Not Copying, But Translating: Vincent Van Gogh and the Love of Many Things

Vincent van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising, 1890 © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Vincent van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising, 1890 © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

‘The best way to know God is to love many things.’
Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo, 1880

I recently attended an exhibition exploring Vincent Van Gogh’s relationship with Britain (‘Van Gogh and Britain,’ at Tate Britain until 11 August). 

In the spring of 1873, aged 20, Van Gogh travelled to London to work in the Covent Garden branch of the art dealers Goupil et Fils, and he stayed in England until the winter of 1876. He was not yet an artist at that time and he didn’t paint any pictures here. So the exhibition is really an exploration of the impact his British experiences had on him, and the impact he had on subsequent British artists.

‘Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better.’

Van Gogh loved strolling around London. He took a daily walk from his lodgings in Brixton, across Westminster Bridge, to his office in Covent Garden. He visited museums, art dealers and the National Gallery. He rowed on the Thames and tried out the new underground railways. He also fell in love with his landlady’s daughter. He was dismissed from his job, briefly taught at a school in Ramsgate, and then served as a Methodist preacher in Richmond. 

‘My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes.’

What makes a real impression is how much Van Gogh was soaking up stimulus during his time in England. English was one of his four languages and he loved reading Victorian novels. He admired the wood engravings of modern urban scenes that he found in journals like The Graphic. He was swept up by the growing enthusiasm for social reform. In later life he explored themes he had first encountered in the works of Dickens or in paintings at the National Gallery: lonely figures walk along a road through an autumn landscape; prison inmates troop around a high-walled yard; a man sits in despair, resting his face in his hands; an empty chair suggests a deceased former occupant. 

'Admire as much as you can. Most people do not admire enough.’

Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night Over the Rhône. Photograph: Hervé Lewandowski/RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay)

Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night Over the Rhône. Photograph: Hervé Lewandowski/RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay)

I had always imagined Van Gogh as the epitome of the artistic loner, ploughing his own furrow, blinkered to outside perspectives, rebelling against everything that has gone before. But in fact he was an avid consumer of culture, alert to fresh ideas, always out to learn and understand.

'I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.’

Van Gogh had catholic tastes. Indeed he developed the view that a plurality of interests and affections creates strength of character, contentedness and a reservoir of inspiration.

'It is good to love many things, for therein lies true strength. And whoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!'

Professionally many of us are cautious about external influences, concerned that we will be tempted to reproduce and replicate, copy and counterfeit. But Van Gogh was so confident in his own unique perspective that he didn’t worry about drawing on other artists’ work.

‘It is not copying… It is rather translating into another language, one of colours.’

So perhaps we should all take a tip from Van Gogh. Pop out for a walk, visit a gallery, collect images, read. Go to the movies, listen to a lecture, take in a podcast on the way. Open yourself up to stimulus, inspiration, learning. Discuss your response, debate your reaction, write down what you think. Embrace a love of many things.

And whatever your current status, be determined to pursue your own path.

'What am I in the eyes of most people? A nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person - somebody who has no position in society and will never have. In short, the lowest of the low. All right, then - even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.'

 

'Now I understand
What you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they'll listen now.’

Don McLean, 'Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)'


 

No. 239

A Cravat Too Far: Complacency Is Not a Uniform Condition

Jean Beraud ‘A Ball’

Jean Beraud ‘A Ball’

Some time in the early ‘90s I was invited to a rather smart wedding at St James’s Palace. As it was a formal affair, there was a requirement for morning suit, which I’d never worn before. Eager to fit in, I made my way nervously to the nearest Moss Bros, where an expert assistant of few words but reassuring manner guided me through the process of hiring my outfit. 

Step by step he found me an elegant black morning coat, a dashing pair of grey striped trousers, a buff silk waistcoat. He advised me on how to manage my top hat on the day. It was really quite simple and straightforward. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought: if I comb my hair, I could possibly pass muster as an authentic English gentleman. I began to feel very much on top of things. 

And then the assistant posed a question:

‘We just have one last decision to make. Will sir be wearing a tie or a cravat?’

‘Well, I don’t know. What will everyone else be wearing?’

‘It’s purely a matter of personal preference, sir.’

I hesitated for a moment. I had no experience to draw on here – no recollections of formal weddings from my childhood, no memories of days out at Ascot. However, having grown up in the ‘80s, I had been an admirer of Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, of the cavalier style of the New Romantic movement. And so my natural inclination was towards something a little more theatrical.

