Caravaggio’s Flashbulb Memories: Have We Forgotten How to Create Intense, Enduring Impressions?

The Taking of Christ

I recently attended an exhibition, at The National Gallery in London, of works by Caravaggio and the artists that followed immediately after him. (Beyond Caravaggio runs until 15 January.)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in Milan around 1571. He moved to Rome when he was about 20 and it was here that he made his name. Caravaggio painted heavenly themes with low-life models; he told spiritual stories with earthy naturalism. We are drawn to the moral ambiguity, the proximity of the sacred and the profane. His characters are pensive, uncertain, intensely human. We see the brooding adolescent in the wilderness, the saint coming to terms with his calling, the artist complicit in the crime. Sometimes the subjects reach out and beckon us in. We are present, engaged, involved.

Caravaggio’s paintings also seem to be in suspended animation. He arrests time at the precise moment when the boy is bitten by a lizard; when the cardsharp considers his hand; when the deceiver realises her guilt. We witness the painful fall, the sudden recognition, the treacherous kiss.

These vivid effects are achieved in large part by lighting. The actors in Caravaggio’s dramas loom out at us from the darkness. They are spot-lit from above. It’s as if critical events have been illuminated by a flashbulb. Freeze-framed, they fix themselves in our consciousness.

“He invented a black world that had not existed before, certainly not in Florence or Rome. Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting.”
David Hockney

In 1977 the psychologists Brown and Kulik posited the theory of Flashbulb Memory: that at certain moments of surprise or significance the brain captures vivid, detailed memories; and that these memories are more enduring, more consistent and more easily recalled than our usual, everyday recollections. We are prompted to record Flashbulb Memories at highly emotional or traumatic events. Like witnessing the death of JFK or participating in a car crash. Some have suggested that at these moments of crisis the brain records every last possible piece of stimulus because the smallest detail may be essential to survival.

You might imagine that in the world of marketing and communication, where we are engaged in the business of creating vivid and enduring recollections, we would be students of this kind of suspended animation, proponents of Flashbulb Memories. But our brand experiences are seldom heightened, our brand expressions rarely intense.

In the Content Era we seem more concerned with quantity than quality of engagement; more interested in frequency than depth of impression. Our brands are chatty, conversational, casual. We suffer from verbal prolixity and conceptual poverty. Our communication is always on, but our selectivity is often off. Why concentrate on a single moment when a hundred will do? Why focus on a single image when a thousand will do?

Perhaps we are not aware that in sacrificing selection, we may also be forfeiting intensity, and potentially therefore memorability. We do not realise that fewer, more precise, more emotionally acute images, can create deeper, more enduring, more personally meaningful recollections. Editing, selection and curation should be primary skills in the modern brand’s armory. But they seem woefully undervalued.

Saint John The Baptist in the Wilderness

‘Made some bad choices, then worse choices, then ran out of choices.’
Anna Nicole

Poor Caravaggio. His character was quarrelsome and cantankerous; his life was violent and turbulent. He drank too much, brawled too often and thought too little. He was a prototype of the impetuous artist, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’

In 1606 he killed a man after an argument over a tennis match and he had to flee Rome. He settled briefly in Naples, then Malta and Sicily, and then Naples again, all the time communicating with Rome in the quest for a pardon. When he painted Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, he put his own head on the platter. It was a plea for forgiveness. Or a portent of death.

In 1610 Caravaggio set out for Rome in anticipation of his long sought pardon. But he died on the journey, possibly from a fever. Some say he was, in fact, murdered by one of his many enemies; or poisoned from the lead that was commonly used in the paint of the time. Death by art, perhaps.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio had a luminous talent and his life was intensely lived. And perhaps that’s one reason why his fame has spread so wide and his reputation will endure so long. Caravaggio’s was a flashbulb life.

No. 108

 

 

 

Georgia On My Mind: Six Lessons for Creative Professionals from a True American Artist

Oriental Poppies , 1927 - Georgia O'Keeffe

Oriental Poppies, 1927 - Georgia O'Keeffe

‘I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.’ 
Georgia O’Keeffe

Over the summer I attended the fine Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern in London (showing until 30 October).

In her ninety-eight years on the planet O’Keeffe (1897–1986) was a pioneer, an independent voice, a radical artist. She expressed herself through cityscapes and landscapes; through bold curvaceous shapes abstracted from nature; through rippling cliffs, alien skulls and puffy cloud formations. She painted orange poppies, black irises and white jimson weed, intimate and up-close; she painted pink earth, turquoise lakes and indigo mountain ranges, at an admiring distance. She conveyed the soul of America, ancient and modern.

O’Keeffe was born to dairy farming parents under big Wisconsin skies. She was intelligent, self-reliant, determined and dedicated. By the age of 10 she had decided she wanted to become a painter and by the age of 30 she had helped define American Modernism. There’s a good deal that creative professionals in the twenty-first century could learn from this innovative artist of the twentieth.

 

1. Turn Injustice into Incentive

‘Men put me down as the best woman painter…I think I’m one of the best painters.’

It was never easy for O’Keeffe, making her way as a talented and ambitious young woman within a conservative, patriarchal society. Conventions were constraining; opportunities were limited. Aged 20 she moved to New York to study at the Art Students League. An older pupil, Eugene Speicher, set her straight on what she could expect from life:

‘It doesn’t matter what you do. I’m going to be a great painter and you will probably end up teaching painting in some girls’ school.’

