‘The Child Must Banish the Father’: Mark Rothko and Intergenerational Strife

 Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958

‘Movement is everything. Movement is life. The second we’re born we squall, we writhe, we squirm. To live is to move.’

There’s a splendid production of the 2009 play ‘Red’ by John Logan running at the Wyndham Theatre in London (until 28 July).

It is 1958-59. Mark Rothko has been commissioned to paint a series of murals for the glamorous Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. In his paint-splattered Bowery studio he creates his work surrounded by whisky bottles, canvases, turpentine and brushes; in low light; to the sounds of Schubert and Mozart.

Rothko strives to convey raw truth, real feeling and pure thought - in maroon, dark red and black. His luminous paintings pulse with introspection, intensity and intellectual energy. He approaches his craft with high seriousness.

‘People like me… My contemporaries, my colleagues…Those painters who came up with me. We all had one thing in common…We understood the importance of seriousness.’

Rothko explains to his young assistant that he and his fellow Abstract Expressionists achieved their dominance of the post-war art scene by sweeping aside the previous generation.

‘We destroyed Cubism, de Kooning and me and Pollock and Barnett Newman and all the others. We stomped it to death. Nobody can paint a cubist picture now…The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him.’

Rothko’s assistant, however, is a fan of the emergent Pop Art movement; of artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. He challenges Rothko’s worldview.

‘Not everything needs to be so goddamn important all the time. Not every painting needs to rip your guts out and expose your soul. Not everyone wants art that actually hurts. Sometimes you just want a fucking still life or soup can or comic book!’

Rothko is unimpressed.

‘You know the problem with those painters? It’s exactly what you said: they are painting for this moment, right now. And that’s all. It’s nothing but zeitgeist art. Completely temporal, completely disposable, like Kleenex.’

Rothko’s frustration with Pop Art extends to the culture that has created and celebrated it. He rages against the triviality of modern life.

‘‘Pretty.’ ’Beautiful.’ ’Nice.’ ’Fine.’ That’s our life now! Everything’s ‘fine’. We put on the funny nose and glasses and slip on the banana peel and the TV makes everything happy and everyone’s laughing all the time, it’s all so goddamn funny. It’s our constitutional right to be amused all the time, isn’t it? We’re a smirking nation living under the tyranny of ‘fine’. How are you? Fine. How was your day? Fine. How did you like the painting? Fine. Want some dinner? Fine…Well, let me tell you, everything is not fine!...How are you?...How was your day? How are you feeling? Conflicted. Nuanced. Troubled. Diseased. Doomed. I am not fine. We are not fine.’

The argument gets personal. Rothko’s assistant points out that the artist’s seriousness and self-importance don’t sit well with his latest commission.

‘The High Priest of Modern Art is painting a wall in the Temple of Consumption.’

For me these bitter exchanges resonate with the intergenerational strife that we often encounter today in work and broader society. Each age cohort seems eager to celebrate its own triumphs, but reluctant to recognize the virtues of the cohort beneath them.

My own generation, born in the ‘60s, rejoices in punk’s destruction of ‘70s lethargy and hippy self-indulgence. We lionize our mix-tapes, style tribes, GTIs and political engagement. We rejoice in our hedonistic teens and our industrious twenties.

Yet, we moan about Millennials and make sarcastic remarks about Snowflakes. We complain about young people’s technology addiction and attention deficit disorders; their narcissism, impatience and indifference; the artisanal gins and avocado on toast; no-platforming and eating on public transport.

The younger generation can quite rightly retort with ‘80s materialism, sexism and sartorial blunders; the environmental apathy and the plain good fortune of the property market. They can coin their own labels: Centrist Dads and Gammons and so forth.

This intergenerational squabbling gets us nowhere. It betrays an inability to see life through anything other than the prism of our own experience.

Surely each generation is equal but different. One generation dances with their feet; the other dances with their hands. One wears white socks at the gym; the other wears black. One watches TV together; the other watches phones together.

I have been in awe of modern youth’s ability to diminish the gap between thought and action; their entrepreneurial spirit and technical facility; their comfort with diversity and their capacity to keep life and work in balance. They’re just as political, but they care about different issues. They’re just as stylish, but in skinnier jeans.

OK. Their music is not as good…

In the field of commerce the businesses that thrive are those that truly trust and enable the younger generation; that integrate old and new skills; that recognise the imperative of change. Because if a company fails to embrace generational difference, then eventually 'the child will banish the father.’ And the mother too.

Towards the end of ‘Red’ Rothko has a change of heart. After a dispiriting trip to the Four Seasons restaurant, he backs out of the lucrative commission. And he dismisses his assistant with something approaching good grace.

‘Listen, kid, you don’t need to spend any more time with me. You need to find your contemporaries and make your own world, your own life…You need to get out there now, into the thick of it, shake your fist at them, talk their ear off… Make something new.’

