We need specialists in despecialization!

Invited lecture at the National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries, University of Auckland, New Zealand

April 14th, 2014


This lecture is about art, creativity and creative literacy. And when ever I use the term art, I do mean the system of the arts in a broader sense, including fine arts, music, design and architecture.

In his breath-taking book “The Swerve: How the world became modern”, Steven Greenblatt tells the story about the recovery of an ancient poem.


“A short, man in his late thirties reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That was all; but it was enough. … The finding of a lost book does not ordinarily figure as a thrilling event, but behind that one moment was the arrest and imprisonment of a pope, the burning of heretics, and a great culture-wide explosion of interest in antiquity. Much of what the work said about a universe formed out of the clash of atoms in an infinite void seemed absurd. But those very things turned out to be the basis for the contemporary rational understanding of the entire world. …”.



What the Italian Poggio Bracciolini recovered in January 1417 in a monastery, was the poem “De rerum natura” or “On the Nature of Things”, written by Titus Lucretius Carus in 50 B.C.  Naturally one single event in isolation could not have been responsible for such a massive and revolutionary change to the world.

Nonetheless, this poem did play a key part in the history of the development of the Renaissance, a history that was to change both mankind’s consciousness and its role in the universe.

For Steven Greenblatt even “more surprising is the sense, that the scientific vision of the world – a vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe – was in its origins imbued with a poet’s sense of wonder.”


Why does the idea, that a poem or another work of art might be able to change the world, currently appear to be so strange?  In fact, it was not the poem as such, that produced such a significant shift in the course of world history. This effect was only possible due to the interplay between scientific, political and economic forces. Nonetheless, the arts were always present as a type of connective and reinforcing element in this power triangle.  I am talking about the renaissance.


“In the modern world, there has never been more art and art has never been more visible, present and socially influential than at the moment. At the same time never before art was merely a resource in the economic utilization process.


Yes, it makes a difference, if art has the role of a commodity which can be replaced by an alternative commodity, or if art is a carrier of values, identities and meanings. To take part in the production, use and transmission of values within a society by and through the arts it is necessary that the languages of the arts

 can be read at least by the opinion leaders. Illiteracy with regard to art and creativity damages a society to the same extent as illiteracy regarding the written word.


 “Welcome to a nation unable to solve its problems, incapable of civil discourse, bogged down in a morass of multicultural conflict, and lagging behind the global innovation marketplace. Just look forward a generation or two, and this will be America if we do not address the dearth of investment in art and imaginative capacity.” In 2011 this could be read in the “Stanford Social Innovation Review”: 


Not only in the USA, specialization, productivity and efficiency have become the predominant aspirations, not just with regard to industrial production, but also with growing intensity and speed in the sciences. 

Universities got used - or forced - to look first at evaluation-figures and ranking lists instead of values and content.

Quantification and ranking based on quantitative indicators are the main topics in higher education policy. By their influence on educational policy at governmental and university level global ranking systems for universities have altered the understanding of the nature and task of university education.


The logic of industrial production processes, which demand measurability is steadily infiltrating educational policy theory and practice.

Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market” ” is even preparing to take over the command in the art system.

Financial investors, real estate developers and

project managers are standing on the steering wheels of architecture.

The art market is booming with parties and selling as the main purpose of the numerous art fairs, from Miami to Basel, from Dubai to Hong Kong and from Beijing to Sao Paulo. Artworks are assuming the role of shares, art collectors are slipping into the role of equity dealers and the artists themselves are occasionally taking the role of traders, as Damien  Hirst demonstrated with an auction in New York on the 15th of September 2008.

Ironically enough, Lehman Brothers collapsed on the very same day.

What happened to our societies?

The idea of progress is reduced to mere economic growth.

Education becomes redefined as mainly vocational training, in the service of creating employability rather than visions and ideas.

In the last decades we increasingly tended to believe in the slogan „If economy is doing well, we all are doing well.“

We got used to the argumentation:  Economic growth is the father of all things: new services and products, cheaper services and products, social welfare, personal  happiness, democracy, world peace – and not to forget: victories in elections. It’s the economy, stupid! We all remember this slogan to success.

