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The Beauty of Conflict: Art Lessons, Lateral Thinking, and Creative Problem Solving

First published by The Mediation Journal, the Wisconsin Association of Mediators (WAM)

If you really want to see something,
look at something else.
If you want to say what something is,
inspect something that it isn’t.
If you want to see the invisible world
look at the visible one.
If you want to know what East really is,
look North.
If you have a question concerning the sea,
look at the mountains….
– Howard Nemerov, ON METAPHOR, p. 223, 1991)

Several years ago, I went to a Matisse Exhibit at the museum. As frequently happens, I got lost in the maze of galleries and a wrong turn ended me up in ‘High Renaissance Art.’ I had no interest in this stuff; to my eye, this work had little purpose other than to be the subject of an esoteric question on a final exam in an art history course. While I could intellectually appreciate the technical skill displayed, this style of art always seemed to be overwrought and irrelevant. My decided preference is for the abstract, minimalist, modern stuff.

My categorical decision to essentially rule out art before the turn of the 20th Century had been made much the same way I had made other important decisions in my life: arbitrarily. Pre-setting likes and dislikes is an expedient way to organize one’s life, offering a kind of symmetry, albeit forced, that minimizes the expenditure of anxiety and energy. Out of the same logic, I crafted my preference for a clothing color palette limited to blacks and grays, go back to the same restaurants, and eschew movies with subtitles. .

I admit to some embarrassment that such thinking is not a little bit rigid and obsessive. I sometimes fear my carefully manicured efforts to appear open-minded will be discovered as a sham. My only consolation is in the condescending observation that there are many who are even more closed minded than I am— specifically, those that don’t agree with me.

What is more disconcerting is coming to the realization that being an educated professional does not appear to much of a prophylactic against closed mindedness. Professionals, like others, tend to act on whim, and practice out of personal beliefs settled early in their lives. Claims of neutrality and objectivity are often illusory and sometimes a cover for shoddy thinking. Many professionals slip into an orthodoxy of practice style that has little more to commend it than that it is familiar and comfortable. Sometimes professional training and experience modifies that thinking, often not.

So to keep things simple, my first impulse was to just get away from this foreign Renaissance esoterica. It seemed to have little relevance to my work as a conflict mediator,and I had no need to cultivate another interest, especially one that would require study. One simply does not sacrifice the comfort of the familiar because of a wrong turn.

But it was too late. This fateful turn brought me nose to canvas with this huge looming painting in an elaborate gold-leafed frame, of a man hanging upside down from the limb of a tree. At first, I couldn’t quite make out what was happening. Standing back a bit to gain perspective, it became clear that the hanging man’s skin was being slowly flayed off and that the blood dripping from his several wounds was forming a pool on the ground near his head and being lapped up by a small dog while a group of largely expressionless, distinguished looking people looked on from the periphery. This picture, I came to learn, was Titian’s, /The Flaying of Marsyas/, circa 1575.


Needless to say, this painting was unsettling. I felt like I had been mugged. As Simon Schama describes it in /The Power of Art (2006)/, I was ‘roughed up’ and my sense of reality re-arranged. My well developed and supposedly expert understanding of human conflict dynamics, if not changed, was tinted and deepened in a manner that was wholly unexpected.
At the very least, I could no longer hold on to the illusion that this Renaissance stuff was little more than charming and beguiling decoration from a past century and had no relevance to me.

The back story to the painting was not unusual. As many artists had done through the centuries, Titian painting is the depiction an early Greek Myth. The hanging man, Marsyas, had challenged the God Apollo to a flute playing contest and lost. His consequence for challenging a God, or metaphorically, the order of things and the supreme powers of the universe, was this torturous flaying. But myths, whether then or in the present day, continue to hold a grip on our imagination. They are, after all, stories of significance that give meaning to our lives. Thus, at that moment, it made no difference that the picture was close to five hundred years old or that it depicted a fictional story. It looked real enough and was sufficiently horrific to be more than a little disturbing.