Who’s laughing now?

Perhaps experiences like this made O’Keeffe all the more committed to an independent path. Today’s young people working in creative commerce would do well to emulate her talent for turning everyday injustice into enduring incentive.

‘I can't live where I want to, I can't go where I want to go, I can't do what I want to, I can't even say what I want to. I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to.’

 

2. No One Can Teach You How To Be Yourself

Abstraction White Rose , 1927 - Georgia O'Keeffe

Abstraction White Rose, 1927 - Georgia O'Keeffe

Education was clearly a challenge for O’Keeffe. She realised that teaching can only take you so far. You can learn historical context, craft and technique, but you can’t be taught how to be yourself.

‘I thought someone could tell me how to paint a landscape. But I never found that person. I just had to settle down and try...They could tell you how they painted their landscape, but they couldn’t tell me how to paint mine.’

 

3. Make Your Unknown Known

From the outset O’Keeffe spoke with her own voice: a distinctive language of arcs, waves and spirals; of sensuous curves and luminous colours.

‘I found I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn't say any other way... things I had no words for.’

In 1917 the gallerist and photographer Alfred Stieglitz gave O’Keeffe her first solo exhibition at his 291 gallery in New York. But Stieglitz, who later became her partner, was principal among those who imposed Freudian interpretations on her work, regarding it as fundamentally feminine and expressive of erotic feelings. O’Keeffe resented being reduced and categorised in this way. What’s the point in developing a new private language if others translate it back into their own?

‘They were talking about themselves, not about me.’

O’Keeffe realised that the key to a truly differentiated and personal creativity was the unarticulated self. We shouldn’t be afraid to give expression to our internal thoughts and feelings, even though they may not conform to any conventional taste or practice.

‘Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing - and keeping the unknown always beyond you.’

 

4. Linger, Look Closer, Magnify

Stieglitz was an early champion of photography as an art form, and O’Keeffe must have absorbed a great deal from his camera expertise. In her flower paintings, in particular, she seems to have applied the photographer’s capacity to observe close-up, to abstract forms and to experiment with scale.

‘Nobody sees a flower - really - it is so small it takes time - we haven't time - and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time…So I said to myself - I’ll paint what I see - what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.’

5. Select, Eliminate, Emphasise

Some of O’Keeffe’s flower paintings seem flat, crisp and clear, as if she were more interested in the pattern or design she was creating than the actual object itself. She teaches us to go beyond realism, to edit and eliminate the unnecessary. In any creative endeavour we should ask, not just ‘what are we going to put in?’ but also ‘what are we going to take out?’

‘Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination and by emphasis that we get to the real meaning of things.’

New York Street with Moon , 1925 - Georgia O'Keeffe

New York Street with Moon, 1925 - Georgia O'Keeffe

 

6. Don’t Be Happy, Be Interesting

This last lesson is a hard one. O’Keeffe made sacrifices in order to achieve. In her early career she had to take stints as a commercial illustrator and indeed an art teacher. Her relationship with Stieglitz, though intimate and inspiring, was often long distance and occasionally frustrating. Restlessly she moved from Wisconsin to Chicago, from New York to Texas, and on to Upstate New York. Ultimately she only found true contentment in New Mexico, a land of isolated desert ranches, ochre adobe houses and mountain plateaux.

In an age when we are encouraged to value all things according to how happy they make us, O’Keeffe suggests that happiness may be a false idol. We should seek not to be happy, but to be interesting and interested.

‘I think it's so foolish for people to want to be happy. Happy is so momentary - you're happy for an instant and then you start thinking again. Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary, but interest is continuous.’ 

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 , 1932 - Georgia O'Keeffe

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932 - Georgia O'Keeffe

No. 102

 

On The Outside Looking In: Difference Craves Difference; Difference Creates Difference

 

Different Work Requires Different People

In creative businesses we talk a good deal about the value of difference in delivering brand success. We seek to design different brand positionings, different strategies, different executions. We believe difference creates stand-out, preference and loyalty.

But what kind of people invent difference? Where do we find them?

I recently encountered reviews of the life and works of two great American artists, the actor Marlon Brando and the photographer Saul Leiter. Brando and Leiter were born in the early 1920s within a year of each other. One achieved quick and widespread fame; the other earned recognition slowly, and primarily within his own community. But, through the work they did in the ‘40s and ‘50s, they both helped rewrite our understanding of their respective professions.

I found that, though Brando and Leiter shared little in terms of personality and renown, their engagement with difference was similar.

Marlon Brando: The Wild One

‘I’m going to have a special microphone placed in my coffin, so that when I wake up in there, six feet under the ground, I’m going to say: ’Do it differently.’’

Listen to Me Marlon is an excellent 2015 documentary film exploring Marlon Brando’s life and work through his privately recorded audio-tapes. In discussing his early career, there’s a clear sense that Brando from the outset was obsessed with doing things differently, with developing his own unique style.

