8 min read
17 Jun

When we’re forced to use our personal and professional skills in an unfamiliar venue – which art analysis is for most people – we engage in an entirely new thought process. 

Amy Herman  

1. Introduction   Our shared human history is filled with wonderful stories of the suffering artist, bringing forth wonderful works of art, achievements that transcend the limits of their conflicts and suffering. We take solace and inspiration from the life journeys of Van Gogh, Beethoven, or our favourite artist. Conflict, in all its many forms, clearly contributes much of the spark necessary for unusual achievement. Artists having to confront and overcome their conflicts provide us with works of art and inspiration to emulate and learn from. 

But does art contribute anything of value to our conflicts? On a certain level, of course, it does. Our daily lives, our various conflicts, whether professional or personal, are generally improved or made bearable by the simple presence of art in our lives, whether that is in the form of paintings, music or any of its varied forms and manifestations, and whether as consumers or producers of those art forms. Art, in its wide sense, gives our lives meaning and purpose, gives us direction and a reason to face the world. It informs important aspects of all of the world’s biggest religions, and in doing so continues its meaning-making role. There is another important, very accessible and direct level of experience where art can help us with our conflicts, and that is what we will be exploring in this article.  

2. The art of our hidden realities  

This additional, nearly hidden, level of the use of art in conflict that I want to invite you to explore, is largely based on an expansion of our perspectives and our expectations of the world and those around us. It requires a rather simple change of the lenses that we use to gather our information, and the processes that we use to engage in our conflicts. If you respond positively to this invitation, it will positively change your life in many respects, helping you to see detail, opportunity and creative solutions where you often only saw dead-end situations. I do not suppose that this is a level of conflict management open to anyone, but if you are one of the lucky ones it is a permanent, rather effortless addition to your important life-skills, all achieved by what really just feels like the flip of a mental switch. 

An important skill of the accomplished artist is to show us reflections and dimensions of reality that we sort of noticed on a certain level, but in a new, refreshing way, something added to our mundane and every day experience. We all know what a human figure, simply sitting, looks like, but when Leonardo da Vinci presents to us the figure of Mona Lisa, we pause, attracted by something different, something additional that needs our attention. Michelangelo’s Madonna della Pietà depicts two human figures, and yet it contains so much more detail and meaning than a simple reductionist appraisal would allow, something that attracts admirers to it centuries after its creation. It is here, in this level of detail, that we find one of art’s greatest gifts to our conflicts. We can hone our observation skills, our ability to see beyond the surface, through the inherently pleasurable and rewarding observation of art, in any of the forms that we personally enjoy. Most of our conflicts are complex, intense human interaction, with much happening beneath the surface levels. 

We need to learn, or re-learn, how to see, and notice, important clues of the reality that is in front of us. If we do not have all of the facts relevant to a situation we are limited in the accuracy of our assessments and the design and implementation of our solutions. 

This connection between art and conflict is certainly not a fanciful one, or one limited to benefits that conflicts and suffering bring to the world of art.  In the US, Amy Herman runs the Art of Perception program, teaching business executives, law enforcement agents, sales executives and various other groups and individuals the very real benefits of improved awareness and observation. In the practice of conflict management it has added a rich, indispensable dimension to my own practice that I will always be indebted to Amy for. Let’s have a look at a few examples of this hidden-in-plain-sight reality so necessary for effective engagement with our conflicts. 

Let’s start with Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew. Spend a few relaxed minutes looking at the work, taking in as much detail as may present itself to you. If you prefer, call up the image through an internet search, where you can really examine the work.

Once you are done with your examination, compare your experience with questions that you could have asked yourself, or observations that you could have made during such experience. For example, on the purely observational level: Some of the figures depicted seem surprised. Why is this so? Three hands / fingers seem to be pointing at one of the seated figures, do these various hand actions all have the same meaning? Does it help, or hinder, our assessment of what is going on if we know the backstory and the characters involved from the Gospel story? Why is the one seated figure looking down, and what is he looking at? Does the light, slanting in as it does, play a role in our understanding of what is happening in the picture? Does the sword play a role, for you, in the depiction? 