At the time of my museum visit, I was mediating a difficult parenting matter where there were allegations of sexual abuse against the father. As I viewed this picture, one of his comments came to mind. He had talked about how he felt this process felt like death by a thousand cuts. While I had heard the expression before, this piece of Renaissance art brought its’ meaning home. Until that moment, I had been somewhat lost about how to connect with the father and work this matter as a mediator. It’s not that all was suddenly revealed, but I started thinking of my mediation work as might an artist in front of a canvas. I visualized the father, the mother and the children and the countless court officials and counselors looking on, and pondered their expressions as I might draw them and considered how I might rearrange them. This mediation, as ugly as was the matter in dispute, had the potential to result in something, if not beautiful, at least constructive and enduring. In a strange way, this Renaissance painting normalized the strains of this family and offered up the prospect that, notwithstanding what they had been through, this family might survive if we could negotiate a deal that would allow them to move forward. There was more than a little color and texture to this notion.

Even more, I was struck by how this painting, The Flaying of Marsyas, highlighted the blurring between art and reality. Curiously, my museum visit was close in time to the publication of the photographs of Iraqi prisoners taken by their American guards at Abu Gharib Prison in Iraq, ostensibly, as part of the interrogation process. The grotesque portrait of a hooded Iraqi prisoner on a pedestal with arms outstretched and wires dangling was not dissimilar from the depiction of Marsyas hanging from the tree.

( While Titian’s Marsyas does not formally qualify to be denominated as ‘grotesque art” — a recognized genre’ where the artist explores forbidden truths and unspeakable taboos and where the evil, though repellent and unsettling, is also beautiful and alluring.— it seems worthy of inclusion.

Susan Sontag finds a place for the grotesque in photography as well and notes how the power of art is not to be minimized. In her introduction to Regarding The Pain of Others, she observes “(t)hat a gory battlescape could be beautiful—in the sublime or awesome or tragic register of the beautiful—is a commonplace about images of war made by artists. … Photographs tend to transform, whatever their subject; and as an image something may be beautiful—or terrifying, or unbearable, or quite bearable—as it is not in real life.” (Sontag, S. p75-76) Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1505-1510)

( in many ways sets the standard for grotesque art. Art critic and poet Charles Simic observed characteristics about Boschs’ work that would be familiar to most conflict managers. “Bosch did not need Freud or Jung to tell him that our inner lives are grotesque and scandalous. He also knew something they did not. The world inside us is comic….filled with riotous humor.” And further, as Garden clearly reflects, it is hard to distinguish the wicked from the innocent. (Simic, C. , 2000)

Likewise, Francisco Goya’s work Saturn Devouring One of His Sons (1822)

( ) could be a metaphor for every will dispute and intergenerational conflict that has or ever will be.

Leon Golub, a compelling American artist of this century, made the focus of much of his work a commentary on political oppression. Hauntingly beautiful in the fullest meaning of the word, with rich colors and bold figures that border on the abstract, the beauty of his paintings’ serves to trap the viewer into observing the atrocity and torture being depicted, in El Salvador, South Africa, or the American South before and during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960’s. (Bird, J. 2000; see Interrogation Series, 1986; His intention, not unlike Titian’s, was to compel the viewer to see the political perpetrators, wherever they may be, as all too human.

Of course, Picasso’s Guernica (1937) ;

( ), deserves special mention. It is the quintessential example of the blurring of art and reality—a picture of such power and relevance that its’ mere presence can alter events in real time. When Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make the case for war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein in 2003, few missed the irony that a blue cover was thrown over the tapestry of Guernica displayed there as an antiwar masterpiece. Picasso intended the piece as a condemnation of the Fascist takeover of Spain and the tyranny of General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, yet here it is equally as powerful 66 years later. Maureen Dowd could not help but mention in her New York Times column how, “Mr. Powell can’t very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses.” (Dowd, M., New York Times, Feb 5, 2003.)