‘I’ll take the cravat,’ I said with conviction.

And so one sunny Saturday morning I marched jauntily down Pall Mall to St James’s Palace in full morning dress, my outfit flamboyantly finished off with a red silk, paisley-patterned cravat. I was going to enjoy my brief excursion into the world of the aristocracy. 

The moment I arrived at the wedding venue, I stopped and surveyed the scene. To my horror I realised that every one of the other male guests was sporting a rather understated grey necktie. Of course! They all appeared so natural and appropriate, so casual and at ease. I, on the other hand, looked like an extra from an ‘80s pop video. I was mortified.

Reflecting back on what had gone wrong, I realised that my time at Moss Bros had been marked by increasing confidence. I became less alert at the end of the process than I had been at the beginning. My guard had slipped.

There’s a lesson here, I think, that commonly applies in the world of business.

We all know that we should be concerned about complacency; that we need to be ever vigilant, wary and watchful. But complacency is not a uniform condition. It has peaks and troughs. It seeks us out when we least expect it. It finds us when we’re most confident and self-assured.

Just at the last moment, we get careless and cocky. Our concentration slips, attention dips. And we make that critical error.

So as you reach the end of your pitch or project - as you approach the finish line - stay alert to slapdash slip-ups. Sustain an eye for detail. Always remember to dot the ts and cross the is.

'Man, you gotta take heed.
'Cause that same thing might happen to you someday
Everybody makes a mistake sometimes.
I know, because I've made mine.'

Otis Redding, 'Everybody Makes A Mistake' (E Floyd / A Isbell)

 

No. 226

Bonnard: Liberating Oneself from the Literal

Pierre Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath, 1936. Photograph: Tate

Pierre Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath, 1936. Photograph: Tate

‘I leave it…I come back…I do not let myself become absorbed by the object itself.’
Pierre Bonnard

I recently visited an exhibition of the work of French Post-Impressionist painter, Pierre Bonnard (Tate Modern, London until 6 May).

The table is laid with a red gingham cloth. There is fruit, a water jug, a coffee pot. The dog perches. We see a vase of flowers, a bowl of lemons, of peaches, a notebook and pen. Amber walls. Summer heat. The door to the garden is open. A lush lavender landscape reaches out to us across that table, through the French windows.  A sun-drenched vista of greens and yellows beckons beyond that open door. A vibrant exterior life viewed from a secluded interior.

A woman is observed in the mirror on the mantelpiece. Her head turned away, looking past us and through us. A woman absorbed in her grooming, scrubbing her neck, pinning her hair. A woman framed by a bathtub, illuminated by the brightly coloured tiles, distorted by the water. It is as if we have just walked into the room.

We are invited into the intimate domestic world of the artist and his wife, Marthe - a world of silent companionship, of lethargy and ennui. Marthe passes the time with coffee and private thought. She nibbles at fruit and talks to the dog. She escapes to her bath - ‘the only luxury she had ever longed for.’ Often unwell, she has been prescribed daily water treatments to soothe her.

Renowned for his sunny landscapes and vivid colours, Bonnard is sometimes described as a ‘painter of happiness.’ But he himself is not so sure:

‘He who sings is not always happy.’

Indeed Bonnard seems somewhat removed - a man withdrawn, observing his home and home-life from a distance, through a window or doorway, across a table; through bands of colour, layers of memory. Figures are like ghosts. They move in and out of focus, in and out of frame. Self-portraits seem anxious, mournful.

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'One always talks of surrendering to nature. There is also such a thing as surrendering to the picture.'

Occasionally Bonnard employs photography, not as a record of actuality, but rather to bring to mind natural, informal poses; to suggest incidental occasions, snapshots of time.

Bonnard describes himself as ‘the last of the Impressionists’, and he does indeed paint impressions – recollections of lost moments, remembrance of things past. He works in the studio, from memory rather than from life. Taking months and sometimes years to complete a canvas, he lets his imagination recreate events; frees his intense pigments to dissolve into one another; allows colours to take over from objects, patterns to take over from people, ideas to take over from accurate representation.

‘The presence of the object…is a hindrance to the painter when he is painting. The point of departure for a painting being an idea.’

There is a lesson for us all here.

Of course, brands often have to reside in a real world of cold calculation and rational reflection. But the best brands can also abstract themselves from reality, liberate themselves from the literal. They inhabit a landscape of impressions, feelings, moods and colours; a place of emotional truth, of memories, dreams and desires; the world as we recall it, as we imagine it, as we want it to be.

