Wicked Snippet

The 2016 Hieronymus Bosch exhibition

Wicked Snipping is a simple, preliminary way to record and communicate a first impression of the systemic essence of a wicked problem very quickly indeed. It demands very little prior (systems) knowledge of the person making such Wicked Snippets or of their audience. This post illustrates the use of Wicked Snipping by looking at the problem of bringing the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch back to his home town – Den Bosch – for the first time in 500 years.

Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) …    is a Dutch medieval painter who is best known for his macabre and nightmarish depictions of hell. He is the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s most famous son and the 500th anniversary of his death will be commemorated with a blockbuster exhibition in the town´s museum from 13 February to 8 May 2016. The 25 works that can be attributed to this old master are major treasures of famous musea around the world (Spain, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Portugal, Netherlands, Germany, France and the United States of America) and have never been on display in one location, let alone in his home town. This provides a unique opportunity to unravel certain mysteries that have plagued art historians for decades.

Documentary       Some of the mysteries and the problems surrounding their unravelling have been the subject of a (Dutch language, sorry 😉 documentary by Pieter van Huijstee, which shows the precarious collaboration of the Dutch scientific team of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project with the curators of the Prado in Madrid, where the largest collection of ‘El Bosco’ is guarded jealously. Their collection includes the ‘Mona Lisa of Spain’: a triptych altarpiece by Hieronymus Bosch known as The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Exhibition and research issues       I saw the documentary on Dutch television last Monday evening, 8 February, 2016, and it became clear to me that ‘complex’ issues were involved in both the exhibition, its preparation and the research. Bob Williams and I had just finished working on the second edition of our book ‘Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems’, which uses three basic systems concepts, inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries, to explain how you can design a systemic inquiry and intervention in messy, wicked situations. Doing a full-blown systemic intervention design and inquiry is quite a bit of work. What I wanted is a quick and easy way to record some of the facts and issues of a problematic situation, bringing in some of the inter-relationships and perspectives, but not going into the boundary stuff very much.

Wicked Snippets …       is a completely new idea (and maybe not very good), but it uses some of the book’s fundamental ideas to quickly jot down the essence of a wicked problem. The first step was to cut a dozen 38 x 51 mm Post-It Notes into four mini Post-Its and write concepts on them with 0.7 mm pencil and stick them on a scrap piece of A4 paper. The next step is to check these concepts for perspectives that could represent interesting or contrasting points of view and mark them with a P (of perspective). Some of the other concepts could be marked D (if there are elements of deception hidden in the concept), S (if the concept can be linked to important stakes of key actors) or W (if the concept could be unfolded to become a complex or wicked problem itself). I did all this in about 15 minutes time three days after I had seen the documentary.

Wicked Snippet - Post-Its - Hieronymus Bosch

Transfer to CMap Tools        Since my handwriting is barely readable (and in Dutch!) I transferred it to a Cmap Tools (no linkages, inter-relationships suggested by nearness). wicked snippets - Hieronymus BoschConcepts with a P (perspective), D (deception), S (stake) or W (wicked problem) are given a darker colour. From this point on you can do various things, e.g.  turn the whole thing into a full-blown concept map by combining concepts into propositions. You may also export the text of the concepts. Such a text file could be used to make explanatory notes to your Wicked Snippet map. Here is such an alphabetized list: apprentices, collection, D-false signatures, D-imitators, dendrochronology, drawings, Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), Garden of Earthly Delights, heaven/paradise, hell, Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), inimitability, inspiration, mistrust, mystery, oeuvre, P-attribution, P-museums, P-publicity, paintings, Philip II of Spain (1527-1598), Prado, predecessors, religion, S-genius, S-research, unicity, W-acquisition, W-art/design, W-authenticity, W-inter- pretation, W-reluctance, workshop, x-rays.

Some explanatory notes         Philip II was a very catholic monarch who waged war (Spain was a superpower) against The Netherlands (the first part of the Eighty Years’ War) that had turned mostly protestant over the course of the 16th century. As a catholic he collected catholic art, such as the work of Bosch, which he kept in his monastic palace, the Escorial, and which became part of the Prado collection later. He probably acquired most of the Bosch paintings during the Spanish occupation of the Southern Netherlands. That´s why the Prado has a relatively large collection of Bosch paintings, including the famous Garden of Earthly Delights. The exact provenance of the Bosch paintings is not always clear. Some of the paintings have been signed as if they were painted by Bosch himself, but it has been shown that the signature is no guarantee that he was involved. Bosch was a successful painter-entrepreneur , so he had a workshop with apprentices, similar to other famous painters in the 16th and 17th century. He also had predecessors and imitators. This makes it difficult to determine the authenticity of the paintings. The Bosch Research and Conservation Project wants to shed some light on the issue of attribution, using all sorts of tools and techniques, from art history, to x-rays and dendrochronology. The well-known problem of ‘fake’ art is looming large here. The Prado museum says it thinks such research is fine, as long as it is done by Prado researchers (These notes are just an example of how you could explain a wicked snippet such as the one above. I stop here, although it is tempting to directly discuss political, ethical and practical aspects and prospects, but it is much, much better to do so after a serious boundary critique as in Wicked Solutions).

Possible utility of Wicked Snippets      The great thing about Wicked Snippets is that they are quick and simple to make. If one comes across a wicked problem it is easy to preserve and communicate part of its systemic essence very quickly indeed, be it in a very preliminary way. All it needs is that readers understand the importance of perspectives and the associated notions of stakes, deception and wicked problems. As a preliminary sketch it could be used in deciding to proceed with a full-blown systemic inquiry and design. I will definitely use it more often. It may not be science (which is mostly analytic, rather than systemic), but it is quick, useful, and fun. Whatever its shortcomings, it definitely looks at problems as a whole and without built-in prejudice.


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