Artists approaching their sculpture or canvas, are not unlike a mediator approaching a room of people in dispute. The conflict drawn or presented can be at once repellent and strangely alluring; the opportunity to make something constructive and useful arise out of confusion and dissension. Leon Golub, talking about his art, expresses what one would expect to hear from any practicing mediator. “I am trying to make some kind of connection to what is going on in the world. People say painting and photographs are all lies, but that’s not the point. A lie is the truth, too.” (Arnason, H.H. p 650-651). The work of both artists and mediators often engage and reveal, each in their own way, the forbidden truths that expose the core of conflict. Susan Sontag,, similarly noted how art, like fiction in literature, can transform our understanding of events. (Sontag, S. 2003) While it is not true or real in itself, a painting or a photograph allows critical shifts to occur in thinking about the events being viewed

The artist may be as much a societal mediator of conflict, as an actual conflict mediator must be an artist. Both reflect alternative realities to participants and viewers; possibly including some new imagery about their past, but more importantly, to envision alternative futures and how those might be negotiated.

To pursue peace, study war…
To understand conflict, observe art.

As a third party, working with people in the middle of a dispute that seems insoluble, the real trick is to help them to think differently about the situation. You have to help them escape their self imposed limits on how they think about their mess that keep them, as Edward de Bono terms it, in ‘flatland’—-essentially a linear and positional frame of mind that offers few alternative views and very well may have contributed to the problem in the first place. In our culture, words and language are the primary means by which we describe and define a problem. Sometimes it may be the same words and language that created the problem in the first place. The mediator can, if they are not careful, contribute to the confusion by using the same delimiting words and language. For instance, mediators using legalized terms such as, ‘this custody matter,” or ‘sexual harassment case,’ unwittingly keep the parties in a ‘win-lose,’ ‘fault-no fault’ mindset. Done often enough, it may become the source of mediator induced impasse. (Benjamin, R.D., 2005)

In pursuit of the intuitive sensibility and lateral thinking

The practice of conflict management is too often presented and understood to be essentially a cognitive, intellectual and analytical exercise. Conventionally practiced from the head up, it emphasizes the use of rational discourse, logic and persuasion. The prevailing model, articulated by Fisher and Ury’s, Getting to Yes (1981), is well suited to the techno-rational culture of the Western World. The focus in on interest based negotiation, separating people from the problem, logical problem solving, and objective assessment. Time and efficiency are of the essence. Not surprisingly, the third party or mediator is often encouraged to be neutral; an ‘above the fray,’ disengaged expert.

While analytical thinking and skills are essential for effective conflict management practice, of equal importance is the third party’s intuitive sensibility. The mediator’s ‘gut instinct’ and feel for what a dispute is really about is frequently at odds with how the parties’ describe the matter. (Benjamin, R.D., 2000) As well, because virtually all conflicts are emotional at core, using analytic approaches alone may be limited in effectiveness. Because of our cultural predisposition and professional training, many find it difficult to escape the linear and logical thinking patterns that Edward de Bono calls ‘vertical thinking.’ (Bono, 1971) Often times, especially with more complex issues, trying too hard to figure things out and get them solved may be not only unhelpful but counter productive.

Experienced and sophisticated mediators have come to understand that effective conflict management requires visceral engagement in the matter at hand and a different kind of thinking to deal with especially complex and multivariate matters. Bono does not dispute the value and importance of vertical, rational and analytical thinking, but simply insists that kind of thinking must be complemented by an intuitive and creative “lateral thinking” frame. Vertical thinking engaged too soon, squeezes out the opportunity to see the situation in a different way. The problem solving process can easily be warped by the strong cultural gravitational pull to pursue the right answer and the pressure to ‘cut to the chase.” The ‘lateral thinking’ frame encourages a restructuring of those thinking patterns and works to counter-balance the pressures. Vertical thinking is direct, whereas lateral thinking is intended to be sideways in approach. The trick is to pair and balance analytic and intuitive approaches to problem solving. Dealing with complex issues requires using all of your wits and senses in order to see the matter from all angles; to move in close to study the specific details at the same time you draw back to gain overall impressions. There is a tension between vertical and lateral thinking that is been described by the oxymoron, ‘systematic intuition,’ and recognizing that neither creative intuition nor technical proficiency alone, are enough for artistry. (Benjamin, R.D., 2006) To those who think being rational is enough to solve complex problems, engaging in lateral thinking can appear to be little more than a digression or distraction from the “real” work of finding an answer. At the same time, those caught up in the relational dimensions of conflict and who believe the ‘feeling of what is’ is sufficient, tend to dismiss the importance of the rigorous study and disciplined preparation and practice of art and mediation. Jackson Pollock’s legendary ‘drip’ paintings, which were initially criticized by many for being little more than a hodge-podge of random squiggles, are the result of his carefully studied and rehearsed technique. (see Convergence, (1952) In recent years, even physicists have observed the remarkable similarity of his lines to sub-atomic fractal formations. (Benjamin, R.D., 2003a)