Consciously or not - Bill Clinton’s war room – what a name! -  kind of transferred and transformed  Heraclit’s  “WAR is the father of all things!” to the 20th century.

Of course economy is a necessary part of societal development. Anybody who would deny this, would be a naïve and even dangerous fool.

But: The societal power of the Arts is not a collateral benefit, a spill over of economic growth.

Art cannot change societies. But art can change people. And people change societies.

Art is about people. It’s about fears, hopes and desires of people. Art works. Either tranquilizing or inspiring, stabilizing or destabilizing.

There was no time in human history without art.

Not because art is beautiful but because it was and is necessary.

In his latest book “The Social  Conquest of Earth” the most important Biologist of our times, Harvard emeritus Edward O. Wilson  published kind of a

revolutionary turn in the Theory of evolution: Wilson, a Darwinist with no doubt, put a second puzzle-stone aside Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” as criterion for human evolution: Group selection, fostering cooperative behaviour, including the production and reception of art.

Things are complicated. Yes.

The world is complex and the grade of complexity increases in frantic speed.

We all can read and hear this almost every day. Especially from politicians.

Until the year 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century.

By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years.

Today human knowledge is doubling every 13 months.

An increasing specialization in research generated this explosion of knowledge. As a result we face a massive fragmentation of academic fields. Universities became an environment of highly specialized experts who compete in getting points for their citation indices. We all know the strategies of splitting research results for increasing the number of publications. Separation, demarcation and fragmentation is the story, science history is telling us.

We live in a culture of answers. But by contrast, the complexity of our societies and the challenges that they face, demand a culture of questions. The recognition of the interesting and important questions, the selective evaluation of interdependencies and approaches to solutions is far more meaningful than quick, simple and ostensibly valid answers. Nonetheless, the culture of the correct and the incorrect is becoming increasingly dominant, even in the university sector. Students, teachers, universities and indeed entire education systems more and more are being evaluated, compared, judged and rated on the basis of quantifiable answers for multiple choice tests, bibliometrical reports and other statistical data. Only what can be quantified seems to be relevant.

Complexity is a matter of multi-dimensionionality.

Although the terms transdisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity today arises in an increasing number of publications - and even more in nice discussions -, effective research-collaboration between different disciplines still is an exception.

It does not quite fit into the current academic system, which is highly driven by competition between institutions, disciplines and individuals.

There are only few significant examples of interdisciplinary group formation: The best one is life science, where experts in molecular biology, biotechnology, robotics, biomedicine, biophysics, biomechanics, genetics, neuroscience and some more decided to work together. And this strategy lead to an incomparable success story. Life science now is probably the most powerful research field in terms of potentially shaping the future of our civilization.

The second one is experimental physics, where theoretical physics, quantum mechanics and quantum optics are involved.

I think it is not by chance that researchers from both of these areas say, that they need visual aspects to increase their theoretical models and they profit from communicating with artists.

Anton Zeilinger, one of the leading experts in experimental physics even showed his experiment of teleportation based on quantum mechanics and quantum optics at the DOKUMENTA, the world’s most important exhibition of contemporary Art last year.

And it is not by chance  as well that some of my graduates experiment with using DNA for storing and recalling visual information.

For Walter Benjamin art was the governor of Utopia. In our days it seems, that the utopias in he field of the arts have been exhausted.

Once, the domain of art (and philosophy) was to formulate utopias, which were transformed into realities by later scientific and technological developments.

Today, science and technology formulate their own utopias and work on turning them into reality.

What is now being thought and subjected to experimentation in the fields of medicine, biology and natural sciences is more radical, more provocative and packed with more explosive social force, than artistic approaches and actions ever were.

While life sciences deliver imaginations of a brave new world and while they are about to realize these imaginations, using the term design in connections like genetic design, artificial intelligence design, health design or even brain design and human skills design,

while these combined disciplines are dominating not only the present reality but also the world of ideas about the future perspectives of our societies –  while all this already happens:

What is the intellectual and emotional contribution of the arts in this competition of concepts for the times to come? All history is a history of ideas. Money only reigns, if there is a lack of ideas!


