A Creative Business Is No Place for a Recluse

Charles-Valentin Alkan standing.jpg

I’ve been listening to the piano works of Charles-Valentin Alkan. Romantic and intense, thoughtful and complex, sensitive and slightly troubling.

Alkan was a friend of Chopin who lived, composed and performed in Paris in the nineteenth century. He was clearly something of an eccentric. His works included The Song of the Mad Woman on the Sea Shore and Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot.

Alkan had been a child prodigy and was a popular concert pianist.  But, after the age of 35, he became progressively reclusive. There are only two photographs of him and in one of them he has turned his back on the camera. Alkan died in 1888 at the age of 74, reputedly when a bookshelf fell on top of him. One obituary rather cruelly observed: ‘Alkan has just died. It was necessary for him to die so that we could be sure of his existence.’

I think most people that have worked in the creative industries have at some point yearned to give it all up and get away. Creativity is all about self-expression and purity of intent. But business is all about listening, adapting, negotiating. There’s an inherent tension here, a source of daily frustration.

However, whilst the reclusive life is available to the fine artist, the commercial creative needs to engage with the world, to be in tune and in touch with culture. The best commercial creatives in my experience watch film, play music, visit galleries, read books, carve spoons. They have interests outside work. They have a hinterland.


Denis Healey RIP (1917-2015)

‘I have always been as interested in music, painting and poetry as in politics.’
Denis Healey, The Time of My Life

I should mark the passing of Denis Healey.

Healey was a towering political figure in my youth. He was Defence Secretary in the '60s as Britain adjusted to life after Empire; and he was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1974 to 1979 when the economy was fragile and politics were turbulent.

Healey was fit for this combative environment as he had seen active service during the Second World War. He’d been beach master during the allied invasion at Anzio. Fiercely intelligent, eloquent and argumentative, Healey didn’t suffer fools and didn’t go out of his way to make friends. This may explain why he never quite made Prime Minister. He was a rarity in British politics: a robust moderate.

Healey also popularised the use of the term ‘hinterland’ to indicate depth of experience, interests and character. He argued that the absence of culture compromised politicians’ judgement.

I’m sure this could be said of business people too.


Celts: An Aesthetic for the Networked Age?

I recently attended Celts, an exhibition of art, armour and decorative craft at The British Museum.

It transpires that the idea of a unified Celtic identity is rather misleading. The word ‘Celt’ was used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans to describe various neighbouring European tribes. It was only in the eighteenth century that antiquarians applied the term to the early inhabitants of Britain and to the modern peoples of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. The curator suggests that the one consistent theme across all uses of ‘Celt’ was a sense of ‘otherness.’

Certainly you get a sense that the Celtic aesthetic was completely at odds with the classical beauty of the Greeks and the hard, straight lines of the Romans.

There are copper cauldrons embossed with curling, curving coils; there are knotted, twisting, turning tendrils; decorated armlets, anklets, war horns and neck rings. There are shields etched with spiralling serpents and sinuous snakes; bronze boars and birds, basket weave broaches. There are richly wrought Christian croziers and carved stone crosses.

I couldn’t help thinking that this beguiling, looping, patterned aesthetic is appropriate to the networked age. It suggests that within our maddeningly complex, connected world there can be beauty, order, design.

I wonder should we consider Celtic PowerPoint?

No. 52

Pretentious? Nous?

Philosophy, Salvator Rosa

Philosophy, Salvator Rosa

When I went to school there were the Sports Guys and the Music Guys.

The Sports Guys liked doing circuit training, spraying Ralgex and making noises with their studs in the shower. The Music Guys wore heavy tweed overcoats, pored over the NME crossword and argued about the relative merits of Joy Division and Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King. I liked both categories, but fundamentally I guess I was a Music Guy.

I went to college equipped with Country Born hair gel, ‘fu shoes and Radio London mix tapes. I covered my walls with album covers from Wah, Defunkt and Echo and the Bunnymen. I danced all night to James Brown and Washington Go Go. (Mine was an awkward, heavy-shoe shuffle that alienated girls more than it attracted them.)

I confess I became somewhat pretentious. But I imagine it was an innocent sort of pretentiousness. A love of words and ideas and debate. Of music, books and film.

Obviously pretentiousness is somewhat silly and self-important, but that’s part of its charm. Look at Salvator Rosa in the self portrait above from the National Gallery. He’s painted himself as a sensitive, brooding philosopher , braving a dark, stormy world. He’s carrying a Latin inscription (natch) that reads ‘Keep silent unless you have something more important to say than silence’. How absurd, how pretentious, how cool…


Self Portrait in a Turban, Duncan Grant   1961 Estate of Duncan Grant courtesy Henrietta Garnett

Self Portrait in a Turban, Duncan Grant 1961 Estate of Duncan Grant courtesy Henrietta Garnett


Last summer I visited Charleston, the Sussex country home and social hub of the Bloomsbury art set between the wars. They painted the walls and furniture, they painted each other, they discussed pacifism, ballet and the global financial crisis. They made a show of drinking coffee rather than tea. To be honest I didn’t love all the decorative artwork and I wasn’t too sure about their sleeping arrangements. But I had to admire the fact that they had a view about the world, a design for living.

When I left college I fell into advertising as I thought it was one of the few professions where we Music Guys were welcome. Advertising is an art not a science, it’s creative persuasion, lateral thought. Advertising folk cultivated curious facial hair, absurd spectacles and MA1 Flight Jackets. I felt at home.

In the ’90s our Agency produced the Levi’s campaign and I recall it referencing Ansel Adams, Hunter S Thompson, Rodchenko, Bill Brandt, Burt Lancaster and more besides. Pretentious perhaps, but also bracing stuff.

Now let’s be clear. I’m certainly not a subscriber to the view that advertising is art. At its best it’s creativity applied to a commercial end. But I do believe that creativity needs to be inspired, catalysed and nourished by a broader set of cultural references and ideas.

Of late I’ve begun to  wonder whether we Music Guys have lost our way and our voice a little. I’m concerned that there may not be enough people discussing arthouse movies, German dance troupes, experimental theatre. Shouldn’t the Agency be abuzz with fevered debate about Hockney and Hirst? Shouldn’t creative reviews be inspired by more  than YouTube? I worry in fact that we have become less pretentious.

Perhaps people work so hard nowadays that they don’t have time to develop what Denis Healey called a ‘hinterland’. Maybe it’s straitened times. We want to be seen as sensible, rational, commercial. Maybe it’s Anglo Saxon reserve. We apply a blanket pejorative to anything slightly outside the norms of conversation and thought. Perhaps it’s British anti-intellectualism. Our TV is dominated by unreality shows, costume anti-dramas, middle brow mundanity (what Simon Schama recently labelled ‘cultural necrophilia’). Our Queen prefers Lambourn to Glyndebourne. Our Prime Minister prefers tennis to Tennyson. And his favourite read is a cook book. Maybe we’re just too busy jogging.

Whatever the source of the problem, l’ve come to rue this loss of pretentiousness. I wish people more often cited the marginal and the maddening, the absurd and the abstruse from the world of art, academia and literature. Not just because it’s interesting, challenging, funny. But because today’s obscure eccentric is tomorrow’s bright young thing. Because creativity’s favourite bedfellows are difference and diversity.

So I’ve determined that I’m going to be pretentious in 2012. And I’ll encourage everyone else to do the same.

Honi soit qui mal y pense…

First published: BBH Labs  10/02/2012

No. 11