Before helping others to untangle their mess, a mediator, (and a good negotiator), needs to check his or her own thinking. One of the most difficult disciplines of conflict management work is in maintaining constant vigilance against slipping into presumptions and set patterns of approach. Past success can be especially seductive and nettlesome. Curiously, this is not just a case of sloppy thinking; it may be part of our evolutionary biology. Popular sayings reinforce the conventional wisdom when we are told, ‘…don’t argue with success;” or “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” Robert Sapolsky, a noted evolutionary biologist, has observed that not just humans but most animal species have a similar strong tendency to stay with patterns of behavior (e.g. hunting, mating, interacting) that have worked in the past. (Interview with Robert Krulwich, August 16, 2006) It’s hard to change. Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, notes how entire communities failed and became extinct because they tried to follow previously successful and sustaining strategies in farming in a different environment. Ironically, success can be more debilitating than failure. Failure obligates different thinking; success can lull one into thinking he or she has it all figured out. An approach used by a mediator in one context or with some parties may not work in other circumstances. Remaining open to different approaches is the cornerstone of reflective practice. (Schon, D. 1983, 1988) For most conflict management practitioners, it is relatively easy to recognize when the parties are stuck. They must sometimes push parties out of their comfort zones in order for them to consider alternative approaches. What is more difficult is for the third party to push him or herself out of their own comfort zone. The familiar—‘this is the way I’ve always done it, and it’s always worked before’—has a powerful hold on our thinking, and should not be shed lightly. But neither should it be left unexamined. The risk is that the third party becomes part of the problem. This requires more than merely paying lip service to the importance of being creative and ‘thinking outside the box’—-a now hackneyed expression worthy of being retired. Intuitive, creative, lateral thinking does not just appear out of nowhere. It must be cultivated, studied and practiced.

Learning to think laterally toward the development of an intuitive sensibility

Paul Klee, a renowned modern artist, went to the heart of the matter when he observed how our language— spoken largely through words —lacks the capacity to communicate a sense of dimensional complexity. “It is not easy to arrive at a conception of a whole which is constructed from parts belonging to different dimensions. … It is difficult enough, oneself, to survey this whole, whether nature or art, but still more difficult to help another to such a comprehensive view.“ (Tufte, E. at p.15, 1990; Klee, P., p.5, 1948). Words and language construct a particular reality; it is hard, if not impossible to shift or insinuate in a different reality using the same words. The first step in escaping the ‘flatland’ of vertical and linear thinking is altering the words initially used to describe the matter. And sometimes better yet, to avoid words and language altogether

In recent years a variety of strategies and techniques have emerged that can be helpful for conflict managers to learn to escape overly analytical or linear thinking frames and access a more intuitive and visceral level of awareness. One that has become popular of late is the use of meditative techniques. The second is improvisational theatre techniques, and third, is the access to lateral thinking,, commonly done through the appreciation of the aesthetic arts, including the visual arts, music, and dance. (Cooley, 2005) All are in significant ways under-girded by current studies in neuro-science that suggest that effective problem solving is not strictly a linear and rational endeavor and that the notion of the “cool headed reasoner,” as appealing as it might be in our culture, is largely myth. (Damasio, 1994)

Meditative techniques can be useful as a means to clear ones’ mind and center him or herself before entering the conflict system. Denoted as ‘mindfulness,’ the underlying assumption is that if the mediator can become aware of their own body rhythms, breathing patterns and physiological responses, then they are better able to clear their minds of pre-conceived or distracting thoughts and creatively focus their energy on the issues. (Riskin, L.,2002; Deer, P. 1999). Where meditation is focused on one’s internal physiological processes, improvisational theatre techniques allow for the study of connections between an actors’ internal responses and external presentation. This study is valuable for people who work in conflict management because, at core, all negotiators and mediators are performance artists and mediation and conflict management bears much in common with theatre.

