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The Role of the Arts in Complexity Sciences is looking for answers and art is looking for questions.

Marc Quinn

British contemporary visual artist 

Quinn’s writing echoes John Vervaeke's evoking an awakening from the meaning crisis, and call for how we need to seek meaning 'in' (vs. 'of') our post-modern material lives. 

Photo: Autoportrait by Tyler / John Oliver

What can artists bring to the field of human social complexity, from making sense in our ever-changing world with exponential technology development, to transforming social conflict, to the more existential questions of our individual and collective purpose?

A great deal has been written (see references below) on how artists can be seen to be navigating paradox and polarities, working with fragments and integrating the disparate parts of our lives into new forms - noticing what is needed to make things whole.


The work of artists generates conversations and questions, opening possibilities for connections and relationship that were previously unseen.

Artists' oxygen is the very complexity and ambiguity of the human condition, as they explore the dynamics of our contradictions and edge of our sensemaking - creativity and hope therefore spring from their polarities with conflict, tragedy or decay.

This notion of "edge" I like to evoke when taking a step back, and considering if our work in this world is working in or on the system.

My own personal journey having worked in diverse sectors across technology (e.g. aerospace and satellite communications), overseas development aid, and organisational development, has inspired a passion for integrating the sciences with the humanities (anthropology, sociology), The most recent development has been for me to extend that inquiry within an artistic practice, that contrasts my academic interests and analytical education, to a syncretic integration of disciplines and capacity to sense or feel the 'whole'.

I see this as my developmental edge as I cross the age threshold into my 50s, and explicitly connect my artist experiments with my spiritual inquiry over the past 30 years (e.g. attending a religious schools until 16 years old, then learning mediation at 18 from my ordained Buddhist brother and continued exploration of the Eastern wisdom traditions), 

There is of course a vast landscape of artistic and creative practices, ranging from improvisation theatre to conceptual art installations, to community therapeutic arts. From this diversity, there can however be essential qualities of the shifts in consciousness that occur for those participating with the creative process - a quality of consciousness that can add significant capacities for those working with complexity. 

Having established a first phase of contrasting artistic practices (in video, painting, sculpture) since 2019, I am now passionately drawn to how as an artist I can engage in the application of the artistic principles to individual, organisational and societal development, and connecting the arts to my professional experience in Sensemaking.

Below is an evolving list of the key qualities that an artistic practice can bring to the field of applied complexity sciences - speaking to a conviction of mine that:

"agents and facilitators of change, especially those leveraging the complexity sciences

practices such as in Sensemaking (using for example frameworks such as Cynefin, Integral Theory and

developmental psychology), should all have an artistic practice"

Principles and Qualities of "Being" at the Heart of the Creative Experience


Artists live on the edge between expertise and non-expertise...practicing 'beginner's mind' where the naïve questions fuelled by curiosity can unveil deep assumptions and open up the field of perception. Beginner's mind is very effective in revealing possible blind spots or biases.


Artists engage their full sensory field, integrating multiple levels of processing (mental, body sensorial) to make sense of the whole and being alert to detecting weak but significant signals.


Complex systems are defined by their constant dynamic, in negotiating and adapting to internal and external tensions. They can be between competing (but equally valid) values or perspectives.


Artists leverage these tensions at the heart of its practice, inviting the observers' own inquiry. 


The creative and artistic experience leads us to welcoming those opportunities to go out of our comfort zone. Discomfort is a source of insight, self reflection, challenging what our biases and habits might be hiding from us.


Art's evolutionary purpose is in its power of honing and expanding our senses, and creating new layers of abstraction.

Abstraction is at the core of how human's understand their environment and make choices.

Art can provide a unique visual or sensual representation (in combination with analogy, symbolism, metaphors) as compared to intellectual or verbal descriptions. 


Related to the practice of 'beginner's mind' is the separation from one's ego - not to disown it, but as a dynamic of opening oneself up as a channel, and later reintegrate ego. Many artists related to their works in the 2nd person, creating a dialogue where the artist feels that the creativity came from something beyond them.


Accessing deep time - - Sense of timelessness... Kairos and Chronos
    - Sense of the ongoing infinite future

The central practice of wasting time, and unproductive time.


John Berger's quote here is probably all that needs to be said: "Art is a constant process of error correction".


While deductive ('de-' = from) reasoning always follows necessarily from general or universal premises and inductive ('in-' = to) thinking forms a generalization based on what is known or observed, abductive ('ab-' = away) thinking is an inference of understanding from a collection of observations.    


There is a visceral sensation of having to suspend expectations and control. Not-knowing is a faculty or muscle that can be developed.