No. 183

 

Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox? Considering the Monist and Pluralist Views of How Communication Works

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In his celebrated 1953 essay on Tolstoy, ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox,’ philosopher Isaiah Berlin quotes a fragment attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus:

‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’

This line has sometimes been taken to suggest that hedgehogs are superior to foxes, because their singular defensive skill trumps the many and various wiles of the fox. Foxes can run and dart and hide and pounce. A hedgehog just rolls itself up into a very effective spikey ball. Archilochus may, of course, be pointing out the distinction in skills without attributing superior worth. In any case, Berlin employs the analogy of the Hedgehog and the Fox to illuminate two fundamentally different types of thinking:

‘There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.’

 Berlin establishes two camps.

The Hedgehogs are monists, ever in search of overarching laws, panoramic principles, universal theories. Their enthusiasms and enquiries converge, centripetally, on singular visions. To their team he assigns the likes of Plato, Dante, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen.

The Foxes, by contrast, are pluralists. They enjoy exploring the infinite multiplicity of life. Their interests and opinions spin off, centrifugally, in all sorts of different, sometimes conflicting, directions. To them Berlin assigns Herodotus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Pushkin, Joyce and others.

Since the publication of Berlin’s essay, writers have enjoyed categorising novelists, philosophers, economists, musicians, and anyone else you’d care to mention, into singular Hedgehogs and pluralist Foxes.

In the field of business critics have observed that Hedgehog leaders value focus, best practice, order and specialism. By contrast Fox leaders cherish diverse skillsets, complexity, adaptability and speed. Some infer that it’s the Foxes that thrive in the new economy.

When in 2014 the statistician Nate Silver launched his data journalism organization, FiveThirtyEight, he incorporated a fox in the company logo. In a manifesto he explained: 

‘We take a pluralistic approach and we hope to contribute to your understanding of the news in a variety of ways.’

Categorising Hedgehogs and Foxes has become something of an academic parlour game. But the ubiquity of the analogy doesn’t undermine its interest. Inevitably one has to ask: in the field of communications, who are the Hedgehogs and who are the Foxes?

When I came into the advertising profession in the late 1980s I was inducted, by experience and case studies, into a singular model of effectiveness that combined rational and emotional persuasion. Advertising was a sugar-coated pill, an exercise in earned attention, focused messaging and subtle seduction. Our benchmarks were VW and Levi’s, Carling and Courage Best. I guess in those days, in Berlin’s terms, I was a Hedgehog. I believed that all roads led to the same model of persuasion.

But as my career progressed I kept encountering admirable campaigns that didn’t quite fit this model. Radion advertising was brutal and crude, but it clearly precipitated action. Gap commercials lacked a proposition, but their effortless style carried the day. Chanel’s Egoiste was empty, but effective. Cadbury’s Gorilla made little logical sense, but it didn’t seem to matter.

With every passing year and every new exception, my Hedgehog mentality was chipped away. I reflected fondly on the directness of the jingles, slogans and anthropomorphism with which I’d grown up. With the dawn of the social age, I admired the infinite variety of memes, the viral impact of stunts, the authentic transparency of verite, the smart psychology of nudges. Gradually I became an open-minded pluralist; a student of many schools of communication effectiveness. I became a Fox.

In his excellent book, ‘The Anatomy of Humbug’, Paul Feldwick reviews the numerous theories of how advertising works. He explores the various traditions of rational persuasion and unconscious communication, ‘salesmanship’ and ‘seduction’ as he terms them. He also considers the effectiveness of salience and fame, social connection and relationships, PR and showmanship. He concludes that all these approaches have genuine merit:

‘These are not to be understood as rival or mutually exclusive theories – they are all intended as different ways of thinking about the same thing, all of which may have their uses, and each of which alone has its limitations.’

Every generation brings a new theory of how communication works. Every cohort creates new tools and techniques, methods and models. Most of these have some value in illuminating their particular field and broadening our understanding of the art of persuasion. But I have remained sceptical of anyone that preaches a singular gospel; a definitive model; a theory of everything. It’s Fool’s Gold.

And I don’t listen to Hedgehogs any more.

 

No. 182 

Calculated Creativity: You Need Left-Brain as Well as Right-Brain Thinking to Make Commercial Communication

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‘The music industry isn’t about healing pain and heartbreak and vulnerability. It’s about selling it.’

I recently saw ‘Mood Music’, an entertaining and thoughtful new play by Joe Penhall (at the Old Vic until 16 June). The piece revolves around a dispute between Bernard, a middle-aged music producer, and Cat, a young singer-songwriter. They have collaborated over a successful album, but their relationship unravels as Bernard claims sole authorship of its hit song.

‘Making other people feel better doesn’t really make me feel better.’

Our sympathies are with Cat. She is inexperienced, vulnerable and idealistic. We want to believe her romantic characterisation of the creative process.

‘When we’re making great music and it’s working, I’m free. Everything has clarity. Energy. Like a surge of life force. Something that’s uniquely mine pours out and connects. I can perform magical tricks. I can fly.’

Bernard, by contrast, is cynical, manipulative and misanthropic. He finds it hard to recognise the talent of others.

‘You see, singers tend to live in a world of their own. They have to completely empty their minds in order to sing, and then they just stay that way.’

‘The thing you need to understand about bass players is they’re not musical.’

‘Drummers can’t feel pain. They’re like fish.’

