind, with which points can be awarded for one’s academic career. Bringing together knowledge from different disciplines is not on the academic agenda. Quite the contrary.

The blunt alternatives presented to young people – “MINT or mass” – to help them decide which subjects to study, and aim to attract more students to specialist fields in mathematics, informatics, the natural sciences or technology. In this way, a wedge is driven further into our education system and our society, which is still dominated by the spirit of the industrial revolution, the drivers of which were fragmentation, specialisation and rationalisation. Today, however, it is not cleavers that our education system needs, but bridges, intellectual and emotional bridges. Bridges that recognise artistic creative knowledge and ingenuity as being essential cornerstones of social and economic development, and not merely a nice luxury accessory for a small elite. Bridges that connect art, science, the economy and society in a synergetic way. Yet in reality, bridges are printed on euro notes. How symbolic!!

Are our school and higher education graduates well prepared for a world in which everything is interconnected? In which the great social challenges can only be resolved through interdisciplinary collaboration? Our education and academic system functions essentially according to principles that were developed during the industrial era in the 18th and 19th centuries: multiplication of knowledge, appropriation of knowledge and as a result, specialisation – intellectual division of labour.

As with all socio-economic upheaval, we are again heading towards a “race between education and technology”⁵, as emphasised by the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz. The changes to our education system will now have to be similarly drastic to those made in the 18th century. At that time, in tandem with the first industrial revolution, obligatory schooling for all was introduced throughout Europe – against huge political doubt as to the point of such a measure in what was to a very large extent still an agrarian society. And unlike with the earlier redesigns of the education system, the purpose this time will not be to provide additional knowledge and skills, but the creative joining together of knowledge, as well as the provision of alternative, interrelational ways of thinking that deviate from known patterns, imagination, and the awareness that there are also other forms of communication than written and verbal ones- in short: the acquisition and trying out of creative skills must become the focus of the new education revolution.

Theodor Adorno once claimed that “Art is magic, liberated from the lie of the truth!”⁶ And here, he hits a nerve of artistic creativity that runs through history, one which revolves around transforming reality, of values and identity. The breakthrough from a geocentric to a heliocentric worldview went hand in hand with the development of one-point perspective in Renaissance painting. In both of these fundamental paradigm changes, the starting point of one’s view onto the world shifted to a fixed point beyond earthly existence.

In some of his works, Picasso dissolved the visual and intellectual relation between material, form, time and place, a few years before Einstein formulated his theory of relativity and Heisenberg declared the standard concept of reality to be obsolete with his uncertainty principle. These few examples point to the fact that there are perhaps invisible lines of connection between artistic creativity and scientific-technical innovation, which are sometimes also known by the vague term of “zeitgeist”. Ironically, it is precisely the modern natural sciences that have taught us that critically important ideas are not always developed along a predictable timeline or according to the pattern of linear causality.

Friedrich Kiesler, the visionary thinker, architect and designer who emigrated from Austria to the US in 1926, developed his theory during the 1930s which did away with all artistic genres and incorporated scientific knowledge to regard humankind and the environment as a holistic system of complex interrelations. This theory, which he called correalism⁷ , is of greater relevance today than could originally have been imagined. Kiesler’s conviction that visionary thinking is at the same time realistic thinking gives us courage in times of increasing lack of courage. Moreover: Kiesler’s approach is increasingly relevant the more our world becomes characterised by insecurity and ambiguity, since these challenges can no longer be met with algorithms and robots, but only with visionary, correlative thinking that stands boldly in defiance of the standardisation and fragmentation that dominate our society.

Before the industrial revolution, in the mid-18th century, nobody could imagine that Europe, and later the US and parts of Asia, would in just a few decades experience a deep-rooted, lasting transfiguration of economic, working and living conditions. New inventions, based on the use of mechanical processes, changed the way in which products were made and goods and people were transported. Large swathes of the population lost their jobs and income. Traditional professions such as that of the weaver disappeared and new ones arose in their place, together with an increase in social inequality.

Today, it is hard to imagine how greatly our working world will change as a result of the digital revolution. It is difficult to imagine what it means that in a few years, consumers will be able to produce a broad range of products at home or in digital 3D print shops – as is the case with photos today – or that mobility will for the most part be driverless, and that even some jobs from the creative industry sector will be controlled by algorithms and intelligent programmes. And we are even less able to imagine what changes biotechnology and quantum physics will make to our lives. We do not know how these changes will influence our culture. But it is certain that they will do. How our civilisation responds is not least a question of how we treat the term “innovation”. It makes a difference whether innovation is understood and implemented as a domain of technology, the natural sciences and the economy, or whether we understand innovation to be a civilisationary process in which holistic thinking and action are required, where fantasy and creativity have a necessary place. The digitalisation and automation of our world – as paradoxical as this might sound – will secure a central role for cultural education (the germ cell for creative skills) in society. Or to put it better, the interconnection between cultural education and cognitive education, between the economy and society.

According to a study by Oxford University⁸, in the next 20 years, 47% of the jobs currently existent in the US will be seriously at risk.

Wherever work or working steps can be standardised or determined by algorithms, people will be replaced by machines. Computers and robots are faster, more flexible and more precise – and above all, cheaper – than human labour.