Like every passion play since the beginning of time, every conflict comes complete with a script where, in each participants mind, there is a hero, a villain, and a victim, with a supporting cast. Thus the mediator often plays a number of theatrical roles, including script editor, director and sometimes actor. To be effective the mediator must be engaged and involved with the dramatic environment—-intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Improvisational theatre techniques and exercises are a way for not only actors, but negotiators and mediators as well, to develop the intuitive skills necessary to obtain role authenticity. Famous Russian director, Constantin Stanislavski in his early work, An Actor Prepares, and later, Viola Spolin in Improvisation For The Theatre , encouraged actors to tap their ability to be spontaneous and intuitive—to work with the present moment.. (Spolin, V., 1963; Stanislavski, L.,1936; and Benjamin, R.D. 2001.)

Lateral thinking builds on improvisational theatre and meditative techniques in pursuit of the intuitive sensibility. It emphasizes a process of learning to think differently by thinking about something else entirely, or thinking in a different way. Specifically, lateral thinking would suggest that Instead of relying on words and language, visualize the matter in question and think in pictures. Try to escape the constraints of how the problem at hand has previously been described and think of the images and metaphors that impressionistically come to mind. Thinking laterally about topics that may not appear to have any immediate relevance to the issue can allow for unexpected connections and different thinking frames to emerge. ( Bono, 1971 ; Benjamin, R.D, 2005).

Art and sculpture can be fertile terrain in which to cultivate, teach and practice lateral thinking. On the most basic level, the power of art is its ability to allow for a fresh perspective; to escape the routine view of things. (Schama, S., 2006)

The visual arts as a window to lateral thinking and the development of an Intuitive sensibility

The arts—music, dance and theater, film— have always provided a door into a different, more expansive way of thinking, that professional practitioners from many disciplines have used, mostly informally, over the centuries. Certainly, Leonardo Da Vinci offered a model being both at once an artist and scientist. In recent years, the conflict management field has seen an emerging awareness of the importance of bringing to bear on practice a perspective that goes beyond the purely intellectual, to emphasize the mediator’s sense of his or her own somatic responses to conflict.

There are many themes in common between conflict management and the visual arts—-painting, drawing, photography and sculpture—in particular. On the most basic level, art, not unlike conflict management must ‘regard the pain of others.’ (Sontag, S. 2003). In addition, there are matters of perspective and bias, authenticity, and the weaving and constructing of reality, to note but a few.

Perspective and Bias

Personal struggles and responses to the conflict around them are often reflected in the work of both artists and conflict managers. The nature of art allows us to capture and closely study that dynamic. Throughout history, artists have been war correspondents and commentators on the nature of conflict, its’ sources, players and consequences. For example, Gerhard Richter, a German artist who grew up in East Germany and is widely acclaimed as one of best in contemporary times, painted Uncle Rudy (1965), a slightly blurred photo-realist work of his own uncle, who in fact was an SS Officer in the German Army. It looks like an old family photo found in the attic of his uniformed Uncle standing proudly during the WW II. For most people, the picture of a close family member in the military allows for pride. For Richter, given the historical circumstance, it evokes a whole other constellation of reactions, from pride to guilt and anger. As a viewer strains to make out the details, the intentionally blurred painting technique reinforces the stress of living with ambiguity; the confusion between fact and truth; and the myth that one could ever know the ‘whole story.’ Of course, the same is no less true for conflict mediators. Seldom can we obtain the ‘whole story,’ but it does not dampen our commitment to the belief in the rationalist pretense that if we gather more facts and information and make assessments, somehow we will be better able to solve the problem. Richter, like most conflict mediators, must negotiate and come to terms with an imperfect past— memories, history, and experience—before he hoping to construct a future. (Storr, R., 2002)