Innovation increasingly is becoming the new top slogan in politics. Innovation as medicine for saving the world – or rather the world economy first? But like any political slogans we have to look closely to see what is really meant by innovation.

From Schumpeter to current definitions, innovation is meant as the introduction and dissemination of new and improved products, processes, systems and devices for commercial use.

Only FEW assign achievements for our social life like law, music, literature, painting, dancing, Democracy, Human Rights, Schools, Universities, hospitals, museums, theatres to the innovation system.

Innovation seems to be tied with science and technology.

Although we all know that technology by far is not enough.

Economic success is not just caused by the work of business administrators and engineers.

Look at this. The first gasoline powered car, designed by Siegfried Marcus in 1889. It was not a success at all. And here we have the first Benz car – just a few years later.

You see the difference? The difference is not the technology. Technology is more or less the same. Until now our cars are powered by the principle of the combustion engine.

The difference is aesthetics. The principle of the engine is the same.

Look at the Iphone. It fascinates across all cultural and societal differences. And it does not fascinate because it is perfect in terms of technology – there are devices with better and richer technology. It fascinates with its aesthetics, societal positioning and emotion driven appearance. And which skills are needed for this success? Really important are not the single skills but the interaction between skills.

And the most important skill is the ability to speak or at least to understand different languages – among them the language of the arts, which is in fact the mother tongue of creativity.


Before the industrial revolution started, in the middle of the 18th century, no one could imagine that Europe, later the USA and parts of Asia within a few decades would go through a profound and lasting transformation of economic and social conditions, working conditions and living conditions. Inventions based on the use of mechanical processes changed the way of production and travelling. Large parts of the population lost occupation and income. Traditional jobs, like weavers, disappeared, new professions emerged - together with increasing social inequality.

Today it is hard to imagine, that in a few years consumers will be able to produce a wide range of products at home or in digital 3D-printing shops, like today photos.

And even less we are able to imagine which changes will happen in working, communicating and thinking along quantum physics and biotechnology. We do not know how these changes can and will influence our culture. But they will. When and not the least how changes will affect us depends on imagination and creativity.

We live in a world in which boundaries are being blurred to an increasing extent, in which apparently different things flow into one another, and therefore the redefinition of inherited thinking and behavior patterns is possible. The natural sciences have taught us for decades that the crucial ideas do not come into being along a predictable timeline of causality, but such factors as intuition, the unplanned or even “accidents” have a major impact.


Einstein said: Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Who had the imagination to realize flying to the moon? No it was not John F. Kennedy, and it was not the NASA.

It was Jules Verne, 100 years before, with his book “De la Terre a la Lune”.


The breakthrough from the geocentric to the heliocentric model came along with the invention of the central perspective in renaissance painting, which was somehow necessary for finding this way of viewing at the world from a fixed central point outside the globe.

The paintings of George Seurat can also be seen as pixelled pictures, a technique or technology that would be used some 60 years later for television. 

And isn’t it kind of amazing, that Van Gogh’s painting of a starry night seems to show patterns of earth magnetism?

Picasso disintegrated in his paintings the visual and intellectual interrelation between material, form, time and space. A person is falling apart or we can look at a person from different points at the same time, a few years before Einstein wrote his theory of relativity

and Heisenberg told us that the more precisely you measure a particle's position, the less precisely you will be able to determine its momentum. Uncertainty was the paradigm-breaking topic at the end of the 19 and the beginning of the 20th century.

The neuroscientist Wolf Singer pointes out that scientists, when formatting new theories, use criteria which go far beyond  making logical conclusions. Criteria which are leading to the languages of the arts.

These few examples proof that the arts often create an atmosphere – and even more – which fertilizes science and technology.


No doubt. Innovation, based on science and technology will be dominating future developments even more and even faster than in the past. But science and technology will also more than ever need creativity and the arts as the mother tongue of creativity to make the big leaps rather than the small steps towards the future of our civilization.


 “One small step for a man but a giant leap for mankind” Neil Armstrong said when he jumped onto the moon.

What remained from this giant leap for mankind?

