Three Sisters: Dreams of Progress

The Wyndham Sisters by   John Singer Sargent 1899

The Wyndham Sisters by John Singer Sargent 1899

'It seems to me that everything is going to change little by little, that change is already under way, before our eyes. In two or three hundred years, perhaps in a thousand years, no matter how long, there will be a new, happy life. Of course, we will not be there any more, but that's why we live, work, suffer. We are creating that life - it's the only goal of our existence, and if you like, of our happiness.’ 
Vershinin, ‘Three Sisters’

I recently saw a fine production of Anton Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters.’ (The Almeida Theatre, London, until 1 June) 

The Prozorov sisters live with their useless brother in a provincial town. Their parents have passed away and they feel isolated, lonely, cut adrift.

'For us, three sisters, life has not been beautiful - it chokes us, like weeds.' 

Older sister Olga is a spinster working long hours as a teacher. Middle sister Masha married young and is now dissatisfied with her husband Chebutykin:

Chebutykin: ‘I’m happy, happy, happy.’
Masha: ‘I’m bored, bored, bored.’

Irina, the youngest of the three, worries that love has passed her by:

'I've never been in love. I've dreamt of it day and night, but my heart is like a fine piano no one can play because the key is lost.’

The Prozorovs long for a return to Moscow where they grew up - for its culture and sophistication, its lively conversation about music, literature and language. Moscow represents everything they have loved and lost, everything they hope for in the future. As brother Andrey puts it:

'In Moscow you can sit in an enormous restaurant where you don’t know anybody and where nobody knows you, and yet you don’t feel that you’re a stranger. Here you know everybody and everybody knows you, and you’re a stranger... a lonely stranger.'

No one does very much in ‘Three Sisters.’ What action there is tends to happen off-stage. The characters spend most of the time gossiping, musing, philosophizing, taking another trip to the samovar. They are nostalgic, bored and wistful. They discuss the importance of work without doing very much of it. In particular they meditate on the meaning of life. What’s it all about? Why are we here? Why do we persevere when our daily existence seems so full of struggles and hardship? 

One of the houseguests, the nobleman Tuzenbakh, sees little sign of any progress or improvement in the human condition:

‘Life will remain the same as ever, not only after two or three centuries, but in a million years. Life does not change, it remains constant, following its own laws, which do not concern us, or which, at any rate, we will never discover. Migrant birds, cranes for example, fly and fly, and whatever thoughts, high or low, enter their heads, they will still fly on without knowing why or where to.’

Masha isn’t satisfied with this analysis:

Masha: 'Isn’t there some meaning?’
Tuzenbakh: 'Meaning? … Look out there, it’s snowing. What’s the meaning of that?’ 

Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin, who has recently arrived in town as the local battery commander, offers a different perspective. He suggests that, despite its many challenges and disappointments, step by imperceptible step, society is moving forward, making advances. He illustrates this conviction by considering the plight of the three sisters:

'It goes without saying that you are not going to overcome the mass of ignorance around you. Little by little, as you advance in life, you will be obliged to yield and be swallowed up in the crowd of a hundred thousand human beings. Life will stifle you. But you will all the same not have disappeared without having made an impact. After you there will be perhaps only six women like you, then twelve, and so on, until finally you will become the majority. In two or three hundred years life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful, amazing, astonishing.’ 

Masha, who yearns to believe in something, gradually falls for the charms of the battery commander:

Cover of first edition, published 1901

Cover of first edition, published 1901

’First I thought he was strange, then I was sorry for him…then I fell in love with him.’

I found myself sympathising with the arguments of both Tuzenbakh and Vershinin. Like Tuzenbakh I accept that the human condition is timeless and we must take solace in the small things just to get us through the day: in modest kindnesses and friendly gestures, in the comedy of circumstance and the charms of nature. But like Vershinin I still believe that, in the long run, with industry and collective effort, society can move forward.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe in progress. At work we are confronted with contracting opportunities and intractable problems: increasing hours, decreasing job security, automation, discrimination, stress and procurement. 