‘Never let the audience know how it’s going to turn out. Get them on your terms. Hit ‘em. Knock ‘em over with an attitude, with a word, with a look. Be surprising. Figure out a way to do it that has never been done before. You want to stop that movement from the cardboard to the mouth. Get people to stop chewing. The truth will do that. Damn, damn, damn, damn. When it’s right, it’s right. You can feel it in your bones. Then you feel whole. You feel good.’

Although Brando comes across on film as a pillar of strength, a brooding, confident presence, his childhood was far from happy. Both his parents were alcoholics and he had an uneasy relationship with his father. The introverted Brando was sent to a military school in which he felt alone and isolated.

‘I was very shy. Sensitive, very sensitive…. I had a great feeling of inadequacy; that I didn’t know enough; that I didn’t have enough education. I felt dumb.’

Acting saved Brando. And in particular the acting coach Stella Adler saved him.  (Adler was herself a successful actor who, inspired by the Russian theatre director Constantin Stanislavski, founded her own acting studio in New York. Brando was an early pupil.)

‘‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said. ’You have a right to be who you are, where you are and how you are. Everybody’s got a story to tell, something they’re hiding.’’

One can’t help inferring that Brando’s quest for difference was in some way driven by his own sense of marginalisation. Angst ridden, feeling out of the ordinary, he was at the same time fascinated by differences in others.

‘I was always somebody who had an unquenchable curiosity about people. I would walk down the street and look at faces. I used to go into the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street in a cigar store. I would watch people for three seconds as they went by and try to analyse their personalities by just that flick. The face can’t hide many things and people are always hiding things. I was always interested to guess the things that people did not know themselves. What they feel; what they think; why they feel. How is it we behave the way we do?’

What emerges is a picture of an exceptional man whose interior and exterior lives are inextricably linked. Brando’s self-reflection seems to have created his curiosity about others.

‘Unless we look inwards, we will not ever be able to clearly see outwards.’

 

Saul Leiter: The Quiet American

‘It is not where it is or what it is that matters. But how you see it.’

There’s an excellent exhibition of Saul Leiter’s work currently at The Photographers’ Gallery in London (until 3 April). If you’ve seen the splendid film, Carol, you’ll recognise the inspiration for the art direction.

Leiter was certainly different. He was the son of a famous Talmudic scholar and was studying to become a Rabbi when he upped sticks for New York, determined to become a painter. Leiter went on to pioneer colour street photography in an era when colour was not considered a serious medium. And although he was a great admirer of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of the ‘decisive moment,’ Leiter had his own distinct perspective on the role of photography in our lives.

‘Photographs are often treated as important moments, but really they are fragments and souvenirs of an unfinished world.’

So Leiter didn’t go out to capture the events and drama of the street. Rather he was drawn to the insignificant and fleeting; to bold colours and abstract shapes. Indeed he bought out-of-date film stock because it was cheap and he liked the distortions and unpredictability that came with it.

Leiter’s work is all hydrants and hats, fire escapes and steamed windows; a red brolly, a yellow headscarf; workers in the snow, commuters on the train; bold commercial type in modest surroundings; reflections in the rain, shadows in the bright sunlight. It’s a gentle set of impressions. Overseen, overlooked.

Leiter’s style may well have been determined by his personality. He was self-deprecating, understated, unassuming. He was a Quiet American.

‘I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learnt to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.’

Saul Leiter: Taxi, ca. 1957

So again we see a creative person with a distinct perspective on his art born out of a very particular personality. And again we see an obsession with the observation of others.

‘If we look and look we begin to see and are still left with the pleasure of uncertainty.’


Difference Craves Difference; Difference Creates Difference

What can we conclude from these two leading practitioners in the art of difference?

Firstly they were themselves different. They were on the outside looking in. Their marginalisation gave them an enhanced ability to look and learn, to observe others. Outsiders look harder and see more. And because they are different themselves, they are better equipped to create difference.

The best creative businesses embrace outsiders. They welcome the unorthodox and unusual, the idiosyncratic and individual, the different and diverse. They respect the quiet voice, even when they are daily engaged in loud proclamation. The best creative businesses make outsiders feel like insiders.

And yet, as with any organisation, there are powerful forces of inertia at play. Recruiters fish in the same ponds; leaders appoint in their own image; and company life has a centrifugal force that drives conformity and convention. It abhors rough edges and irregular behaviours. Often we cherish originality, but balk at the eccentricities of original people.

I think the creative industry should more actively embrace the belief that different work requires different people. Diversity should not just be a social responsibility. It should be a strategic imperative.

 ‘I’m on the outside looking in
Gotta find a way, gotta find a way back to your heart dear, once again
Won’t you take me back again?
I’ll be waiting here ‘til then
On the outside looking in.’

Little Anthony & The Imperials/On the Outside (Looking In).
(Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein)

 

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 18.36.37.png

An abbreviated version of this piece was published in the Guardian Media and Tech on 16 February 2016

No. 71



NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 13

Truth Amplified: Is Now the Time for Verismo Advertising?


‘Now then you will see men love
As in real life they love, and you will see
True hatred and its bitter fruit. And you will hear
Shouts both of rage, and cynical laughter.’

Tonio, Prologue, Pagliacci

In December I attended a magnificent performance of Ruggero Leoncavello’s Pagliacci at the Royal Opera House.