On the emotional level: how does the picture make you feel? If you knew the story that it tries to tell, would you experience what you saw differently, or does it get in the way of an accurate assessment? If you were present in the room, how would you describe the mood captured in the work? 

How many of these examples of a long list of similar observations and questions did you arrive at with your first examination? Do you think that you may have missed some relevant aspect of the situation, something that you would have preferred to know if you were emotionally involved in the situation depicted? 

In Joe Maseko’s Township Scene, we can test our observational acuity further.

We notice a lot of hats. Does that have any significance in what the artist is depicting? Some of the figures are wearing bright colours, others more muted clothing – does this add anything to the dynamics of the display? How does the artist convey motion to us? All the colour and detail seem to be invested in the people, with the houses in the background a uniform, even drab backdrop. Is this a part of the story being told? Does my background and experience, my taste in art, my knowledge of the lives of the people depicted change my experience of the work of art? What is it that I bring to the scene, given my life experiences, or lack thereof? Why would different observers take away different experiences from the exact same work? 

Let’s see if we can apply these techniques to more abstract works of art. This is from Anton Smit’s “Stream of Consciousness” series:

Are the holes / spots on the faces intentional, and do they convey anything to us? Are their eyes open or closed, and what does that add or subtract to the message? Are the faces tilted upward slightly? If so what could that mean? What emotions, if any, do you feel when you look at the sculptures? Would your experience of the works change if you walk around them, with your perspective changing? Does the lighting of the work in the background, change your experience? Could the faces tell a different story under different lighting conditions, say at night? How much of the work is really objective, and how much of our experience of the work comes from what we bring to the assessment? 

We notice rather easily, from these examples, how art gives us a wonderful opportunity to calmly test how and what we observe, the various levels of information that are available to us but which we do not always access, either through haste, prejudice, or an unwillingness to truly see what is there. If we do so while calmly and leisurely looking at works of art, how badly are we doing at information and evidence gathering in our everyday lives, when we are dealing with the mundane, the details of our own conflicts, when we are irritated, or in a hurry, or not prepared to deal with something that may be important to ourselves or those we care for? 

3. What was I saying? 

Modern life is so fast-paced, and we are so overloaded with information thrown at us at blistering pace by social media, technology and other sources off input (often self-inflicted, we should concede) that the quality of our attentiveness, our awareness and, consequently, the quality of the information that we have access to and internalize, must suffer from these processes. Our life decisions, of which our personal and professional conflicts are such important examples, require accurate information. If we go through life distracted by the ten thousand things of modern life, if our ability to filter out the unnecessary and the unhelpful becomes compromised, it follows simply and inevitably that our decision-making abilities and qualities, and hence our conflict abilities, become polluted and less efficient than what they should be. Using art to constantly hone these abilities is a simple, and richly rewarding, way of cleaning our perceptual lenses. 

4. A few specific conflict advantages from observing art 

I hope that your increased awareness has helped you realize that none of this requires of you to become an art lover or critic. These benefits are available to us to enrich our lives, increase our awareness and make us measurably better at our conflicts. We could pick art that we love, or at least dislike the least, and even if we do not like a particular piece at all, art focuses our attention in a manner that staring out the window may not bring about. I believe that the primary benefit we derive from this activity is the raised levels of awareness and observation, a few of which we have discussed. 

But there are other advantages as well, where art can teach us lessons that we may not otherwise be open to. 

4.1 Subjectivity 

Art, in its many forms, maybe more so than any other human activity, demands that we accept that tastes differ. Humans simply do not experience life in the same way. I have given up trying to understand the attraction of any of Hieronymus Bosch’s work, and find them absolutely appalling, and yet thousands of refined art lovers would vehemently disagree with me. Art is a living, wonderful reminder that it’s ok for others to disagree and have their own strong opinions (yes, even in Bosch’s case, I suppose). 

4.2 Synergies  

The seemingly unconnected rhythms that end up gifting us John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme” or the isolated notes that, when assembled in the right order gives us the sublime wonder of Beethoven’s Second Movement in his 7th Symphony, speak eloquently to us of the power of potential, of how beauty and order can be created out of seeming chaos, if only we find the right arrangement, sequence and timing. 