Fascinating technology with the potential to change the entire view on human civilization. Yes, NASA involved artists. But only for reasons of public relations. For NASA it was all about technology.

And for the US politics it was all about demonstrating leadership in technology and thus in military strength. What if NASA would have involved artists like Stanley Kubrick or philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre in the Apollo program?

The task is to overcome the current monopolization of innovation by the technological sector. It has become erased from public consciousness, that innovation has an affinity with art and creativity. This remains clear with regard to the age of Renaissance and it is not by accident that today there are activities bearing the title “ Renaissance 2.0”.

In the USA there is an initiative called Renaissance into the classroom, linking education and practice in art, science and humanities.

Singapore’s national strategy is entitled  “ Renaissance City”.

And Singapore is not the only but an excellent example for giving a city or region a new vision and thus a new identity by relying on the power of the arts – apart from economic effects.

In 2006 the Government of Seoul released the “Vision 2015, Cultural City Seoul”, a 10-year master plan to transform Seoul into a culturally rich city.

Chinese authorities announced in 2006 that 100 new museums would open before the Olympics, and that by 2015, it planned to have 1,000 new museums throughout the country such that every significant city in China would have a modern museum.

The vision of the West Kowloon Cultural District project is to “develop an integrated arts and cultural district, making Hong Kong an international cultural metropolis”.

In Glasgow government turned the image and the social as well as economic life of this city by realizing the vision “to make the development of our creative drive, our imagination, the next major enterprise for our society. Arts for all can be a reality, a democratic right, and an achievement of the 21st century”.

Looking at the city of Detroit, once being a national pride, now a bankrupt city with a broken identity and full of social and economic problems it seems that a cultural strategy for Detroit would be the only realistic chance to recover again.

Abu Dhabi is despite various economic challenges about to realize a major cultural investment, which will include a cultural centre with institutions designed by the biggest names in architecture and art – Louvre Abu Dhabi by Jean Nouvel, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by Frank Gehry,  Performing Arts Centre by Zaha Hadid, Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando, and National Museum by Norman Foster. This obviously on the long run not only will have impact on Abu Dhabi’s global economic competitiveness. But also has the potential to change a society, which is so far not at all influenced by the ideas of intellectual and cultural enlightenment. Especially if there will be established not only museums but art schools and colleges as well.

Although these examples do have a clear economic aspect it would be short-sighted and it therefore would not work limiting the strategy to only supporting creative economy. For changing the identity of a whole social and economic environment, it does make little sense to set up an oasis for creative economy within the economic sector. What is needed is culturalizing the society instead of commercializing culture. What is needed is to increase creative literacy within the society.

The key for implementing this approach lies – as so often – in the education system.

Not isolated specialized knowledge alone is the basis for innovative strength,

but flexibility, the ability to think and act in interdisciplinary and intercultural contexts, bridging different spheres of thinking, crossing borders, questioning existing intellectual as well as behavioral habits, arriving at with new scenarios and producing amazement with its own work. This is the domain of the arts.

At the end of the 20th century the well known canon of the cultural techniques, reading, writing and calculating,  originating from the industrial age, this canon was supplemented by the ability to communicate digitally. Those who were lacking skills in this respect were regarded as digital illiterates with social exclusion and a shortage of employment opportunities as a consequence.  

Now this canon has to be expanded once more with creative skills:

Imaginative and associative abilities

The recognition of coherences that are not immediately apparent  

Problem-solving and critical thinking 

Thinking in terms of alternatives

The questioning of the status quo

Communications and teamwork

Recognition of the fact that there are various perspectives 

Recognition of the fact that there are forms of communication other than the verbal


The current knowledge explosion does not automatically mean progress with regard to understanding. It requires associative strengths and inner networking.  And the manner in which art demands and promotes associative thinking is clearly demonstrated by a work of Yoko Ono:

Swim as far as you can in your dream. Away from

your home

your mate

your children

your pets

your belongings

your work place

your colleagues.

See if you drown,

or survive.”


When one reads this, inner images immediately start to form and chains of association begin to grow. It is precisely because working with the power of awaking associations is an artistic domain that plays a key role in the creation of a system of synapses between the monolithic towers of knowledge in our fragmented scientific landscapes. 