Pagliacci was first performed in 1892 and it is regarded as one of the definitive verismo operas. The term ‘verismo’ derives from the Italian word ‘vero,’ meaning ‘true’. In verismo composers sought to break with the operatic tradition demanding stories of deities and mythical figures, nobles and royalty. Verismo concerned itself with the lives and relationships of ordinary folk.

Over its brief seventy-five minute running time Pagliacci tells the tale of a touring theatre company beset by plots and rivalries. Among the company is Canio, the clown, who rails against a life in which he must play the fool while his heart is breaking (‘Vesti la giubba’). It is one of the most moving arias in opera.

Pagliacci is not a mere everyday soap opera. It deals in extremes of passion and emotion. It is a tale of lust and jealousy, of intrigue and infidelity. It conveys a heightened reality. It is truth amplified.

I think the world of brand marketing could learn something from verismo. Firstly, of course, the most effective communication tends to feature regular everyday people, rather than the wooden marionettes of advertising cliché. But, secondly, the best work often puts those average people in exceptional circumstances.

Because of its brevity advertising must always distil; but, in order to create impact, it must also intensify. It amplifies truth.

Moreover, Pagliacci illustrates how to manage a dramatic ending. The story culminates in two tragic stage deaths. At the last the actor, Tonio, addresses the audience: ‘La commedia e finita!’ (‘The play is over!’) Perfect.

‘The Most Difficult Thing To Do Is What’s Most Familiar’ (A Giacometti)

I recently visited an exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s portraiture at The National Portrait Gallery.
Giacometti grew up in a small Swiss village and his early paintings of his family are colourful, sunny and seemingly effortless.

Photograph: Tate London 2015

However, over time, and as his unique personal style developed, his portraits became more intense. He subjects his sitters to scrutiny. He locates them in the centre of the canvas, facing straight out at us, almost confrontational. He labours to capture their essence in the stillness; to distil the truth of their identity. He repeatedly scratches and scrapes at the paint until he is satisfied. The works are often small-headed and hollow-eyed. The sitters seem alone and remote. Staring out at us in grey, black and brown, they haunt the space.

Reflecting on Giacometti’s relentless pursuit of his subjects’ vital presence, the exhibition notes quote Samuel Beckett:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

In the world of brands and marketing we deal in the everyday and familiar. But this doesn’t make our jobs easier. If anything it makes them harder. Stripping away the clichéd, extraneous and redundant; isolating the human essence, the genuine insight, the cultural nuance. These are genuine challenges. Only the truly great practitioners can make the ordinary proclaim its vital truth.

The Benefit of the Doubt

1965 looms large on the London stage at the moment. The Trafalgar Studios are hosting an excellent production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming (until 13 February). This great play was first performed in 1965. Meanwhile the Wyndham Theatre is staging Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic Hangmen (until 5 March), a work largely set in 1965.

In 1965 the Beatles played Shea Stadium, Bob Dylan went electric, Ali beat Sonny Liston and West Ham won the European Cup Winners’ Cup. But these two plays consider more sinister themes.

The Homecoming tells the story of a long-lost son returning with his wife to his robustly working class North London family home. It’s a place of masculine threat and inarticulate regret. The past haunts; violence is just around the corner. Speeches are coded, veiled, misleading. There seems to be so much left unsaid.

“The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear… One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.” 
Harold Pinter

McDonagh’s work considers the plight of Britain’s last hangman at the time when capital punishment was abolished. He doesn’t let us settle. Is he condemning hanging and the culture that accompanied it? Or is he criticising the sixties liberalism that swept it away? His characters are difficult to pin down. Again there is menace, mistrust, misgiving. Sometimes the audience laughs when it should be disturbed. Perhaps comedy and fear are more adjacent sentiments than we might imagine.

One walks away from both plays with a sense of unease and uncertainty; with more questions asked than answered. It’s actually quite a satisfying sensation because, of course, life itself is marked by doubt, mystery, ambiguity.

“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” 
Harold Pinter

For the most part we consider modern commerce a field for certainty. We strive to deliver openness and transparency. We earnestly endeavour to make brands comprehensible and credible. We convey approachability, accessibility, familiarity. We explain ourselves.

But I wonder would some brands not benefit from embracing a little more mystique, an aura of expertise, a suggestion of secrecy? Imagine a brand that asks more questions than it answers; a brand with hidden depths, not manifest shallows.

Should we not give ourselves the benefit of the doubt?

No. 64

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 10

If Music Be the Food of Commerce…

Claire van Kampen’s magnificent play, Farinelli and the King, relates how, in the mid-eighteenth century, Philippe V of Spain hired the renowned castrato Farinelli to sing for him so as to sooth his frequent bouts of depression. The king and performer struck up a close relationship and the commission lasted until Philippe’s death almost ten years later.

Farinelli and the King is funny, sad and thought provoking all at the same time. It is graced by the peerless actor, Mark Rylance, and the celebrated counter-tenor, Iestyn Davies. It runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre until December 5.

As the play’s programme notes point out, ‘the therapeutic value of music has been recognised for centuries.’ Apollo was the Ancient Greek god of medicine as well as music. Music therapy was practised in Ancient Egyptian temples and Persian hospitals. Subsequently music treatments were adopted by medieval infirmaries and were used extensively in two World Wars. Today music therapy is a widely practised and respected medical science.