Sometimes, like Bonnard, we need to learn to let go.

'So far away from you, and all your charms,
Just out of reach of my two empty arms.
Each night in dreams I see your face,
Memories time cannot erase.
Wide awake, and find you gone,
And I'm so blue, and all alone.
So far away from you, and all your charms,
Just out of reach of my two empty arms.’


Percy Sledge, ‘Just Out of Reach'  (Virgil "Pappy” Stewart)

No. 217

‘Mek Us Laugh’: Comedy Creates Culture


Hugh R Riviere, ‘In the Golden Days'

Hugh R Riviere, ‘In the Golden Days'

'The most wasted day of all is that on which we have not laughed.’
Nicolas Chamfort, French C18th Writer

At the end of Oxford’s Trinity term we would adjourn to the river to drink Pimms and watch rowing in the warm Spring sunshine. Rowing may not be the most thrilling spectator sport, but back then there seemed to be something inherently sophisticated and carefree about just being there.

A mate took along her Northern Boyfriend who was in town for the weekend, and we determined to position ourselves at the start of the race.

The competing eights were aligned along the bank in tense concentration. Young muscular men sat expectantly in their boats, wearing college colours and fixed grimaces. A senior gentleman with a military moustache and brightly tailored blazer stood over a small starting cannon at the river’s edge.

All was seriousness and silence. All was anticipation.

Suddenly the Northern Boyfriend shouted at the top of his voice:

‘Come on then. Mek us laugh!’

The mood was punctured, the concentration shattered. Some fell about chuckling, others were unimpressed. We adjourned to another vantage point.

Sometimes we imagine ourselves to be engaged in something really rather important; we take ourselves a little too seriously; we adopt airs and graces. Sometimes we deserve to be taken down a peg or two.

'A good laugh is the best pesticide.'
Vladimir Nabokov

The workplace in particular can become a breeding ground for pomposity and pretension, affectation and arrogance; a realm for desktop despots and new age Napoleons. A well-timed anecdote or cutting quip can act as a corrective. Humour punctures pretence, puts things in perspective. Humour speaks truth to power.

'Jesters do oft prove prophets.'
Regan, ‘King Lear’

Over the years I found that wit and wisecracks were not just a valuable antidote to office arrogance. They were also essential ingredients in a thriving company culture. I would often sustain myself through a boring meeting by noting down the absurdities of business-speak. My erstwhile colleague Ben would amuse participants in lengthy management awaydays by compiling a Top 10 list of bons mots and malapropisms. Sarah would turn the air blue with imaginative profanity. Gwyn would draw on his armory of pitch-perfect impersonations. Nick would relate shaggy dog stories of domestic disaster.

Comedy binds teams together, expresses shared values and helps us recover from disappointment.

'There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.’
John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ (1941)

Of course we need to beware of the ‘banter’ that excludes or marginalizes; that forces conformity and suppresses authenticity. We must recognize that some people aren’t natural storytellers.

'You have a wonderful sense of humor. I wish I had a sense of humor, but I can never think of the right thing to say until everybody's gone home.’
Irene (Carole Lombard), 'My Man Godfrey' (1936)

That qualification aside, I’d still maintain that a well articulated joke can express a company’s character and values better than any po-faced promise or purpose. Comedy can be a cohesive force, a statement of fellow feeling. Comedy creates culture.

Indeed I’m inclined to concur with WH Auden:

'Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.'

'Oh, I hear laughter in the rain,
Walking hand in hand with the one I love.
Oh, how I love the rainy days and the happy way I feel inside.’

Neil Sedaka, ‘Laughter in the Rain’ (Neil Sedaka/ Phil Cody)

No. 214

The Red Buoy: Beware Being Repositioned by the Competition

JMW Turner - Helvoetsluys

JMW Turner - Helvoetsluys

JMW Turner was born in 1775 in Covent Garden where his father was a barber and wig-maker. John Constable, born in Suffolk a year later, was the son of a wealthy corn merchant and miller.

Together these artists introduced a vibrant new way of depicting landscape. While their predecessors had set out to paint the natural world through mythical idealism or realistic accuracy, Turner and Constable sought to convey its true soul.

Turner painted shipwrecks, fires and fogs; violent seas and fierce storms; the smoke and steam of the industrial revolution. Constable was more gentle at heart. He painted picturesque waterways and working farms; elegant steeples, shimmering rainbows and gossamer clouds. 