4.3 Slowing down 

Art tends to disrupt our settled pace and rhythms, it forces us to pause and search for what it is in this work that we like, or dislike. It reminds us of the benefits of slowing down, of taking a proper, and then a second look at what we deem to be reality, it often, in good humour, shows how much we miss when we speed through life. Now imagine the sheer unnecessary risk we take when we make important decisions in our conflicts based on incomplete or incorrect information – information that was there for us to see, and use, if only we could take a slow, measured look at the full picture. 

4.4 Painting with prejudices 

Art can be a harsh mirror held up to our cherished ideas of ourselves. Why do I prefer classical music to pop music? Is it a true preference, or a snobbish affectation? What do we learn about ourselves from our preferences, colours, genres and status perceptions? What do we think about people who do not share these obviously good tastes? If my artistic preferences form a part of my identity and my values, how does that fact affect the manner in which I convey that identity to others? 

4.5 Pre-paid perceptions 

If we acknowledge, as I suggest we should, that our identities, our lived experiences, our cultural predilections and all of our psychological and emotional baggage all affect, and affect greatly, how we experience art, should we not take the next step to the logical conclusion and concede, with more than just lip service, that our experience of our realities, our expectations, our goals, and our conflicts are all very much different and that our insistence on everyone seeing the so-called objective reality of a conflict is as much a myth as a universally acceptable and enjoyed art-form? 

Art shows us, so magnificently, how an earlier preconception, an earlier prejudice, can affect subsequent observations and conclusions. If I believe that my evening watching Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai for the first time will be wasted, because I do not like old movies, I will limit my reactions, diminish my ability to accurately observe what is happening, and potentially prejudice my chances of enjoying a sublime work of art. So it is with our prejudices and preconceived ideas about our everyday lives and our interactions with others, especially during our conflicts. 

4.6 Visuals and colours 

Art often reminds us, as conflict studies have started to confirm, that life is full of splashes of colour, sound and ordered chaos, that we should look at the big picture but pay careful attention to the small details that make up those big pictures, that a picture is often more than the sum of its parts, and that human beings are hardly ever purely rational, cold, clinical beings. Sometimes the greatest lessons, even beauty, can be found in the imperfections we find in art. We find that art reminds us, and proves the point, that value and resolution often lies in the silence between the notes, in the absence of a colour or detail. 

4.7 Sticks and stones 

Words, arranged in various ways, form novels and short stories, poems and other forms of art that delight, entertain, transform and educate us. What is really the difference between your favourite novel and one that you could not finish? Words, meanings, the way and form that we package and send them out into the world all matter, and just as in the world of art, our words create feelings, emotions, situations, possibilities, obstacles and outcomes. How different would the most important conflicts in your life have been, how would the outcomes have differed, if different words were used? 

5. Conclusion 

We have briefly touched on a few of the wonderful synergies between art and conflict. This is such a big field of possibilities that we could hardly do justice to a summary in the space here. All I really aimed for is to make that connection for you, and to invite you to explore it further, to your own benefit. It seems inarguable that our conflicts must benefit from our increased awareness and observational abilities, whether that is because of our improved understanding of non-verbal clues, an openness to possibilities, patterns and connections, a refreshed look at the world or any of the other very real benefits, this is a simple, fun and life-long dimension and skill that you can add to your conflicts. The resource list below contains all you need to get started in a more organized manner, if you so wish, or you can contact me directly for a more comprehensive discussion. 

Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading 

1. Amy Herman’s Visual Intelligence (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) is indispensable reading, with her Fixed (HarperCollins 2021) a worthy companion book. 

2. Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa, by Andre Vlok, (Paradigm Media, 2022) especially Chapter 9 on the influence of neuro-science on our observation and awareness during conflict, and Hamlet’s Mirror: Conflict and Artificial Intelligence (Paradigm Media, 2023) on the influences of AI on our creativity and conflicts. 

3. Relevant articles and their source material to be found at www.conflict-conversations.co.za

  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.

   (Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information) Andre Vlok June 2024

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