‘Music has been shown to significantly decrease the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to improved mood and cognitive function. A study has also found that music can shift activity in the frontal lobe of the brain from the right to the left, a phenomenon associated with positive effect and mood.’
Dr Tim McInerny, Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist, Bethlem Royal Hospital

For many of the same reasons that music has therapeutic effect, it also has commercial effect.

For most of the ‘90s I worked on the Levi’s advertising campaign and it created a compelling case for the commercial capacity of music: to engage audiences; to convey an emotional narrative; to create memorability and distinctiveness.

Of course, everyone nowadays claims to appreciate music’s persuasive power. But, I wonder, does everyone properly understand how to realise that power?

Some imagine that music selection is merely a matter of sourcing a cool, contemporary track. But young consumers don’t thank you for hijacking tunes they already love. In recent years some have followed John Lewis down the ‘modern acoustic version of familiar songs’ route. But, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.’ Some imagine there’s a spurious science to sourcing tracks. Some think it’s just about buying hits. Some will agree to music’s importance, but balk at its cost, thereby betraying their lack of faith. 

Fundamentally, I believe that music selection must be a creative decision, not a strategic one. It’s not about matching the music to the target audience; it’s about matching the music to the creative work: capturing the spirit and tone of the drama; allowing the narrative to unfold at the right pace and tempo; enabling consumers to feel the message, not just see it or hear it.

Music should amplify the communication, not stand in its way. If you get that right, then you’ll find an audience; and it will be an audience that is properly emotionally engaged.

‘Musick has charms to sooth a savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d
And, as with living souls, have been inform’d,
By magick numbers and persuasive sound.’

William Congreve, The Mourning Bride

Synthesized Success

Young songwriter Neil Sedaka was in a jam.

Though his mother hoped that he would become a classical pianist and he had a scholarship at the Juilliard, all he wanted was to write and perform pop songs. Sedaka had composed ‘Stupid Cupid’, which had been a hit for Connie Francis in 1958. That same year he’d signed to RCA Victor as a performer, and had a hit with ‘The Diary’, which sold 600,000 copies. But Sedaka’s two subsequent releases were failures and his record company was considering dropping him. He had one last chance.

‘Billboard had a page called Hits of the World. I bought the number one record in almost every country in the world and analysed it. I took the beat from this one; I took the drum from this one; I took the guitar licks from this one; I took the harmonic rhythm from this one. Like a designer would do.’
Neil Sedaka, King of Song/ BBC

The result was ‘Oh! Carol’, a melodic triumph of sweet-natured youthful yearning. It sold 3.5million copies.

‘Oh! Carol
I am but a fool
Darling, I love you
Though you treat me cruel.’

‘Oh! Carol’/Howard Greenfield & Neil Sedaka

Sedaka went on to secure huge pop hits in the ‘60s with the likes of ‘Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen’ and ‘Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.’ And then he sustained the success in the ‘70s with the genius of ‘Solitaire’ and ‘Laughter in the Rain.’

Of course, we’re always seeking to be original. But sometimes commercial creativity requires us to be alert to the competitive context, to what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes, when we’re in a jam, we need to beg, borrow or steal.

Synthesizing one’s own success from the successes of others is a skill in its own right.

 

Creativity Can Even Survive Rate Card Pricing

On a recent visit to Chicago I encountered The Entombment by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri. Painted around 1656, it’s a sad, beautifully naturalistic depiction of death and despair.

The artist is more familiar to us as ‘Guercino’, or ‘The Squinter’, a nickname given to him because he was cross-eyed. Guercino kept relatively detailed account books and we know that The Entombment was his response to a commission that required ‘one full length, one bust length and three half figures.’

We can see that Guercino ably accommodated this rather prescriptive brief, whilst also delivering a very engaging image. This perhaps illustrates that creativity can survive even the crudest pricing policy.

No. 55

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 5

‘Words Without Thoughts Never To Heaven Go’

Bernardo: ‘Who’s there?’
Francisco: ‘Nay, answer me: stand and unfold yourself.’
Hamlet, I i.

Some have argued that the opening lines of Hamlet are entirely appropriate: this night-time exchange between two guards on the walls of the castle at Elsinore immediately establishes a sense of doubt about identity, a theme that sustains us through the play.

In a bold break with tradition, the director of the Hamlet currently being staged at The Barbican in London chose instead to start her production with the famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy. Too bold for some, and it was announced last week that the experiment would be discontinued.

Should one side with the purists and demand respect for genius and tradition? Or should one applaud brave endeavour, even when it doesn’t succeed?

I found that, the longer I was in business, the more I had to guard against instinctive conservatism. ‘We’ve tried that before. It didn’t work.’ Age and experience can at once enhance one’s judgement and diminish one’s appetite for change.

I saw the Barbican Hamlet in preview. Benedict Cumberbatch has a strong, charismatic take on the troubled Prince; the sets are magnificent; and the production has many good ideas.

When you revisit great works, different scenes leap out at you. This time I was struck by the passage in which Hamlet’s uncle, the villainous Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet’s father and married his widow, tries to pray for forgiveness. At length Claudius concedes that, since he is still in possession of ‘my crown, mine own ambition and my queen,’ he cannot hope for absolution. His prayers are empty without genuine remorse.

‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’
Hamlet III, iii

Creative businesses are sadly cursed by hollow words and empty promises. We all too publicly worship at the altar of creativity without properly demonstrating our faith in day-to-day behaviour. Talk is cheap. And our belief is sorely tested when the god Mammon steps into the meeting room. Perhaps we should, like Claudius, appreciate that ‘words without thoughts never to heaven go.’

 

Scepticism Is Healthy for Business Too

Trouble in Paradise is a sophisticated screwball comedy from 1932, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. A romance between two upmarket con artists is tested when one of them falls for a society heiress, their next intended victim.

The film is fast paced, knowing and wry. And so beautifully written. The society heiress, Madame Colet, rejects a suitor’s advances thus:

‘You see, Francois, marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together. But with you, Francois, it would be a mistake.’

It’s reassuring to discover that scepticism about advertising and business was alive and well in the ‘30s. Madame Colet has inherited a perfume business and her brand is advertised thus:

‘Remember, it doesn’t matter what you say. It doesn’t matter how you look. It’s how you smell.’

In another scene Giron, the Chairman of the Board of Colet et Cie, confronts our hero Gaston, now acting as Madame Colet’s advisor:
Giron:  ‘Speaking for the Board of Directors as well as for myself, if you insist in times like these in cutting the fees of the Board of Directors, then we resign.’
Gaston:  ‘Speaking for Madame Colet as well as for myself, resign.’
Giron:  'Very well…We’ll think it over...’

I understand that in this month’s Alphabet announcement there was a nod to the HBO comedy Silicon Valley (The Guardian, 11 Aug 2015). There’s a great tradition of comic writing about commercial culture. The Office reflected business life as it is, not as we would want it to be. Nathan Barley shone a light on Shoreditch lunacy, with extraordinary prescience and what now looks like understatement. And the recently departed comic genius, David Nobbs, gave us Reggie Perrin, the middle management mid-life crisis that is sadly all too familiar.

Scepticism is healthy. It calls business to account. It shows that the public is alert to our shortcomings.
Better to be mocked than to be ignored.

 

Can Commerce Integrate Art and Science?

The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage at Macon by JMW Turner shows ordinary folk dancing in a beautiful bucolic scene. A few years ago research was published indicating that Turner’s depiction of the sun in this painting was based on the latest scientific thinking of his day. (The Guardian, 13 November 2011)

It transpires that Turner, whilst studying art at the Royal Academy, also attended science debates at the Royal Society, which was housed in the same building. And in particular it is suggested that Turner attended the lectures of the astronomer William Herschel, who had been examining the surface of the sun.

As an artist Turner was comfortable with, and actively interested in, science. The scientist Michael Faraday was a good friend and he knew mathematicians, palaeontologists and chemists. Science inspired him. His commitment to observe nature first hand is captured in the myth that he lashed himself to a mast during a storm, just so that he could understand the conditions; an experience that supposedly prompted my favourite Turner painting, Snow Storm - Steam Boat Off A Harbour’s Mouth. 

I regret to say that, when I grew up, art and science were taught as polar opposites. We imagined that scientists had different shaped brains and we rarely socialised with them. This dualism extended even to our TV viewing: the scientists watched The Body in Question; we arts scholars watched Brideshead Revisited (the show that launched a thousand fops)…

It’s compelling to note that many of today’s more interesting movies, dance and theatre productions concern themselves with science. The Theory of Everything had us trying to keep up with Stephen Hawking; the great Wayne McGregor creates dance inspired by neuroscience; Nick Payne’s recent Royal Court hit, Constellations, looked at a human relationship in the context of quantum multiverse theory.

Though I’ve barely a scientific sinew in my body, I believe that the future of marketing and communications will occur at the intersection between art and science. It’s logical. It's inspiring.

 

 

No. 44

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 4

The Thrill of It All

Man with a Movie Camera has recently been re-released in cinemas. It’s a silent Russian film from 1929 directed by Dziga Vertov. In the opening sequences Vertov proclaims that he is seeking ‘a separation from the language of theatre and literature.’ He wants to create a new grammar particular to film.

Man with a Movie Camera bypasses conventional narrative structures and characterisation. Instead it sets out to document the life of a Soviet city over the course of a day. We see work and play, marriage and divorce, birth and death. We explore the mechanics of urban and industrial life: trams, trains, cars, bikes and buses; steelworks, mines, factories and offices. Vertov is fascinated by the interaction of man and machine and he delights in visual parallels. He cuts between people and pistons; between keyboards, cogs and spools; and ultimately between the human eye and the camera shutter.

Above all Vertov thrills at the possibilities of film. There are close ups and long shots, freeze-frames and split-screens; sequences are speeded up and slowed down. The movie celebrates the art of film making: we see the cameraman at work, film being edited, the film being watched at the cinema. In one memorable sequence the camera itself comes to life through stop frame animation.

Man with a Movie Camera is an exercise in passion. It conveys the pure joy of the pioneer.

I’m inclined to ask, what has happened to our belief in the possibilities of film? Where is the enthusiasm for film’s power: to surprise us, move us and make us think?

In the modern age are we too inclined to shrug at the constraints of time, cost and Clients? Because ‘it’s never as good as the first time’?

Should not new channels and new tasks present fresh opportunities to re-write the rules, to re-define the grammar?