In some paintings a viewer can viscerally sense the artist’s internal deliberations and biases. That is clearly true for Picasso’s Guernica, and much of Golub’s work. Perhaps one of the most stunning examples is Artemisia Gentileschi’s, Judith Decapitating Holofernes (1613) . One of the few woman artists to work and be properly recognized from the period of Early Modern Europe when women were barred from art, she apprenticed in her father’s studio. That did not, however, prevent her from being raped by another student, who served less than a year in prison for the offense, and she carried a rage about that injustice with her throughout her career. Nowhere is it more evident than in this painting. Once again, the subject, as was common, is simply an Old Testament story. This one of Judith, a devout Jewish women who seduced and beheaded the Assyrian Army Commander, Holofernes, who was laying siege to her City of Bethulia. Many other artists, including Botticelli, Michaelangelo, and Caravaggio had masterfully painted the scene almost as a necessary technical exercise, that offered a relatively cool, matter of fact rendering. In Caravaggio’s work, the figure of Judith stands back from the deed with an impassive look and her posture and angle of approach makes it seem improbable that she can bring to bear the leverage necessary to cut through Holofernes’ throat.

( In Gentisleschi’s rendering, by contrast, Judith is close to the Commander and displays an unhesitant personal fierceness and relish for the task.

( Her painting viscerally displays the full impact and meaning bias in a manner that no intellectualized discussion of bias could do justice.


For a mediator, as for an artist, authenticity is a critical component of success. No matter how technically proficient, skillful, or analytically sharp a mediator may be, her work will come to naught, especially in a difficult and complex matter, unless she can connect and engage the participant parties or viewers on a personal level. Authenticity is an elusive notion. It is not necessarily the same as being honest, nor is it playing the same role regardless of the circumstances. Authenticity for mediators and artists, as it is for actors, is about immersing themselves in who they must be to convey meaning and manage the conflict . Both artists and mediators must be protean, Trickster figures, sometimes flirting with the profane and at other times reaching for the sacred. (Benjamin, R.D., 2004; Adler, P.A. 2006) But, therein lies the potential ethical and professional dilemma: there is a thin line between being authentic and being opportunistic and exploitative in one’s art and in managing conflict. . Diane Arbus, for example, known for photographing people called ‘freaks’—- mentally retarded people at an institution, giants, cross-dressers, or others—-garnered considerable criticism for being exploitative in her work. (Untitled, 1970) Susan Sontag was especially dismissive, saying that, “Arbus photographed people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive from a vantage point based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.” (Sontag,S., NYTimes Magazine, Sept. 14, 2003.

By contrast, some years earlier, Janet Malcolm, another well regarded critic, offered a very different appraisal of the same photographs.

“In photographing the retarded she waits for the moment of fullest expression of disability: she shows people who are slack-jawed, vacant, drooling, uncoordinated, uncontrolled, demented looking. She does not flinch from the truth that difference is different, and therefore frightening, threatening, disgusting. She does not put herself above us—she implicates herself in the accusation. She will not kiss the leper’s sores either. But she will stand a few feet away from him with her journalist’s gaze, and, with her artist’s intelligence, transform him from an object of revulsion into the subject of a work of art.” (Malcolm, J. New York Review of Books, Sept. 14, 1996).

Studying the photographs presents the same issues of authenticity that conflict mediators must address in their various styles and approaches to conflict management.

Weaving differing constructions of reality

Ultimately, a conflict mediator weaves together a construction of reality between disputing parties that, if not a seamless tapestry (it seldom is), is at least, a fitfully coherent one. This can be especially difficult to do across cultural and ethnic divides. Artists similarly integrate varying constructions of reality. While sometimes helpful to talk about that weaving together, visualizing how integration might occur is especially useful. Dinh Q. Le, a Vietnamese artist who grew up in a small village near the Cambodian border, came to the United States with his mother and seven brothers and sisters in 1978. Living in both the United States and Vietnam, cultural duality is his way of life. His work reflects a blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, not just between cultures, but between the historical Viet Nam War he experienced first hand and the Americanized Hollywood version he has endured. In an especially poignant series of work, highlighted by a piece titled Born On The Fourth of July (2000)

(, he has borrowed the grass weaving technique of his family and native land and woven together the picture of the Viet Nam Veteran, a paraplegic in a wheel chair played by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone’s classic movie, Born on the Fourth of July, with the James Ott photo of the real young girl who had just been napalmed, running down the road in screaming agony. Each photo is blown up, cut into strips, and then the two are woven together into a fuzzy manufactured reality. This elegant photo-weaving process creates a work of beauty at the same time it catalogues the methodical cruelty that lies within.