Bernard is undoubtedly the villain of the piece. And yet sometimes, in the midst of the bullying, bitterness and bile, his pronouncements about the craft of songwriting ring true.

‘A good song doesn’t have a ‘heart.’ It has a void. It’s a ‘black hole’. It sucks you inside it, and you fill it with yourself until there’s no escape.’

Bernard believes that creating music is not about freedom, passion and self-expression. For him it’s all a matter of detachment, compromise and control.

‘The key to emotion is nuance, and the key to nuance is precision. You have to be very mechanical to make it emotional. It’s a real dichotomy.’

Bernard goes on to muse on the character traits of successful creative people.

‘Well, you see, music is traditionally all about expressing yourself, and musicians are generally against repressing their feelings. But I think some people should be a bit more repressed.’ 

These themes may resonate for us in the commercial communication sector, where creativity is put to work; applied to a task; managed and manipulated to achieve a particular goal. We deal in calculated creativity.

Many veteran creatives have, like Bernard, a disarming air of cynicism about them. They wear their disappointments and past defeats as badges of pride. But often they also have the experience and expertise to adjust and adapt ideas; to revise and refine them so as to realise their full potential.

As an industry we spend a good deal of time paying our respects to the right-brain aspects of our work: to the anarchic free spirit; the magical spark of invention; the unfettered imagination. But the commercial creative requires logic, analysis and objectivity as much as intuition, thoughtfulness and subjectivity. Maybe we should spend more time celebrating the left-brain: the calculation and control that translate a raw idea into a compelling and effective piece of communication; the precise knowhow that guides concepts through the development process to execution; the craft of creativity.

Perhaps if we lauded calculated creativity more than maverick invention - if we gave due attention to craft skills, and taught them properly in our schools – we’d be better appreciated by our Clients, and better understood in the wider fields of commerce. And we’d be less inclined to indulge the unruly behaviour and wearying extravagance of the conventional creative stereotype.

In the course of ‘Mood Music’ both Bernard and Cat take to counselling to address their frustrations. Cat’s psychotherapist observes:

‘I’m just saying you find a lot of damaged people – sociopaths and psychopaths, for example – are drawn to the music industry because lack of empathy, raging narcissism and grandiose eccentricity is expected of them. It’s normal.’

It doesn’t have to be.

No. 182

An Embarrassing Incident on the Norfolk Broads: ‘Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst’

 Edward Seago, Summer on the Norfolk Broads

Edward Seago, Summer on the Norfolk Broads

Many, many summers ago Dad took us all on holiday to the Norfolk Broads. Mum, five kids, Aunty Mary, her friend Frances, and a springer spaniel all squeezed onto a great metal tub of a boat that he had selected from the Hoseasons brochure.

We plotted courses on maps, fished for eels, ran along the top deck with the dog, and periodically helped moor the boat at the quayside. Dad stood on the bridge in a captain’s cap, smoking Embassy, relishing the peace and solitude.

One evening Dad took Martin and me to the pub before dinner. We got talking to a middle-aged couple who were clearly rather nautical, but new to the Broads. Though he didn’t confess it to our new acquaintances, Dad was far from an expert mariner. This was his first serious outing on the water, and we’d already had an incident when the boat got stuck under a low hanging bridge. Dad was however a confident conversationalist, and he enjoyed giving advice on the places to stop at Wroxham and Beccles, the best way to tackle the currents at Yarmouth, and so forth. The middle-aged couple nodded appreciatively.

The next morning we set off quite early. It was all hands on deck as Dad barked instructions from the helm. Unfortunately, in the excitement, he confused his forward and reverse gears and drove the big metal tub straight into a small, smart boat that was moored nearby. To our shock and dismay, out popped the irate heads of the middle-aged couple from the night before.

‘It’s him!’ they cried.

I’m not sure my father was a student of the nineteenth century British statesman, Benjamin Disraeli. He might have been familiar with his aphorism:

‘I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.’ 

Dad, by contrast, always hoped for the best, but was rarely prepared for the worst.

‘Jim, would you mind joining us for this Client meeting? We’re just kicking off the planning for next year. It’s all very loose and casual. Just a few flip charts and outline conversation. No need to prepare anything.’

I’d just been invited to a car crash.

You see, the Client had completely different expectations of the meeting. She was anticipating considered strategy and competitive reviews; rigorous analysis and robust hypotheses. It didn’t help that the session had been convened in a space that sought to recreate an average family’s front room - all comfy Ikea sofas, colourful rugs and wide screen.

She was justifiably incandescent. We narrowly escaped being fired on the spot.

Ours is a business that thrives on confidence and optimism. But these very positive attributes can quite easily slip into complacency and arrogance. We lose our discipline; take our eyes off the ball; forget the basics.

In Ancient Greek tragedies ‘hubris’ or overconfidence was always followed by ‘nemesis,’ retribution. Pride comes before a fall.

At the height of BBH’s success Nigel Bogle was wont to warn that we were ‘three phone calls away from disaster.’ He meant that, however well things were going, if our three most important Clients dismissed us, the business would be in dire straits.

Sometimes we need a little paranoia and pessimism to sustain us through the good times. As I wish my Dad had maintained, we should hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

No. 181