With patience and a willingness to play, moving in non-linear ways, accidents turn into synchronicities and can be only understood retrospectively. 


Artists are unique in their capacity to work from a place where the future already exists. They take leaps that are not constrained by the present.


The creative process engages all senses, and therefore reveals the relationships and tensions between the emotional, the rational; the intuitive, the logical; the spontaneous, the planned. Each step in the creative process therefore invites us to be aware of our constructs. The rational, the logical, the planned - as "constructs" - are all under scrutiny from their opposites. 

Films by John Oliver in the Arts and Complexity Sciences

Dr Steve Marshall
John Oliver -

Dr Steve Marshall

The Arts in Sensemaking:
Narratives Signification, Interpretation, Dialogue and Informing Action 

The sensemaking method has a breakthrough positioning, thanks to its set of clear principles in how we can understand complex human systems or ecologies. Below is a just an extract of some of the principles. With its origins in organisational development, social and anthropological sciences, there is a now a large research and literature base from the past 50 years of its emergence. References to some key publications in sensemaking can be found below. 


ART AS NARRATIVE: Across multiple practices (theatre, poetry, painting, sculpture) there is always a narrative at its root.


ART AS TRANSGRESSION: Art challenges our perspectives - inviting transgressive, counterfactual thinking: Sensemaking, sensegiving and sensebreaking


ART AS REMEMBERING: The creative act and works of art play with our sense of time. Memory, projection and interpretation - we actively create our past through our lenses, offering new opportunities for sensemaking in the present.


ART AS ZOOMING IN AND OUT: Artists experience a process of perspective change between zooming-in and zooming-out, embracing the paradigm differences at each level.


ART DRAWS ON THE DARKNESS: Artists draw on conflict, marginalisation, injustices as material to be brought into consciousness. 


CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING: Art offers us powerful ways of observing systems in context - by shifting and experimenting contextual representations. 


WORKING WITH THE ASHES: Artists often are the first to work with the broken, the disenchanted, the marginalised. We tend to run towards the burning edifices (as do journalists, activists etc.), than run away. Evoking the phoenix from the ashes.


ART AS DIALOGUE: Art's use of symbolism as a process of signification and interpretation.

Opening a terrain for intersubjective understanding.


ART AS MOVEMENT: Complexity is about a sense of direction as opposed to destination = vectors vs coordinates. Art helps us perceive the dynamics between polarities and movement. Complexity evokes a dance in unique contexts.


ART BREAKS SILOS: The artist is uniquely placed to integrate cross-disciplinary knowledge


ART AS INQUIRY: Art springs from a deep curiosity and questioning...What if?


ART AS A 6th SENSE: Artists a deeper sense of knowing, beyond the verbal - towards a pre-cognitive sensing. Beyond the mind-body dualism.


UNDERSTANDING THE WHOLE: Complex systems can't be understood by analysing the parts and then reassembling. Art helps us capture the 'syncretic' sense of the whole.


MAKING THE UNCONSCIOUS CONSCIOUS: Research in consciousness challenges the fundamentals of how we understand our world and all living matter. Art is a powerful domain in which to access the 'pre-cognitive' consciousness, and bring our non-verbal senses and intelligence into our rational reflective domain - creating new conversations..

Edgar Schein on the role of art and the artist

  • Why is art relevant to other elements of society like business or government?

  • Why should managers learn anything about art and the role of the artist?

Edgar Schein, as former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, is a formidable thought leader in organizational development culture, and has thought deeply about the role of art in our society. Here are his six key insights, as summarised in his paper in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics.

Edgar Schein.jpg
  1. Art and artists stimulate us to see more, hear more, and experience more of what is going on within us and around us.

  2. Art does and should disturb, provoke, shock, and inspire.

  3. The artist can stimulate us to broaden our skills, our behavioral repertory, and our flexibility of response.

  4. The role of the arts and artists is to stimulate and legitimize our own aesthetic sense.

  5. Analysis of how the artist is trained and works can produce important insights into what is needed to perform and what it means to lead and manage.

  6. The artist puts us in touch with our creative self.

ScheinE. (2013). The Role of Art and the Artist. Organizational Aesthetics, 2(1), 1-4.

Full PDF of the article available 

Art, Narratives, Sensemaking and Complexity Research References


Intersections Art/Science

For the Francophiles among us, a supersonic voyage through a vision of the collisions/collusions between the sciences and arts by the eminent Aurélien Barrau - a French physicist and philosopher, specialized in astroparticle physics, black holes and cosmology.

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