Sadly the two artists never got on. Turner, who had been something of a child prodigy, regarded Constable as an upstart. Constable praised Turner in public, but in private described his work as ‘just steam and light’. In the Royal Academy exhibition of 1831 Constable had one of Turner's paintings moved from a prominent position and replaced with one of his own.

At the Royal Academy exhibition the following year Constable and Turner were assigned places alongside each other in one of the main galleries. Constable had been working on ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ for fifteen years. In the days before the exhibition, artists were allowed to apply a final coat to their paintings as they hung on the gallery walls. And so Constable painstakingly set about his finishing touches.

Turner was showing a sombre seascape, a picture of Dutch ships in a storm,‘Helvoetsluys’. Just before the exhibition opened, he realised his work suffered by comparison with Constable’s. And so he marched in and painted a small bright red buoy in the middle of his canvas. It drew the eye, creating a compelling contrast with the green sea around it. Turner left without saying a word.

Constable was incensed.

‘He has been here and fired a gun.’

The critics agreed that Turner’s simpler, more restrained work made ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ look complex, fussy and ostentatious. The exhibition was a disaster for Constable.

There’s a lesson for the marketing world here.

John Constable - The Opening of Waterloo Bridge

John Constable - The Opening of Waterloo Bridge

You may be going merrily about your business, doing a decent job, progressing steadily along the tracks. Your brand may be well regarded by consumers. Everything may be OK.

But then out of left field the competition does something radical that rewrites the rules; that reframes the market; that changes the way you’re viewed. Suddenly you no longer seem quite so relevant. You appear a little off the pace, a little out of sorts. Suddenly you look like yesterday’s brand.

BA was solidly respectable, thoroughly dependable. And then irreverent Virgin arrived on the scene and made it somewhat stuffy and old-fashioned. Levi’s was cool and contemporary. And then dissident Diesel appeared and made it safe and conventional. Orange made Vodafone feel corporate. Apple made Microsoft appear square. Sipsmith made Gordon's look dreary. Fever-Tree made Schweppes taste sweet. Eat made Pret seem over-sauced. And so on and so forth.

We should watch out for the seemingly insignificant red buoy that appears out of left field; the subtle touch of the brush that at a stroke makes us seem less relevant. We should beware being repositioned by the competition.

When we play it safe, we leave space for others to shine. If we want to be a leadership brand, we have to lead.

 

'When least expected,
Fate stumbles in.
Bringing light to the darkness,
Oh, what a friend.
I needed someone to call my own.
Suddenly, out of left field
Out of left field, out of left field
Love came along.’

Percy Sledge, 'Out of Left Field' (Dan Penn / Spooner Oldham)

No. 187

‘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

 

Wrestling with the Angel: Modern Businesses Need Their Staff to Take Their Consciences to Work

At the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh you can see Paul Gauguin’s marvellous painting, ‘Vision After the Sermon.’ It depicts a group of Breton women in traditional costume, and visualises a bible story they have just heard in church: Jacob, journeying back to Canaan, spends the night alone on a riverside and encounters a mysterious angel who wrestles with him until dawn.

I have always liked this painting. I like the bold colours and Breton hats, the curious perspective and the mysterious theme. I like the juxtaposition of the present and the past, the real and the imagined. I like the idea of a man wrestling, not with a devil, but with an angel.

Many people have interpreted this scene as a depiction of someone struggling with their conscience. We see in it a sleepless night of doubt and dilemmas; of internal struggle and indecision; the agony of ethical qualms and quandaries, puzzles and problems.

When I first started work, in the red-blooded business environment of the late ‘80s, there was a sense that individual conscience belonged at home. One’s work behaviour should be driven by a singular pursuit of commercial success and ultimately shareholder value. ‘Whatever it takes’ was the spirit of the age.

Business culture at that time was not devoid of ethics. Rather there was a belief that the market aggregated the self-interested behaviour of individuals into a force for collective social good.

As the economist Joseph Stiglitz observed, ‘In a way, many people think that Adam Smith gave us a free pass; a way not to think about morality, because what Adam Smith said was that individuals in pursuit of their self-interest are led, as if by an invisible hand, to the general wellbeing of society.’

I’d say things have moved on since then. Nowadays we recognise that businesses have multiple stakeholders; that they have duties, not just to shareholders, but to partners, colleagues and consumers, and to the wider public. Nowadays most people in business do not assume self-interest will on its own create general wellbeing.

In recent times, as consumers increasingly expect corporate transparency, and as they increasingly hold businesses to account for their actions, then companies have embraced the unifying power of Purpose and Values as a means of directing their ethical behaviour.

