Daniel Pink and the Economic Model of Creativity

Author Pink made a dubious argument that an artistic personality is the most marketable one.
Author Pink made a dubious argument that an artistic personality is the most marketable one. (Penguin Group)
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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

One hopes that Americans for the Arts, the national lobbying group that fanned out across the Capitol yesterday to talk up government support for its cause, didn't pay best-selling author Daniel Pink a nickel for the talk he gave Monday evening. Pink, an author who has whipped up a very good career massaging talking points into books and books into speaking engagements, gave the annual Nancy Hanks Lecture at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Previous speakers have included Robert Redford, William Safire and Ken Burns. The speech is usually a celebratory affair for local arts leaders as they descend on Washington to make their case for such causes as funding the National Endowment for the Arts and arts education in public schools.

Pink wowed them. His basic thesis is simple: In our competitive and evolving economy, being logical and analytical is no longer enough. Left brain is out. Right-brain noodling, the kind of processing that is intuitive and creative and synthetic, will soon rule the day. Or as Pink puts it in a classic bullet point: The MFA is the new MBA.

By which he means that the must-have degree for survival in today's business world is no longer the Master of Business Administration. It is, rather, the Master of Fine Arts.

There are some problems with this, alas. Flip to the help-wanted ads in the Economist, a magazine where people with lots of beans look for expert bean counters, and tally up the number of ads that read: MFA Wanted. Not one, at least in a recent issue. It seems the world's top business leaders are still mired in left-brain hiring practices and can't shake off phrases such as "Minimum 10 Years Demonstrated Experience" and "Proven High-Level Management Skills."

You're reminded of that devastating moment when Jerry Seinfeld tells George Costanza that his chances of getting a job as a professional sportscaster are very low. "They tend to give those jobs to ex-ballplayers and people that are, you know, in broadcasting."

Pink is a professional speaker, however, and he was quick to dial back his thesis to something more defensible. The MFA isn't the new MBA, but it complements the MBA very nicely. Which boils down further to the not surprising observation that creative people are a big asset to a corporation. For this, and some self-deprecating humor, he makes the big bucks.

His talk was bolstered by some thoughts on the new economy, on how the oversupply of consumer goods means that corporations must be ever more clever about creating new products and new markets. Asia, with its rising middle class, will continue to absorb American jobs, especially those that are simple and routine enough to be outsourced. Automation will make inroads into white-collar work, as things like accounting or simple legal tasks are computerized.

Abundance. Asia. Automation. More bullet points, delivered as Pink wandered the stage with a microphone headset on. He avoided the lectern, with its unwanted suggestions of old-fashioned left-brain oratory.

It's rather shocking that the crowd bought this hooey. These are, after all, the nation's arts leaders, into whose hands our nation's vital arts infrastructure is entrusted. But, as anyone who has attended the Nancy Hanks Lecture before knows, it basically doesn't matter what you say, so long as you end up with an impassioned plea for government support of the arts.

It's not clear that Pink makes much of a distinction between generalized creativity and artistic creativity. And it's very unclear that his thesis holds up if it is limited to artistic creativity.

Financial mismanagement among artists is a notorious and recurring theme throughout history. For every composer who died rich -- Verdi, Rossini, Gershwin -- there's a Mozart, penniless at death. Artistic temperament, if there is such a thing, doesn't suggest a good fit with most corporate work environments.

"Where's Mussorgsky?"

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