From Corporate Realism To Modernism

Toward the end of the 19th century, art experienced a transformation. As the world underwent rapid industrialization and urbanization, realism was overtaken by modernism, a new form of expression carrying high aspirations for society. A walk through the Alfred Barr Galleries at the MoMA in New York earlier this week reminded me of this socio-historic evolution.

In pictural art, modernists, including impressionists such as Claude Monet, no longer sought to portray the world in the way everyone sees it but in the way the artist sees it. This evolution was in part triggered by growing competition from photography. The move to expressionism (e.g., Vincent van Gogh) represented a further shift away from objectivity toward subjectivity as artists freely expressed their feelings about the world.

In literature, a similar evolution saw the emergence of various styles away from the realism of a John Steinbeck, including ‘streams of consciousness’ and the ‘unreliable narrator.’ The former equates to a download of unbroken, often disjointed thoughts about a particular subject. The latter is a writing technique that involves telling a story through a fictional narrator (generally in the first person) whose ability to objectively capture reality is compromised. It may be due to their penchant for exaggeration, lies, or layers of truth, or their madness, or naivety. Readers are invited to look at the world through the captivating eyes of a flawed character.

Thus, painters and writers went from portraying a single reality with precision to individual truths with emotion. With this movement, they brought the audience into a world of their own and provided a pluralistic perspective on society.

Today, the shift from realism to modernism seems to have caught up with the corporate world. Reality has reached an unimaginable and unmanageable level of complexity. Comprehending and depicting it has become impossible. Leadership teams, like modern artists, can only share their own vision of the world and outline their mission and strategy in accordance to it. Subject to the same human limitations, stakeholders are drawn to the interpretation offered by executives, like in an art gallery. What do they see?

This evolution toward corporate modernism does not suggest that leadership teams be entitled to distort and escape reality. It is only a response to the hard fact that attempting to capture reality has become a futile exercise.

While politics may venture into the deep end of surrealism, corporates must find a balance between realism and modernism. This is where the art of management lies.

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