It seems fair to ask whether clearly articulated Purpose and Values, in harness with better regulation, are sufficient to navigate the ethical challenges we face in the modern business environment.

Would Purpose and Values have prevented the malpractice of the financial crisis? Would they have avoided the failures of Enron, BP and Volkswagen? Should they have saved Pepsi or United from their recent PR disasters?

Well, they might have helped. But I’m not so sure they would have been sufficient in themselves.

The problem is that times of transformational change throw up more ethical issues than stable times. Category reinvention, while enhancing consumers’ lives, may have a negative impact on jobs, communities, the environment and fair trade. Operational restructure, while increasing efficiency, may also diminish working conditions and safety. Sub-contraction, while reducing cost, may also reduce responsibility. Creative destruction leaves in its wake a new landscape of ethical dilemmas.

I’d suggest that in this complex and changing environment, it’s not enough for colleagues to follow a collective corporate Purpose. I suspect that shared Purpose leaves a business exposed to corporate complacency and groupthink. Rather I think the ethical performance of any organisation is dependent on the extent to which individuals within that organisation take their consciences to work - because it’s only when individuals within a group wrestle with that group’s ethical dilemmas that you can safeguard against the group’s unethical behaviour.

It’s a curious thing to suggest that people need to be encouraged to bring their consciences to work. But we should not underestimate the day-to-day pressure on staff to deliver numbers and to conform. There is a gravitational pull towards narrow, short-term, commercial considerations; an ongoing belief that whistle-blowing represents disloyalty or disaffection. So, yes, the active engagement of individual consciences does need encouragement.

There’s one more reason why we need individual staff members to take their consciences to work, now more than ever.

When a brand’s ads appear next to extremist content on YouTube, we naturally ask questions about the people that placed them there. But of course people didn’t place them there. An algorithm did. Inevitably YouTube’s inclination is to work on a new algorithm to prevent it. But an algorithm doesn’t have a conscience. Automation enhances the need for humanity.

So, we need to more actively engage individual consciences in the workplace as a means of navigating the ever more complex challenges of the new economy; as a means of insuring businesses against groupthink; as a counterpoint to the ill effects of automation.

It’s only by wrestling with the angels that we give ourselves a fair chance of reaching the right decisions for our businesses and the broader community.

As the saying goes: ‘If something doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t.’

No. 137

 

 

Exquisite Corpse: If You Want To Change the Product, Try Changing the Process

'Nude Cadavre Exquis' Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (1926-27)

'Nude Cadavre Exquis' Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (1926-27)

‘There’s a method to my madness; and a madness to my method.’
Salvador Dali

At a gallery recently I came across an Exquisite Corpse.

Exquisite Corpse was a creative technique that Surrealist artists adapted from the traditional parlour game of Consequences. Typically four people took turns to draw a different bodypart on a folded piece of paper: first the head, then the torso, then the hips and finally the legs. Each participant was unaware of what the previous contributors had drawn. The image that resulted was often comic, disturbing, absurd.

Exquisite Corpse at first struck me as a curiously playful distraction for serious artists. Just a bit of fun perhaps before they got back to proper work. But the Surrealists were serious about the technique. For them it illuminated the creative process: it was a way of exploring the impact on their art of multiple authorship, sequencing, chance and the unconscious.

For Surrealists process didn’t have to be a constraint on creativity; it could be a catalyst to it.

'La Clairvoyance'Rene Magritte

'La Clairvoyance'Rene Magritte

‘All my life my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name.’
Andre Breton

The writers and artists of the Surrealist movement gathered in Paris in the 1920s around their leader, Andre Breton. In the wake of the horrors of the First World War, they determined to suppress reason, reality and ‘bourgeois aestheticism.’ Like Freud they were interested in dreams and the workings of the unconscious mind; in juxtapositions and coincidences; in everyday strangeness.

In particular the Surrealists experimented with the process of creation, disrupting traditional practice at every opportunity. They adopted techniques like ‘automatism’: writing and drawing at random without rational or conscious control. They set up the Bureau of Surrealist Research to record the dreams of the general public. They created collages that integrated found material, text from popular novels, images from magazines and encyclopaedia. They untethered objects from their names and practical functions. They experimented with photography as an art form.

For the Surrealists new techniques provided a springboard to new acts of creation. Process inspired product.  

