Surrealism for differentiation

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Shombit Sengupta | Updated: Feb 1 2010, 04:02am hrs
Fact, fiction or fantasy, my last weeks article, evoked this reader response: The man belongs to a mad house. He may be eccentric, but misbehaving with his father was bizarre, as is the American public for giving him iconoclastic position in society for the crazy things he did to attract attention. I dont know what to think, pure fantasy or fiction, but instinct tells me its real. Genius is mostly flawed they say. Other readers correctly guessed the protagonist to be artist Salvador Dali, while a few remained perplexed.

What does it all prove That after 80 years, an artist-thinker, who had lived 6,800 km away, could still make an impact with Surrealism. This disruptive thinking process, phantasmagorical way of life, experiential expressions and paintings together formed an osmosis, a metaphor for a genre that influenced every walk of life thereafter. I am surrealism, Salvador Dali had declared, allowing surreal philosophy, that is, absence of all control exercised by reason or morality, to possess him completely. From 1900 to 1945, the turmoil of two world wars, economic recession and Hitler left the Western world shattered. But the paintings of those disastrous times were so imaginative, they portrayed another world of thought. Fortunately, thinkers, among them Dali, were beyond the distraught social life and helped even the business world do things differently.

Todays worldwide turmoil is about digital language and globalisation. Digitalisation is making the world totally generic, snatching away individual identities, while globalisation is breaking societys multi-cultural flavour. Since its inception in 1887, up to 1929, the mechanical gramophone with the same functionality had diverse aesthetics and designs that are identifiable as being American, Italian, French, Swedish, English or German. In the electric gramophone age, from 1930 to 1983, there were a variety of expressions like the record changer and two-in-ones, among others. But the last 30 years of digitalisation have made the physical element of music instruments look similar, either in a metal or plastic box. Several small companies had to close shop and only those with economic muscle can now dominate the world. Of course, the positive aspect is that music became available to the masses at low cost. But we have lost the art of differentiation. Surrealism is required here.

Digital functionality is itself surreal. Nobody would have believed 40 years ago that a mobile phone can connect you to the remotest forest or desert of the world, where, with your computer, you even have your office for a few hours. The problem is that this generic, surrealistic, digital technology sits inside devices like automobiles to electronics, white to brown goods that have negligible difference in identity, making people interact with devices they do not relate to culturally.

In the late 1970s, Hollywood was becoming boring with historical films like Cleopatra, Ben Hur, Ten Commandments or depicting American social life as in The Graduate or Roman Holiday. After the Hitchcock mysteries, John Waynes westerns and Clint Eastwoods spaghetti westerns, the film industry seriously turned to science fiction. Surrealistic paintings were a niche category in 1930s, but the power of Surrealism is so strong that huge money was made by science fiction films like Star Wars, which were highly inspired by paintings with surrealist figures, atmosphere and styles. The masses gobbled up these surrealistic images in box-office grossers like ET and Terminator, among other science fiction films.

The 1920-30s Surrealist movement was a great departure for science and business too. The shape of the first nuclear device resembles Elephant Celebes, a 1921 painting by surrealist Max Ernst. Most art manifestations, from religious to realistic paintings, Expressionism, Impressionism and Cubism, have been left out as high-value museum pieces. But Surrealism created disruption in the world by combining thinking with application in mass appeal. Museums sell reproductions of an artists painting as souvenirs. But Salvador Dali designed products so people can experience Dali and Surrealism. He reproduced his 1931 painting, The Persistence of Memory, depicting time in an undulated watch, as a real watch of asymmetric design. No watch brand can imitate that, as they are all symmetric. To sell fragrance, everybody knows the nose comes into play. Dali thought to design a nose-like bottle thats still among the most famous perfumes today.

In the 1980s, French haute-couture designer Jean Paul Gaultier broke all codes of French fashion tradition and protocol through his irreverent style. He put his perfume bottle shaped as a womans bust in a pet food tin, a totally Surrealistic thought. This was unimaginable when classic designers like Dior, Channel and YSL were ruling French fashion. Gaultiers avant garde designs sustain with phenomenal commercial success.

Strategy planning and business vision are inevitably determined with benchmarking or best practices. You may never know their thinking process, and having spent millions of dollars, effort and time, you may find yourself back to square one. This may be lack of surrealistic thinking, which can be the catalyst of future business success.

A recent surreal action I took was arriving on appointment at the office of a dozen CEOs with a suitcase full of paints, brushes, drawing canvas and a palette. I proceeded to arrange everything on the CEOs desk, as he quizzically asked, Do I have to paint I replied, Yes, indeed! You are a successful CEO because you carry a high-value management palette in your mind. Theres no shareholder, promoter, employee or competitor scrutiny on this. You have total liberty of expression. The CEOs, of course, immediately understood that there is no real difference between the management palette and colour palette.

CEOs engaging in painting may have made history unfold. They all acknowledged they were totally engrossed while painting, the proof of which is that each and every painting is out-of-the-box. This shows that CEOs require a divergent atmosphere in the world of business where they can think in an unlimited way to create differentiation that can bring high net worth to their organisations. The prime objective of my initiative of making CEOs into painters was to prove that in this uniform, digital world, differentiation that is tangible in a product or service will bring business success. Thats why I will continue the journey of finding CEO painters.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top managements. Reach him at