In addition to “innovation society”, the terms “knowledge society” and “knowledge economy” are in increasing use.

Knowledge is not only growing in volume, but is also playing, or rather could play, an ever-greater role in the development of our societies but additional knowledge alone is insufficient. In the meantime, the expansion of knowledge per se has become somewhat more of a problem rather than a solution. 

Our brains have myriads of nerve cells, but their simple multiplication does not enhance our memory capacity. Instead, of decisive importance are the synapses, the links between the nerve cells. It is these that enable the potential of raw information to be employed productively. For example, when the brain of a pedestrian crossing a road receives optical information from the eyes that a car is approaching: The visual information remains useless irrespective of the degree of optical resolution.

Of decisive importance are the quality, quantity and thus reaction-speed of the links, the synapses, between the individual cell regions.    

The knowledge society presents a similar behavioral pattern. The links formed by the lines of communication between the various branches of knowledge determine the degree of effectiveness of know-how within society. Without a sufficient number of functional knowledge synapses, irrespective of their height, the know-how towers remain isolated and self-referencing.  For the needs of an innovation society it is more important to combine knowledge than to store it in our brains. Storing knowledge is a problem we solved by technology. Creating new realities by combining stored knowledge in unknown ways is a creative problem.

In the 1950s Marino Auriti wanted to build a huge tower of knowledge,  the Encyclopaedic  Palace of the World, where all the world’s knowledge should be stored. It never was built not only it became clear that even at that time the tower already would have been to small.

Today for a lot of disciplines such a tower would be too small even for a single scientific discipline. Auriti’s model, shown at the Biennale di Venezia in 2013, reminds of Breughel’s Tower of Babylon.

The Tower of Babel did not fail because of structural presumption, but it was rather an underestimation of the complexity of the task and the required forms of communication.  It was the “Babylonian linguistic confusion”, or in other words the inability of a large number of experts to communicate, that caused the Tower to collapse.   

After all: In our fragmented and even confusing world it is time to educate interdisciplinary innovation experts. Specialists in de-specialization. Which means utilizing the benefits of specialization by interconnecting people and ideas, seeing something together, which has not yet been seen together, recognizing the effects of contexts, uncovering correlations that are not arbitrary. We cannot waive specialized expertise. But in addition, the world urgently needs people with translational creative skills, people who are able to bridging the islands of specializations.

Lorraine Daston the famous Science Historian shows in her research, that paradigm-breaking innovation  mostly arises at the overlapping edges of different disciplines.

More than two centuries after the Industrial Revolution, again standing on societal and economic crossroads, the crucial question now is: Is it possible to make the development as well as the realization of creative ideas and visions the very trademark of our societies? Looking at the social, environmental, economic and some more challenges there is no alternative to heading towards a creative society.

But to meet this goal, the next societal and economic revolution will have to be a “creative revolution”.

Referring to many studies on science history as well as brain research and statements of education experts one comes to the conclusion that it is now increasingly apparent that arts and art-infused, interdisciplinary and project-based initiatives will be the hallmarks of the most successful schools and universities and , in turn, the most-successful and vibrant twenty-first-century communities and regions.

So, What is to do?

•   Change the focus. Forget rankings. Emphasize values. Be careful in using terms which are deriving from other systems:

•   Spread creative literacy throughout the whole society

o   creative skills as general education and new cultural technique for 21st century

•   Infiltrate Education and social life with the arts

o   New forms of presentation and reception of the arts beyond museums and theatres

o   New forms of Cultural and Creative Industries  -  arts as tool for social communication, intervention and innovation

o   New forms of cross-disciplinary education at all levels

o   New forms of collaborative research programs, focusing on challenges  rather than disciplines


It is time to regain the societal confidence in the power of the arts! It is time to change the focus of values from mere economic growth towards creative growth - based on visions for future societies.

The mission of universities is not to hand down traditions, but on the contrary to develop traditions, and even to break them. The mission of universities lies in the production of change. And following this idea, universities succeeded and still succeed in shaping societies.  If they don’t succeed in this, they will get frozen in the ices of societal irrelevance.