More broadly in the world today we are beset by political turmoil, economic inequality, rampant populism, escalating terrorism, technology’s dark shadow and environmental decay. Everywhere we look we see difficulty and defeat, thwarted hope and disappointed ambition. Sometimes it seems that our best years are behind us. 

And yet, like Vershinin, I think it’s important to retain an optimistic view. We can pull through if we keep our heads to the sky. Confronted with impediments and reverses, Dr Martin Luther King and President Obama were inclined to quote the nineteenth century abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker:

'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ 

Sadly things do not work out well for the Prozorov sisters. Before the play is over there is tragedy, frustration, compromise. And it doesn’t seem like they will make it to Moscow any time soon. Vershinin reflects mournfully on life’s challenges and disappointments:

'I often think, what if one were to begin life over again, but consciously? What if one life, the life already lived, were only a rough sketch so to speak, and the second were the fair copy?’


'Don't give up and don't give in,
Although it seems you never win.
You will always pass the test,
As long as you keep your head to the sky.
You can win as long as you keep your head to the sky.
Be optimistic.’

Sounds of Blackness, ‘Optimistic' (G Hines / J Harris / T Lewis)

No. 228

 

 

 

 

Gainsborough’s Daughters: Even Hard Nosed Business People Can Have Soft Centres

Thomas Gainsborough - The Painter's Daughters with a Cat. Circa 1760-1.  Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

Thomas Gainsborough - The Painter's Daughters with a Cat. Circa 1760-1. Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

I confess I’ve not been the greatest fan of Thomas Gainsborough. All those flattering portraits of lords, ladies and the landed gentry; of stout colonels, fashionable celebrities and bewigged countesses. All those haughty looks, formidable stares, self-satisfied glances. Gainsborough was clearly a gifted artist. With his fast, light-handed brushstrokes, he elegantly captured the confident swagger of eighteenth century English society. But to me his pictures displayed little warmth or psychological insight.

I may have misjudged him.

I recently attended an exhibition of Gainsborough’s family portraits. (‘Gainsborough’s Family Album’, the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 3 February.)

Gainsborough was the first British artist regularly to paint himself and his family members. Although he claimed to prefer landscape painting to the portraiture that made his name and paid his keep, these intimate works were a labour of love. Many were unfinished. Perhaps he liked to tinker away at them in his spare time. Perhaps he just preferred them that way.

With her rosy cheeks and black mantilla, Gainsborough’s wife Margaret looks somewhat long-suffering and resigned. In her white lace bow and bonnet, older sister Sarah, a milliner, suggests intelligence and determination. Artist nephew Gainsborough Dupont appears in a blue silk jacket, all handsome and romantic. Clerical brother Humphrey seems sincere and devout. Older brother John, unshaven with unruly hair, comes across as something of a rogue. Nicknamed ‘Scheming Jack’, John was endlessly pursuing ill-fated money-making projects. The picture is inscribed ‘Gainsborow’.

Thomas Gainsborough -The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly. Circa 1756.  Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

Thomas Gainsborough -The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly. Circa 1756. Courtesy of The Nation Gallery

Gainsborough portrays his family as ordinary middle-class folk with characterful faces and stories to tell; interesting people in everyday attire, with varied preoccupations and concerns.

I was particularly struck by a sequence of paintings, created over many years, of Gainsborough’s two daughters. Margaret, aged 5, reaches for a butterfly, and 6-year-old Mary grasps her hand to protect her from an unseen thistle bush. A few years later Mary puts a comforting arm around her sister’s shoulder as she cradles a cat. Then Mary adjusts Margaret’s hair as she stares out at us, slightly annoyed perhaps. The two teenage sisters earnestly contemplate their art studies. The two society ladies in their twenties rejoice in their silk finery, attended by a faithful hound.

