Art and Entrepreneurial Vision

Three things I learnt from Wu Guanzhong about life and art

1. Get Understanding

To cut across anything takes vision and boldness but it also requires understanding and a deep respect for what we are transcending.

 Wu always appreciated the tension between different elements. This is evident in his approach to life and work. In a sense, it is not a surprise that he donated a significant portion of his life’s work to Singapore. He saw in Singapore a nation straddled between the East and West, a melting pot of diverse cultures, Asian and Western, traditional and contemporary, the individual and community, just to name a few.

He said of Singapore, “…positioned between the east and the west with regards to ethics and quality of life; it is close to China, as it is close to the west; the virtues of both sides are concentrated in you.” What an amazing observation.

Understanding Builds Bridges

Wu could preserve the soul of Chinese ink painting even while he introduced the medium of oil and splashed colours to an ancient art form. As an artist, Wu was always respectful of the genre of art he had been trained in. Chinese calligraphy and ink painting have been the visual art forms that had captured for over two millennia, the poetic essence of the Chinese soul, its cultural history and thinking.

“Wu's paintings have the color sense and formal principles of Western paintings, but a spirit and tonal variations of ink that are typically Chinese. Natural scenery is reduced to its essentials - simple but powerful abstract forms.” [2]

It takes someone who truly understands the nature of Chinese art and culture to be able to take such bold steps creatively, to bring seemingly contradictory principles into its art form without compromising or destroying it.

Understanding means being able to grasp the core of an issue and to see the essence of a thing. It allows us to make those intuitive decisions that cut a way through to new seeing. Can we be both liberal and yet respectful of traditions? To be totally open to life and its expressions and yet be conservative? Only understanding can build bridges to a better whatever that we are seeking for. This principle applies to everything.

2. Synthesise Differences

With regards to his work, his piece on Synthesis of Oil and Ink Practices, Wu said:

“[…] Oil and ink painting are like the two blades of a pair of scissors cutting out a new outfit. The two blades may not necessarily be of the same length, and the ways of using the scissors, exerting different strengths, for example, may also differ from time to time. Hence, when I feel that I have come to a deadlock in oil painting, I will choose to paint in ink. However, I will revert to oil when I feel that my dabbling in ink has come to a deadlock.”

Art is a medium that expresses the spiritual through movement of lines and colours. Different mediums are necessary to express different things, however, even then, there are limitations to each art form.

Limitations Become Strengths in Proper Context

I learnt that it in understanding the strengths and limitations of different elements that gives one the ability to synthesize them into a creative force. Wu’s analogy that different elements could be brought together to produce new realities applies only in art but also in our work and relationships.

Wu’s insight is that new realities can be forged into existence when different elements, though limited in themselves, come together in an interplay of different strengths working to create an effect that each by itself, would have been incapable of achieving.

As an artist, Wu crossed over oil and ink painting to make connections that would have been daunting for most, and he did this in bold strokes, which reflects strength of vision and faith.

3. Innovation is an Art

Every functioning team is an innovation that is the outcome of a creative process. It is a body of different parts moving in tandem, like blades of a pair of scissors.

In the realm of ideas and work, no two persons think alike in form, style and structure but when they are able to work together, like two blades of a pair of scissors, they have a power to cut through old thinking and realities. Each role, when it comes to a deadlock, finds a breakthrough through the thinking or actions of another person.

The beauty of this is that the “blades” need not be of the same length nor strength, as long as they are part of a group with a common set of values and beliefs, working towards a common objective. There is power to create powerful new realities, that a person by himself, may never be able to achieve.



One of China’s most respected artists, Wu Guanzhong 吳冠中 (1919-2010), represents five decades of creative oeuvre that has significantly influenced the development of Chinese modern painting, not just through his works but notably through his conception of art. He once said, “After people master the skills, contemplation would replace skills.” His art process was not the process of obtaining a certain art skill or “craftsmanship”, but the process of ceaseless thinking.[1]

In his final years, he donated over a hundred of his precious paintings to Singapore Art Museum (SAM), one of the highest valued donations of its kind presented to a public museum in Singapore. He was devoted to the development of culture, arts and education throughout his life.