Think laterally; the best options may develop when you’re not studying ‘the problem.’

Viewing conflict through artistic expression is, by definition, the practice of lateral thinking. Beyond merely clearing ones’ mind, or thinking reflectively, both of which are valuable exercises, art requires us to effectively ‘listen’ to our senses. As a training approach, art allows both the experienced and masterful mediator and the novice, to sharpen their ability to explore not just what is being seen or said on the surface, but what is not being seen or said as well. Consider how a mere visual depiction on a piece of canvas can generate a feeling of disgust, pleasure, pain, anger or no feeling at all, which is revealing in itself. A picture’s worth is not necessarily contained within the frame; it is always viewed in a context of time and place.

Many people view art as little more than decorative pieces to occupy an otherwise blank wall space. Some artists clearly cater to that market and paint pictures of comfortable pleasant and peaceful scenes. Likewise, some mediators limit themselves to ‘nice’ conflicts that can be resolved by beckoning people to ‘come and reason together,’ in a spirit of peace and good will. Wish but that it were so easy. Great art is often about difficult and disturbing conflict and great mediation is about being in the middle of it. Both the artist and conflict mediator must be able to view and be aware of their subject matter on multiple levels; both rely on the capacity to sense nuance, subtlety and ambiguity, and both must develop an intuitive sensibility and speak in an authentic voice. A negotiator, mediator or conflict manager of any kind, can learn much from an artist’s vision of conflict. Their visceral responses to conflict, uninterrupted by analysis and visually displayed, provides a rich terrain in which conflict mediators’ can gain insight and learn to think from a lateral perspective. The richest opportunities for the most creative options for problem solving, very often lay in the least expected places.

Selected bibliography and resources

Adler, Peter, “Protean Negotiation: Rejecting Orthodoxy and Shifting Shapes”, in The Negotiator’s Field Book, eds. Honeyman, C. and Schneider, A., ABA, 2006

Arnason, H. H., History of Modern Art, Third Ed., New York: Prentice Hall, Inc. and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986

Arbus, Diane, Untitled, New York: Aperture, 1972

Benjamin, R. D., “Working Dogs and Conflict Mediators: Character Traits in Common; Systematic Intuition, Tenacity, and Unbridled Optimism”,, 2006

_________, “Gut Instinct: A Mediator Prepares” in The Guerrilla Negotiator,, 2000

_________, “Mediation as Theatre and Negotiation as Performance Art,” in The Guerrilla Negotiator,, 2001

_________, “The Art of Jackson Pollack and the Artistry of John Haynes,”, 2003 _________, “The Problem with Peace: The Art of William Kentridge”,A, 2000

_________, “The Strategic Use of Art in Problem Solving”, in The Creative Problem Solvers’ Handbook for Negotiators and Mediators, ed. Cooley, J. W., ABA Section on Dispute Resolution, 2005

__________, “Managing the Natural Energy of Conflict: Tricksters, Mediators and the Constructive Uses of Deception,” in Bringing Peace Into the Room, eds. Bowling, D. and Hoffman, D., San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003

__________, “Strategies for Managing Impasse,” in Divorce and Family Mediation: Models, Techniques and Applications, Folberg, J., Milne, A. and Salem, P., eds., New York: Guillford Press, 2005

Benezra, N. and Viso, O. M., Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late Twentieth Century, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1999

Bird, Jon, Leon Golub: Echoes of the Real, London: Reaktion Books, Ltd., 2000

Cooley, John W., “Music, Mediation, and Superstrings: The Quest for Universal Harmony,” Journal of Dispute Resolution, Vol. 2005, (227-288), 2005

De Bono, Edward, Lateral Thinking, New York: Harper and Row Books, 1970

Damasio, Antonio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1994

Deer, Patricia, “Somatic Practice for Transforming Conflict”, unpublished doctoral dissertation, 1999

Dowd, Maureen, “Powell Without Picasso”, The New York Times, February 5, 2003

Janson, H. W., History of Art, Third Ed., New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1986