The writer Will Self has described ours as a ‘jaded culture’. Our comfort, knowingness and cynicism deny us the ability to enthuse, the compulsion to revolt.

Sometimes it seems that the thrill is gone. Surely we should bring it back.

The Chaka Khan Conundrum

‘I’m every woman; it’s all in me.
I can read your thoughts right now,
Every one from A to Z.’

Chaka Khan/ ’I’m Every Woman’

I always loved Chaka: her strong, confident voice, her high kicking boots and big, bold hair. I love the sunny euphoria of ‘Do You Love What You Feel?’  I love the adrenaline rush when the synth coda of ‘Ain’t Nobody’ kicks in. I love the fact she was in a band called Rufus, but determined to stand aloof of its absurd name: it was ‘Rufus and Chaka Khan’. In the Pembroke bar we would mimic the scratch in the opening sequence of ‘I Feel for You’; in time, in unison, as one.

But I always wondered, what on earth was Chaka on about when she claimed to be ‘every woman’? How could this be possible? How could it all be in her?

It was only many years later, when I was established in my advertising career, that I understood that Chaka was, in fact, making a compelling point about consumer segmentation.

I dislike consumer segmentation. I never found it useful or helpful at work. Despite being a man from Essex, I was not entirely comfortable being classified as Essex Man. Despite occasionally visiting John Lewis, I wouldn’t say I’m part of ‘the John Lewis Community’. I dislike Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman, Letdown Lady, Pebbledash People. (I kid you not.) I dislike the spurious science and characterful classifications. I dislike the rigidity and ring binders. I even dislike the amusing alliteration…

I think that when Chaka sang that she was ‘every woman’, she was simply pointing out that she could choose to be all forms of womanhood if she wanted to. She was not one singular identity. She couldn’t be boxed off or boxed in.

And isn’t that true of us all? Is not each and every one of us a mess of conflicting drives, moods and identities? Isn’t that what makes us interesting; what makes us human?

Maybe you can segment a mood or a moment, an action or an attitude. But you can’t segment people.

 

When the Sum of the Parts is Greater than the Whole

At the National Gallery in London you can see the only surviving work by the Florentine painter Pesellino. The Trinity Altarpiece features God the Father supporting the crucified Christ. They are flanked by Saints Mamas and James on one side and Saints Zeno and Jerome on the other.

I went to a talk recently given by the outgoing Director of The National Gallery, Sir Nicholas Penny. He explained the altarpiece’s provenance. It was painted between 1455 and 1460 and hung in the church of the Confraternity of Priests in Pistoia. Around 1783 the Confraternity was suppressed and the altarpiece was sawn into five pieces: the central piece of God and Christ went to one private collector; the pairs of saints joined others; and the angels from the top corners went their own way too. Over subsequent years the pieces journeyed separately around various European galleries and collections. And they were only reunited at The National Gallery in 1929.

The dismembering of art seems barbaric to us now. But to previous generations it was entirely practical to isolate an element of a painting that one found particularly attractive; to trim an artwork to fit a wall. And dealers found that dismemberment could be financially rewarding.

I confess I have occasionally thought a painting could be dramatically improved by the removal of an inferior character or segment. And one of my favourite paintings, The Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden, is, in fact, just a fragment of a larger altarpiece.

When we consider brands and organisations, we often assume that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; that there are synergies and efficiencies between elements.

But this is not always the case. I’m sure that Alphabet is only the most recent in a long line of businesses seeking to calibrate the commercial pros and cons of closeness and distance.

Sometimes sub brands stand on each other’s toes; sometimes the propinquity of one brand to another within a holding company can reflect badly on both.

Sometimes the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

No. 43

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 2

Thinking Inside the Box

This week I visited the excellent Joseph Cornell exhibition at The Royal Academy. Cornell spent most of his life in New York State and never left America. But through his art he voyaged across continents and through time. In a week in which Pixar launches a film exploring the brain of an 11 year old child, the Cornell exhibition is a jouney into the mechanics of a creative mind.

Although Cornell didn’t travel, he read extensively and compiled dossiers on subjects that interested him, whether that be astronomy, ornithology, circuses, childhood games or nineteenth century France. Drawing on the contents of these dossiers and combining them in imaginative ways, Cornell painstakingly constructed collages, mechanicals and glass fronted ‘shadow boxes.’ His boxes contained fantasy hotels, tropical birds, celestial maps. He created fictional lives, shooting galleries, slot machines and an interactive Museum of Sound (including ‘the sound of silence’ which I guess belongs in a museum nowadays…).

It’s often been said that travel narrows the mind. Cornell demonstrated that a creative imagination can take us to exotic places without setting foot outside one’s home town.

What can we in the creative professions learn from Cornell?

Could we do more to capture and collate experiences and thoughts that would otherwise pass unexpressed and unremembered?

Are we misleading ourselves when we imagine that our exotic holidays are fuelling our imagination? Would we be better off just reading more?

In the age of consumer insight and user experience, do we give proper weight to the pure transformative power of dreams?

Cornell loved poetry and he dedicated his piece Toward the Blue Peninsula to the similarly private Emily Dickinson. The work refers to a Dickinson poem that considers the choice of an imagined, over an experienced, life.

