Acts of Creative Transgression
This extract from Dancing at the Edge by Maureen O'Hara and Graham Leicester looks at 'cultural leadership' and examines what it takes to bring about change at a cultural level. The answer is not a big heave but a nudge, a prompt, a small act of creative transgression...
"Cultures – even small-scale cultures – change slowly, organically. They are always in motion, always in transition – what anthropologist Grant McCracken refers to as “culture by commotion”.[i] You cannot just replace one culture with another.But cultures do shift over time, and according to a familiar pattern. There is always a dominant culture side by side with practices that challenge the norms of that way of life. Cultures evolve as examples of new practice are nurtured, in the soil of the old culture but not in support of it.
The beginning of successful cultural leadership is therefore always a small act of creative transgression. It is small because transgression on a larger scale amounts to revolution and will be vigorously resisted. And because the smaller – and cheaper – it is, the easier it is for others to follow the lead.
It must also be transgressive because in order to shift the culture we must challenge it: we must do something counter-cultural. And it is creative, rather than merely disruptive, because it appeals to the culture's deeper values, its ‘better self’.
Luiz Eduardo Soares, for example, an anthropologist, philosopher and political scientist appointed Director of Public Safety in Rio de Janeiro in 1999, wanted to reduce the murder rate amongst young men, particularly the number of police involved in committing the murders. He knew he needed to shift the culture in the police force. So he introduced the ‘cool police station’ programme to make civil police stations more welcoming, human and professional. He put flowers on the front desks and hired university students to act as receptionists. He started to bring more women into the force. Slowly the culture began to shift. It was not these small creative transgressions that led to his downfall, but his more overtly revolutionary public attacks on corruption at senior levels. He was forced out of office after just over a year.
To take a very different example, from early 2008 artist Luke Jerram started placing battered old street pianos in anonymous public places for anyone to play. He installed nearly 100 pianos in towns and cities across the UK, and now cities all over the world are following his lead. He has struggled everywhere with local council regulations, health and safety, and in London had to apply for an individual music licence for each piano (a matter subsequently raised in the House of Lords). But wherever it goes Jerram's ‘Play Me I'm Yours’ project has transformed community and relationship and lit up people's lives.
Or the mental health nurse we encountered in a workshop looking at how to maintain the quality of care on her ward with a falling budget. All the talk was of innovation, technology, staff rosters and the like trying to reconfigure the service. Yet in the course of the discussion she came to see that ‘caring’ for her patients as she had been by doing everything for them was actually robbing them of what little autonomy and identity they had left. Hence her own small stand for something better at the end of the session: ‘I will no longer make my patients tea’.
These interventions are subtle, small scale, low or no cost. But in the economy of meaning they are highly significant – and have been recognized as such. Think of Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama.[ii] They evoke a collective social resource that lies hidden in a dominant culture under strain. Cultural leadership is always evocative rather than instrumental.
Ultimately its effectiveness relies on a paradox. In order to transgress within a culture you must first be accepted into it. And for the culture to evolve, the transgression must at some level be welcomed and permitted. Thus Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent protest relied on the British reluctance to attack those who do not fight. It was an appeal to the British administrators’ better nature.
This is a dynamic beautifully captured by Aftab Omer.[iii] He suggests that in times of stability the centre of a culture is conventional – dense with rules, norms, taboos – while the periphery is marginalized, even scapegoated.
During periods of dynamic change, however, like today, the centre becomes more receptive to the different and the unknown: “Cultural leaders choreograph this interaction in ways that are creative and transformative. In this way cultural leadership is distinct from political and administrative leadership. While political leaders primarily make rules and administrative leaders primarily enforce rules, cultural leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa find principled and imaginative ways to transgress those rules that inhibit the emergence of cultural sovereignty and creativity. Their actions engender new and unexpected meanings. The recognition and creative transgression of rules and norms is at the heart of cultural leadership. Cultural leaders are able to transmute how they are personally affected by the culture into creative action that midwives the future.”
At its highest level, such work requires a potent combination of political awareness, cultural imagination and what we might call ‘trickster’ energy. The term is taken from Lewis Hyde, who like Omer sees the outsider, the scapegoat, the maverick brought into the spacious centre at times of cultural change. His book Trickster Makes This World: how disruptive imagination creates cultures highlights the role of the trickster in many native mythologies. Trickster energy is the creative force that keeps a culture in motion, mixing things up if they become stuck, restoring order if they become too chaotic, keeping the system on its toes.
Cultural leaders develop a sensitivity to the dynamics of human group interaction that at its best releases a collective group competence. In order to ‘ride two paradigms’ successfully, to initiate effective rather than destructive ‘creative transgression’, the capacity to read the existing dominant culture is essential. Persons of tomorrow have an uncanny sense of their alignment with the group – including when and how far to push their trickster energy in order to release a group’s greater potential."
Dancing at the Edge: Competence, Culture and Organization in the 21st Century - Leicester & O'Hara
[i] Transformations: Identity construction in contemporary culture - Grant McCracken (2008)
[ii] 'Rosa Parks, 92, Founding Symbol of Civil Rights Movement, Dies' - New York Times, (Oct 25, 2005)
[iii] ‘Leadership and the creative transformation of culture’ - Shift, no 6 March-May 2005