The Quest for Purpose: Art or Kitsch?

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Purpose is en vogue. It seems the new holy grail for setting direction and building organisations. And it is entering a new domain.

‘Purpose guides culture, provides a framework for consistent decision-making, and, ultimately, helps sustain long-term financial returns for the shareholders of your company.’

 Larry Fink, ceo of Blackrock one of the biggest fund investors in the world, wrote this in his 2019 open letter to the CEO’s of the companies Blackrock invests in. He regards purpose (and social responsibility) as important as profit. So purpose has permeated in haute finance. 

The attractiveness of purpose seems so natural. Who can oppose the positive attitude behind a whole array of various purposes that have Making The World A Better Place as a common thread? Purpose may carry an activistic glance, but it is oh so correct. Purpose as the aspiration and the motivation to harmoniously bring good things to the world.

But is this purpose thing not the emperor's new clothes? Does it have substance and does it truly entail something worthwhile? Are we forgetting that there is a distinction between kitsch and art? Purpose is at risk of becoming extremely kitschy.

A purpose with a big A may be attractive, certainly, but it definitely carries a deep and specific meaning and it does not hide the darker sides of our human existence.

It is about monomania, relentless drive, deep emotions, ratio defying determination, hate towards what is to be destroyed, longing for impossible love. It borders self-destruction. It is exclusive by definition (even when it strives for inclusiveness). In its colourfulness it is about black and white. Its nuances leave no room for contrast while its trade-offs made bear the consequences of accepting the disgust of the non-believers. It is not a narrative, it is an exclamation, a cry. It is so softly sung that it takes holy hearing for it to be understood. It is not nice, it is provocative, yet of a lasting beauty.

It is maybe best to stop talking about the word purpose itself all together. Let’s start the interesting work of becoming obsessive and start concocting the phrases, sketches and icons that poetically differentiate the shaping of organisations. Artfully.