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May 14, 201311:03 AMCulture

Fun and Culture in the Mid-State

“Five Questions for Ian Kanski”

May 14, 2013 - 11:03 AM
“Five Questions for Ian Kanski”

(page 1 of 2)

Ian Kanski is a classically trained artist. As a business development consultant in the Information Technology industry, Ian has consistently chosen work with emerging business initiatives and start-up companies pursuing “disruptive” innovation.

In his professional work, Ian has sought to synthesize his classical training in visual art into methods of creative problem solving and strategy relevant to technical fields. He spends a lot of time scribbling ideas and diagrams on loose scraps of paper. 

Kanski's work at MakeSpace includes portraiture, figure drawing, illustration and mixed media.

What would you characterize as disruptive innovation?

A disruptive innovation is one that has the ability to disrupt or upend entire, previously established hierarchies and entrenched industries. You get this constant tension between the creativity that is changing the world and the powers of industry that form around that creativity and try to harness or control it.

The creators, artists or scientists or entrepreneur, are often people who are driven far more by problem solving and invention than anything else. There’s an energy there and there’s also always an industry power structure waiting to build up around it, control it and channel it in a profitable direction.

And then ultimately creativity wants to move forward, becoming the disruptive innovation that threatens to topple the profit structure and the protectionism of industry. Nobody seems to point out often enough that the biggest enemy of innovation is powerful business that buys up the rights to good ideas just so they can hide them and control them.

The biggest enemy of small business is big business. I could go on for hours about what I’ve seen there.

My favorite example of disruptive innovation is in art history. There was this period in art history where the tools, the means of production, were so cost-prohibitive that the artists couldn’t afford them. And so they were beholden to this whole corporate structure because only the corporate structure could afford the tools used to create the art.

That was painting! It used to be that the amount of labor that went into getting pigments — like a strong yellow — used to come from really elaborate processes like dehydrating a bull and then evaporating its piss into yellow pigment. The labor that went into it made them really expensive. The corporate structure for painting back then was the Academy and the artists — no matter how brilliant they were, even the “master painters” — were really just line-workers in this corporate structure.

And then here’s the cycle that plays out again and again and again: technology advances, other innovators in other areas, you know, engineers, people messing with the elements…innovation pushes things forward, and the means of production get put into the hands of the artists, people who aren’t primarily motivated just by profit — they’re motivated by an obsession, and that’s where the most radical stuff happens.

So, innovation puts the means of production into the hands of the artists and the power structure crumbles, only to try and reform wherever it can. But that’s the cycle. When paints and paintbrushes became affordable enough for the artists to control their own direction, it shattered that whole paradigm.

And suddenly it gave birth to art for art’s sake and every major influential artist in modernity.

If you fast-forward, there’s this whole kind of exponential curve of change, not necessarily an exponential curve of progress, but definitely of change — we just saw the same cycle repeat with the music industry, with the implosion of the big record labels.

Musical recording is way more technologically advanced a field than painting. And now, right on its heels, we’re seeing the same thing happen in much more advanced fields like film and video and software. Data architects and programmers, like artists, see structures in their head that they build with tools.

The same cycle is repeating and it’s fascinating to watch, to watch the structures pivot to try to stay overtop and control that energy that creative energy. That’s why you see the big content aggregators like Amazon and Apple and Comcast all trying to gobble up and control the rights or distribution channels to as much content as they can.

One of the newer catalysts of change in highly technical areas is the “Open Source” movement. It is happening with stuff like software and programming — but the “free information” aspect of that culture shift is also affecting content. And that content side is forcing change so quick that even the artists are feeling the pinch. They, as individuals, have to learn to adapt.

I have a lot of debates about this with people who aren’t artists and also with some who are.

On one hand, there’s a legitimate concern that maybe we’re beginning to devalue the arts so that it’s hard to make a living being an artist…but then on the other hand it may be more difficult for the artists but in a lot of ways it’s good for art as a whole because it means that more of the art or music or writing is being made by people who are willing to sacrifice for it.

You’re always going to have people obsessed enough with their ideas that they’ll do it even if it’s not a lucrative or comfortable life and those people typically make the best art anyway.

And that is so completely at odds with the protectionism of industry. It’s usually not hard to detect the difference between art made for the pursuit of ideas versus art made for marketability. The mechanisms are really different.

The industrializing of art sucks up a lot of great talent, but puts that talent to work on the really hollow tasks of conserving protected interests. No matter how edgy the images they build or the slogans they adopt, every powerful industry and company is similar in that they are all trying to preserve the environment in which their mechanisms thrive.

They’re trying to conserve the existing environment, for the simple fact that they profit from it. Creativity, innovation, progress…they’re all threatening if you’re in the elite group that benefits from the way things are now.

Are there parallels between business development and art?

Over 10 years ago I went into a lot of debt and got a four-year art degree — and not only was it in really non-marketable fine art, but I also never learned any digital art. It was all classic processes in painting, anatomy, figure drawing — just about the opposite of easily marketable skills based on how we’re trained to think. I also came out of school with a lot of debt.

While I’m definitely not recommending that same path, it definitely forced me to figure out how to apply all that to the business world to get out from under the debt and that has been a really interesting process.

Because I ended up falling into this whole technical business consulting thing, I get asked about it and I often get similar responses from people when they find out I have a fine art degree. It’s usually something like, “Oh yeah, I get it — you went to art school and now you have to work in a totally different field,” and the assumption is that it’s because art isn’t “viable.”

In reality, the opposite is true. I’ve learned there’s actually way more relevance than I could have guessed. The critical approach I learned through studying abstraction in a process-driven way has been a real advantage and I wouldn’t change it at all.

I’m convinced that the things that you study in the humanities in general give people a critical approach to ideas that are desperately needed in our current environment. And there’s a big shortage there. In some circles, that’s now being recognized.

Now, even professionals that even the most narrow minded can’t dismiss are recognizing this – like this one fella with a crazy title like Director of Philosophy at Google, who wrote an article arguing that anyone in the field of data engineering would probably be better off right now quitting their continuing education in any specific technologies and getting degrees in philosophy.

The reason being that, in a lot of areas, we’re entering uncharted territory. Data architects are being challenged with questions that are too philosophical for traditional education processes in their discipline to prepare them.

There are these missing skill-sets that you can gain from studying the humanities. I used to “head-hunt” high level IT consultants out of other companies for big client projects – people with unusual hybrid skillsets who made crazy money bouncing around the country and problem solving on large scale technical projects. I learned a lot of fascinating things from talking to them day after day.

I was in a research and strategy role at the time where I got to ask them questions and make recommendations to my employer about industry change. The three humanities fields I came across most often in these successful IT consultants were philosophy, English and fine arts.

This small contingent of people figured out their approach to things was fundamentally different and it gave them a competitive edge. They learned how to wield that effectively in their professional environments.

In a lot of areas, the bias of our education systems is toward reductionist or very detailed thinking processes — so often slanted towards the specific, towards the clearly measurable and easily quantifiable. But take visual arts or philosophy or creative writing they are about making broader connections — they’re about analogy and metaphor and seeing patterns or similarities that aren’t readily visible.

What is it about the correlation between the lip of a clay bowl and its implied visual weight that gives us a sort of gut level pleasure in its balance that we may not even be conscious of? What makes a person say “I like that one” and not know why?

Studying abstract ideas in a methodical sort of way gives you competitive edge in an overly specific environment because even when you’re drilling down to the details, you’re never losing sight of the whole. It teaches you to alternate between two levels of zoom and gives you a hybrid approach.

This isn’t anything really complicated or grandiose — as the saying goes, you need both sides of the brain.

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