This will have an impact not only on production companies, but also the transport industry, the finance industry, large parts of the service sector, parts of the creative industry, the management sector, administration, professions in education, legal professions, even medical professions, particularly in the fields of diagnostics and medication. Even if in one study⁹ the OECD estimates the effects of automation as being quantitatively lower, the fact remains undisputed that the consequences of this fourth industrial revolution will initially reach deep into the middle classes, who are considered to be well educated. It is not difficult to imagine the huge political explosive impact when in less than a single generation a considerable part of what we currently regard as being work will disappear. This development cannot be stopped. It can either be ignored, played down or faced head on. Currently, the tendency is to ignore it and play it down, in both the political and economic spheres. Politicians refuse to talk about it and pretend that the situation is not so serious in order to avoid unsettling the population, i.e. the voters. And businesses hope to profit from the gains in productivity anticipated from automation for as long as they can. The industries that are not yet producing goods at 4.0 status are even now demanding training for additional specialist staff who in 20 years are likely to share the same fate as the Silesian weavers. The future of work, according to the Oxford study mentioned above, lies in the fields of creativity and the social sphere – but not in a linear extrapolation of what we have today. New fields for economic and social added value must be developed. It is for this that an education system should be preparing us; this type of development work should be provided by our universities in the 21st century – just as technical universities facilitated the development of the industrial society and the service industry was supported by the business schools.

A report for the European Commission, “The Impact of Culture and Creativity”¹⁰, already stated in 2009 that “It is time to take a creative risk of valuing imagination, the poetic, the symbolic, the aesthetic or the spiritual (features of culture-based creativity) as factors of innovation, social progress and European integration”. Yes, itis time to take risk!

In a world dominated by artificial intelligence, digitalisation and robotics, we humans can now only be effective socially and economically through creative thought processes. In other words, through processes that in a way that has not been considered before, or which has been considered impossible, we must create connections between familiar and therefore increasingly automated fields of activity and knowledge. Just like the transformation in our society caused by demographic developments and migration movements, the changes in work, education and leisure will open up new social challenges as fields of activity in terms of the way people live together. The so-called “digital revolution” differs from the waves of the industrial revolution to date in one fundamental aspect: for the first time in the history of human civilisation, the human capacity for thought will be taken over by machines. This has more than just an economic dimension, since the already existing and as yet foreseeable developments in the field of artificial intelligence present us with the deeply philosophical question of the role of humankind on this planet.

In such a situation, can we really afford to leave the teaching of key cultural techniques for participation in society and the economy of the 21st century, the creative skills, to chance, according to the system of collateral benefit?

– Non-linear thinking- Imaginativeness-Creating unconventional connections-Questioning the familiar-Developing new scenarios.

It is claimed that Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, once said that “If I had to do it again from scratch, I would start with culture.” Jean Monnet would have been even more certain of the truth in these words if he had been able to witness the threat with which we are faced today of the European economy and what we call the “European values” of the Enlightenment being blown apart. We do not need to call for a hegemony of culture in place of the hegemony of the economy. However, the necessary reform of education and work – not just in principle, but in reality – is not a challenge that can be tackled simply through technocratic means. Instead, it is a cultural task – and cultural tasks have a long gestation period.

There will, and must, continue to be artists who dedicate themselves passionately to what is referred to as “autonomous art”. The creative industries sector should and will continue to exist. And we cannot do without the work and knowledge of highly specialised scientists. Yet the world also urgently needs people with creative skills, with translational competencies, people who are able to build bridges between the islands of specialisation. There also will and must be new, correlative education programmes and professional profiles, entirely different forms of work and income than those with which we are currently familiar. These should be developed and implemented. And here, too, the power of art will play a decisive role – as an integrated part of our social, economic and education system. Creativity not only as a small, albeit growing section of the overall economy. Cultural education not merely as a marginalised, isolated segment in the education landscape. The next “revolution” after the industrial revolution, namely a knowledge revolution and the digital revolution, will also need to be a creative revolution.

More than two centuries after the first industrial revolution, we are again at a social and economic crossroads. The key question now is: will we succeed in making the development and implementation of creative ideas and visions a trademark of our societies?

In light of the challenges that we are facing, there is in reality only one option – to develop and build a creative society.


The author

Dr. Gerald Bast, born 1955, studied law and economics at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz. He gained his doctorate in law at the University of Linz in 1979. He also attended the Austrian Federal Academy of Public Administration. Since 2000, Gerald Bast has been Rector of the University of Applied Arts Vienna. He is also a member of the governing body of the Austrian universities and a member of the European League of Institutes of the Arts, or ELIA. Since 2015 he has also been a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts and other organisations.


1 World Commission on Culture and Development, UNESCO 1995, online URL: http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-URL_ID.15019&URL_DO.DO_TOPIC&URL_SEC- TION.201.html (version: 05.08.2016).

2 Jürgen Habermas: Aufgeklärte Ratlosigkeit. Warum die Politik ohne Perspektiven ist. In: Frankfurter Rundschau,30.12.1995.

3 Singer, Wolf: Ein neues Menschenbild. Gespräche über Hirnforschung, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 2003, p. 103ff.

4 Ibid.

5 Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz: The Race between Education and Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2008.

6 Theodor W. Adorno: Minima Moralia. 22nd edition,Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 1994, p. 298.

7 Frederick Kiesler: On Correalism and Biotechnique. A Definition and Test of a New Approach to Building Design, Frederick Kiesler. In: Architectural Record, 86/3, September 1939.

8 Carl B. Frey and Michael A. Osborne: The Future of Employment: How susceptible are Jobs to Computerization, September 17, 2013, online URL:http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/ The_Future_of_Employment.pdf (version: 05.08.2016).

9 The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries, online URL: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/social- issues-migration-health/the-risk-of-automation-for-jobs-in-oecd-countries_5jlz9h56dvq7-en (version: 05.08.2016).

10 The Impact of Culture and Creativity, p. 161, online URL: http://www.keanet.eu/docs/impactculturecreativi-tyfull.pdf (version: 05.08.2016).