‘It might be easier
To fail - with Land in Sight-
Than gain – my Blue Peninsula -
To perish - of Delight -’

Emily Dickinson/ It Might Be Lonelier
 

Carving, Not Casting; Making Not Managing

I also attended the splendid retrospective of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain. Beautiful contemplations in form and space, surface and light. Hollowed out solids, wires casting shadows. Polished and painted, curved and scooped. Lovely.

In her early career Hepworth participated in the ‘direct carving’ movement: artists carving directly into wood and stone, respecting the truth of the materials; rather than casting sculpture into a mould or employing skilled craftsmen to execute a model. Initially the direct carvers’ works were a little cruder, a little more rudimentary, than those produced by the incumbent methods, as the artists learned the craft skills themselves. But there was a compelling simplicity and honesty about the results.

I wonder what would a rededication to direct carving look like in the communication arts?
What if all our creatives shot their own film, designed their own posters, wrote their own code, built their own applications?
What if we rejected our fragmented, demarcated world and rededicated our selves to ‘making not managing’?
 

Wasted Talent

On Friday afternoon I sat on my own in a cinema weeping to the Amy Winehouse documentary. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion. From the start you could see the ending, but there was nothing you could do to stop it.

There seem to have been many contributors to poor Amy’s demise; not least her determination to ‘sabotage her own life’. And I couldn’t escape a sense of complicity. I’d read those papers, consumed those news stories; I was watching the film.

But the abiding impression I took from Amy was of waste: wasted talent, wasted love, wasted life. In our disposable culture we imagine that talent, like everything else, is readily replaceable. But it isn’t.  And we’ll not see the like of Amy again in our lifetimes.

I wonder, are creative businesses wasting the very talent that sustains them?
Shouldn’t we be protecting talent as our most precious commodity?
Should our new-found commitment to sustainability extend to people, not just resources?

And, by the way, the film wasn’t entirely depressing. Tony Bennett emerged as a wise, gentle, luminous star. If only there were more like him…

Advice to My 17 Year Old Self

Work hard, but not at the expense of your cultural life.
Study hard, but not at the expense of your social life.
Play hard, but not at the expense of your health.

N0. 39

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 1

Damola suggested that I could supplement the blog with a regular newsletter.

I thought I might make some broad observations about business prompted by plays, films, art, articles and so forth.

So here are this week’s notes from the hinterland…

If We Rid Ourselves of Our Demons, We’ll Lose Our Angels Too

In a recent Desert Island Discs, Stephen Fry quoted Tennessee Williams: ‘If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels too.’

Creative businesses are often confronted with behaviour that is unreliable and unruly, eccentric and erratic. If we expect unconventional answers, we should not be surprised when they come from unconventional sources. Creative talent rarely arrives with a diploma for good behaviour.

And yet creative businesses also have staff that need protecting and values that need sustaining. So where should we draw the line?

Fair Play?

I saw the new Marber play, The Red Lion, at the National Theatre. It’s a compelling piece about life in lower league football. It boasts rich language, good observations on masculinity and some very funny moments.

In the programme notes the former England cricket captain Mike Brearley considers the ‘gang culture’ and ‘mutual humiliation’ at the heart of modern sport.

‘A young middle order batsman who murmured sycophantically to [the bowler} Fred Trueman on his way back to the Pavilion, ‘That was a fine delivery, Fred’ – received the reply ‘Aye, and it were wasted on thee.’

There is a fine line between such more or less legitimate discomfiting gestures and messages on the one hand, and behaviour that goes beyond the spirit of the game on the other…

Sport could not have arisen without individual competitiveness, ambition and Oedipal striving. But nor could it have arisen without love, cooperation and respect.’ 

As ever, sport poses questions that are just as relevant to business and life. What is the appropriate level of competitiveness and rivalry in the era of partnership and collaboration?

The Same But Different

I watched a very funny screwball comedy from 1937. In The Awful Truth Irene Dunne and Cary Grant spar with each other over their divorce.

Lucy: ‘Things are just the same as they always were, only you’re the same as you were too, so I guess things will never be the same again.’

Jerry: ‘You’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different except in a different way. You’re still the same, only I’ve been a fool and I’m not now. So long as I’m different, don’t you think that…well maybe things could be the same again…only a little different, huh?’

It struck me that this is an age-old yearning that applies as much to business as to love. We want to embrace change, but somehow to acknowledge timeless truths. The same but different…

Multi-tasking v Mono-tasking

The Beckett radio play All That Fall was recently performed at the Barbican for an audience sitting in deckchairs. Though it sounds suspiciously like physical theatre, I have to say it was an excellent experience. In the play Mr Rooney demands:

‘Once and for all, do not ask me to speak and move at the same time. I shall not say this in this life again.’

I’m with Mr Rooney. I have always been more a mono-tasker than a multi-tasker. I was encouraged by recent research that suggests the productivity associated with multi-tasking is a myth. Some have suggested it should be called ‘multi-switching’ rather than multi-tasking.

A Lawyer in Heaven

A Man Reading (Saint Ivo?) about 1450, Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden

A Man Reading (Saint Ivo?)
about 1450, Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden

At a visit to the National Gallery yesterday I noticed this excellent painting of Saint Ivo by the Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden. Ivo is celebrated as 'the patron saint of lawyers and an advocate of the poor'…

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 38