My first introduction to Wu Guanzhong’s work was at the exhibition, An Unbroken Line: The Wu Guanzhong Donation Collection (April 9-August 16, 2009) by SAM. I had expected to see traditional Chinese ink landscape paintings from a Master but was instead struck by colours that splashed across traditions. I was simply amazed. Who is this man? I learnt so much at the exhibition and am thankful not only for the vision and beauty of his work but also for his writings on life, art and creativity that accompanied them.


Creativity is Not Linear

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Sawyer Bengtson | Unsplash


“Most business leaders are averse to chaos, are overly linear, and are disconnected from global ripples not directly related to the world of business.”

~ Idris Mootee, Design Thinking for Strategic Innovations

The preference for linearity means people naturally shun anything that seems like chaos or anything that they can’t make sense of, and prefer situations they feel they are in control of, even though it may be a temporal and illusory comfort. Yet more than ever, business leaders need a new and dynamic way of thinking if their business is to survive.

This linearity in thought has a historical link. The Western world is essentially Hellenic in its thought structure, a legacy of Greek logic.

Design thinking, however, is about the ability to see and make meaningful connections of all the different dots in a very complex and fast moving world. This ability to make meaningful connections between different things is a powerful part of innovativeness. Some call this combinatorial creativity.

Linearity or Block Logic?

Design thinking may have been around longer than we realise. In fact, it may be something that the Jews have intellectually practiced for centuries.

Studies have shown that embedded in Jewish culture is a deep reverence for learning and encouragement of explorative thinking. This ability to connect different things together, which to others may have seemed random, has been called block logic by Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith.

“Hebrews often made use of block logic. That is, concepts were expressed in self-contained units or blocks of thought. These blocks did not necessarily fit together in any obviously rational or harmonious pattern…This way of thinking created a propensity for paradox, antinomy, or apparent contradiction, as one block stood in tension — often illogical relation — to the other. Hence, polarity of thought or dialectic often characterized block logic.” (Wilson, pp.150–153)

Compare this to Greek logic.

The Greeks often used a tightly contained step logic whereby one would argue from premises to a conclusion, each step linked tightly to the next in coherent, rational, logical fashion. The conclusion, however, was usually limited to one point of view — the human being’s perception of reality.” (Wilson, p. 150).

Block logic allowed the Hebrews to possess the unusual equanimity to accept paradoxes and seeming chaos—a powerful component in creative thinking.

In the Hebraic way of thinking, a concept belongs to a complex of interactive ideas with a focus on the sum of the whole, content to leave questions unanswered and inconsistencies unresolved. This explains in part the disproportionate number of notable Jewish thinkers, creators and innovators compared to other groups of people. They have been pioneers in every field of endeavor, from science, technology to Hollywood.

This ability to embrace seeming chaos is because at the root of the Hebrew mind is one filled with wonder at the mystery of God. This wrought an intellectual humility in the Hebrew mind as “inconsistencies and contradictions are related to human, finite understanding of the infinite God.”

We Need a New Way

Intellectual humility recognises God’s purpose and intent, and how He has designed things to be. The biblical authors never argue the existence of God; they only assume it. God is not understood philosophically, but functionally. He acts. The word of God was not only nor even primarily an expression of thought; it was a mighty and dynamic force (Boman, p. 58).

Ancient Israel was birthed, as a nation, to bear a heavenly mandate that drew from the covenant that God made with their Father Abraham (Genesis 18:19). Embedded deep in the cultural psyche of the nation is a mission to “bless all the families of the earth,” to be a driver of transformation. The Torah was not only the basis for their constitution, the nation’s DNA, but it was also the day-to-day operational system that shaped their economics, politics and culture.

We need a new way, one that’s smart, human, cultural, social, and agile and that puts innovation at the core of every move it makes. That way could be design thinking.” ~Idris Mootee

It is in this sense that the Jews have shown us what innovation is, operated at a nation level. In their passion to investigate all areas of life, guided by the command to do justice and righteousness, to connect the dots even between the divine and human, they have shown us a way of thinking that puts innovation at the core of everything they do. It’s fascinating therefore to realise that design thinking may have been around a lot longer than we thought.

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Thorlief Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, London, SCM Press Ltd., 1960 Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, Eerdmans; 1990 N’Tan Lawrence, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (Western)Thought (Article)

Genesis 12:2,3, 18:19, Exodus 4:20, Acts 3:26, Luke 1:17, Leviticus 19:33–37