‘I’ve never been able to finish a detective story because I don’t give a hang who was the murderer… It doesn’t interest me at all. It’s the mental processes that interest me.’
Man Ray

'Object' Meret Oppenheim

'Object' Meret Oppenheim

In the world of commercial creativity we tend to regard process with ambivalence. It’s boring but important; a necessary evil. We often characterise it as something to be avoided or reduced as far as possible; as an enemy of creativity.

Working at BBH for many years, I was quite taken with its distinctive belief in ‘processes that liberate creativity.’ This seemed a more mature position. I learned that process protects time, prevents misunderstanding and wasted effort. It generates alignment within a team, harnesses creativity to a commercial agenda and optimises the chances of great outcomes. I learned to be respectful of roles and responsibilities, of sign-offs and the sequencing of actions. I learned that process can be the creatives’ friend.

But the idea of ‘processes that liberate creativity’ goes beyond commercial efficiency. As the Surrealists suggested, new processes can inspire new ideas. They can be a fuel for the imagination. They can provoke change.

So processes should not be engraved in granite. They should be constantly questioned and evaluated, rewritten and reformulated.

How can we accelerate and stimulate innovation? Why not change the brief, change the team, change the time, change the meeting? Let’s investigate new combinations and partnerships. Let’s crash the procedure and crunch the schedule. Let’s test and trial, experiment and explore.

At times of transformation we should all be looking to disrupt incumbent ways of doing things; to invent new models, modes and techniques. Not just so that we can cut costs or increase speed; but so that we can create fresh routes to original ideas; novel sources of imaginative thought.

If you want to change the product, try changing the process.

‘Freedom is not given to you – you have to take it.’
Meret Oppenheim

No. 131

Mixed Metaphors: Sport Inspires Us To Perform; Art Inspires Us To Transform

The Biglin Brothers Racing 1872 by Thomas Eakins

The Biglin Brothers Racing 1872 by Thomas Eakins

So, we’re planning a conference and we want to invite an external speaker to address us and our colleagues - someone inspirational from a completely different world; who will get us all thinking outside the category, outside the box; someone who can convince us to raise our sights, raise our game.

Who are we going to call?

Maybe an Olympic oarsman, a downhill skier, a medal-winning sportswoman? Or perhaps a choreographer, a composer, a world-renowned film director?

Well, yes, any one of these could, I’m sure, be compelling and interesting. But perhaps we should first give a little thought to our selection criteria. Let’s examine the lessons we’re seeking to learn.

A first class sports person will prompt our colleagues to consider competition, goals and incremental improvement; team building, training and total honesty. They’ll teach us about the hard yards and the extra mile; to step up to the plate, to play the ball not the man, to want it more. There’s no ‘I’ in team. They’ll teach us all these things because fundamentally sport inspires people to perform.

We may, on the other hand, be keen to accelerate transformational change within our business. In which case sports people may not be so suited to the task. Setting aside the occasional formation adjustment and Fosbury Flop, for the most part athletes play the same game, on the same pitch, with the same rules. They’re seeking to be better, not different.

So if we’re looking to learn about change, we may prefer to talk to the cultural community. People from the arts world are daily engaged in innovation and invention, pioneering new paths and new perspectives. Art is an expression and catalyst of difference.

I think my most memorable marketing conference was one organised by Unilever in Dublin many years ago. A selection of actors and authors, poets and playwrights addressed the management teams of various global brands. They spoke to us about their sources of invention, the craft of creativity, the ‘habit of art’. You may well say that these themes were a million miles away from deodorant, detergent, blue bleach and yellow fats. But they seemed entirely relevant. Because they were all concerned with change.

I was interested therefore to see that Central Saint Martins, the London-based art and design school, and Birkbeck, the university that specialises in business education for working people, have recently combined to offer an MBA course. The course will bring together 'creative thinking with a rigorous business and economics base.' The shape of things to come perhaps.

“In an ever changing and ever more complex world, business leaders and entrepreneurs are going to need new ways of thinking and doing.”

Prof Jeremy Till, Dean of Central Saint Martins

Artemisia Gentileschi- Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

Artemisia Gentileschi- Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

It’s clear that, before we pick up the phone to book our inspirational speaker, we should choose our metaphors wisely; tailor the talk to the task. We should remember that sport inspires us to perform, art inspires us to transform; sport makes us better, art makes us different.

Of course, in the long run, most modern businesses need both high performance and transformational change. My former boss, Nigel Bogle, consistently encouraged BBH to be better and different. So when it comes to inspiration at least, we may well need to mix our metaphors.

No. 110

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