Kienholz, E. and Reddin, N., Kienholz: A Retrospective, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Distributed Art Publishers, 1996

Lubow, A., “Arbus Reconsidered,” New York Times Magazine, September 14, 2003

Malcolm, Janet., “Aristocrats: Untitled, Diane Arbus” New York Review of Books, February 1, 1996

Melamed, Jim., unpublished comment, December, 2006

Miles, C. and Roth, M., Dinh Q. Le: from Vietnam to Hollywood, Seattle: Marquand Books, 2003

Riskin, L. L., “Mindfulness in the Law and ADR” Harvard Negot. L. Rev., vol 1, p 66, 2002

Rosen, R. and Brawer, C. C., curators, Making Their Mark: Women Artists Move into the Mainstream, 1970-1985, New York: Abbeville Press, 1989

Schama, Simon, The Power of Art, New York: Ecco Press, 2006

Schjeldahl, Peter,“The Thin Man: Giacometti’s Wasted Heros”, The New Yorker, October 29, 2001

Schon, Donald, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, New York: Basic Books, 1983

_________, Educating the Reflective Practitioner, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988

Schneider, A. ed., Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, New York: Prestel-Verlag, 1994

Simic, Charles., “The Devil is a Poet,” Tin House Magazine, Portland, Oregon, vol 1, no 3, 2000

Sontag, Susan., Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003

Spolin, Viola, Improvisation for the Theatre, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1963

Stanislavski, Constantin, An Actor Prepares, New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1936

Storr, Robert, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, New York: Museum of Modern Art/ Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2002

__________, Gerhard Richter: October 18, 1977, New York: The Museum of Modern Art/ Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1988

Tufte, Edward, Envisioning Information, Cheshire, Conn.:Graphics Press, 1990

selected artists and images…

1. Titian -The Flaying of Marsyas, 1575

2. Artemisia Gentileschi -Judith Decapitating Holofrenes, 1613

3. Caravaggio -Judith Beheading Holofrenes, 1598

4. Hieronymus Bosch -Garden of Delights, 1505-10

5. Francisco Goya -Saturn Devouring One of His Sons, 1820-22 -Por Que? (Disasters of War), 1863 -And Still They Don’t Go Away (Los Caprichos), 1797

6. Pablo Picasso -Guernica, 1937

7. Alberto Giacometti -Man Staggering, 1950 -Woman With Her Throat Cut, 1932

8. Francis Bacon -Figure With Meat, 1954

9. Diane Arbus -A Jewish Giant, 1970 -Untitled, 1970

10. Louise Bourgeois -Fears, 1992

11. William Kentridge -Caged Man, 2002 -Ubu Tells the Truth, 1996-97

12. Edward Kienholz -The State Hospital, 1966 Nancy Kienholz -Back Seat Dodge ’38, 1964 -The Future as an Afterthought, 1962

13. Cindy Sherman -Untitled #96, 1981

14. Joan Miro -Painting, 1933

15. Salvador Dali -The Persistence of Memory, 1931

16. Jennie Holzer -“Protect Me From What I Want” neon from “The Survival Series”, 1986

17. Dinh Q Le -Born on the Fourth of July, 2002 -Russian Roulette, 2002 -Waking Dreams, 2003 (courtesy of Elizabeth Leach Gallery)

18. Gerhard Richter -Uncle Rudy, 1965 -Man Shot Down 2, 1988

19. Leon Golub -Groping, 2003 -The Head of the King, 2003 -Interrogation III, 1981 -Interrogation IV, 1986

20. Norbert Bisky -Between Us, 2002 (courtesy of Elizabeth Leach Gallery)

21. Robert Lyons -The Witness Stand, 1999 (courtesy of Elizabeth Leach Gallery)

22. Bruce Naumann -The Partial Truth, 1997

23. Jackson Pollock -Convergence, 1952

This article incorporates the work of a series of presentations on “The Beauty of Conflict” and “The Strategic Use of Art in Problem Solving,” given since 2003.

The author gratefully acknowledges the contribution of Sue Lynn Thomas, of Managed Artwork, who has been a co-presenter and helped in the editing of this article.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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