Seen through the paintings he made of his daughters, Gainsborough comes across, not as a sycophantic lover of celebrity elites, but rather as a protective, thoughtful and affectionate father. He wants the best for his girls. He believes in them.

I found myself rather liking this Gainsborough.

In the world of business we are sometimes quick to dismiss colleagues, competitors and clients as villains and fools. We leap to assumptions, jump to conclusions. We readily characterize people as simple-minded, selfish and soulless.

But we may simply have approached from the wrong angle, got off on the wrong foot. Often hard-nosed commercial people have soft centres; sometimes cool, calculating exteriors conceal tender, warm-hearted interior lives.

You just need to ask the right questions.

Thomas Gainsborough  Portrait of the Artist's Daughters , about 1763-64. Courtesy of Worcester Art Museum

Thomas Gainsborough Portrait of the Artist's Daughters, about 1763-64. Courtesy of Worcester Art Museum

As so often in life, things didn’t quite turn out for Gainsborough’s daughters as he or they had hoped. The young women didn’t pursue an artistic career. Aged 30 Mary married a musician, but it didn’t work out and she returned home two years later. Her mental health deteriorated, and Margaret, who never married, took care of her in seclusion in Acton. When Margaret passed away, Mary was committed to an asylum where she stayed for the rest of her life. 

Thomas Gainsborough himself died from cancer in 1788 at the age of 61. In his last letter he wrote, somewhat wistfully:

‘’Tis odd how all the childish passions hang about one in sickness. I am so childish that I could make a kite, catch gold finches, or build little ships.'

No. 212

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

Whistler’s Butterfly: Creative Talent Often Comes with a Sting in Its Tail

Screen Shot 2017-09-06 at 10.47.08.png

‘[Whistler] is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr Whistler entirely concurs.’
Oscar Wilde

For much of his career the artist James McNeill Whistler inscribed his work with a stylised butterfly monogram based on his JW initials. He designed the device with elegant wings and curved antennae. And in time he gave it a barbed tail.

In many ways Whistler’s butterfly represented his own talent and personality. He was an articulate, charismatic, independent spirit, who could create extraordinary beauty. But his gifts came hand-in-hand with vanity and a sharp tongue.

‘I maintain that two and two would continue to make four, in spite of the whine of the amateurs for three, or the cry of the critic for five.’

Born in 1834 to prosperous parents in Lowell, Massachusetts, in his youth Whistler travelled to Russia and England. He was educated (somewhat reluctantly) at West Point, studied art in Paris and settled in London in 1859.

Whistler immediately found himself at odds with the art establishment. He disliked the narrative and naturalism that were the order of the day. He detested the flattery and sentiment to which Victorian audiences were so partial. He rejected the conventional notion that art had a moral or social function. Rather he believed in ‘art for art’s sake.’

Working from a limited colour palette, with balanced composition, Whistler sought to achieve ‘tonal harmony’. He often compared his work with music. He painted subdued, thoughtful, full-length portraits. He painted dreamy ‘nocturnes’ of the Thames at rest. He painted his mother in profile, seated, in an austere black dress, her white bonnet atop neat grey hair, her lace-cuffed hands clasping a handkerchief.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1 or Whistler’s Mother

Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1 or Whistler’s Mother

Whistler was small of stature, but large of personality. He dressed like a dandy, cultivated a curly moustache and sported a monocle. He enjoyed the Bohemian life, parties and entertaining. And he found a natural soul mate in Oscar Wilde.

Wilde: ‘I wish I’d said that.’
Whistler: ‘You will, Oscar, you will!’

In truth Whistler was rather arrogant and egotistical, something of a self-publicist.

‘I can’t tell you if genius is hereditary because heaven has granted me no offspring.’

He may have needed an audience, but he didn’t need friends. Whistler liked to pick fights.

‘I am not arguing with you – I am telling you.’

Whistler’s unconventional views and combustible temperament inevitably brought him into conflict with the forces of conservatism. Famously in 1877 he sued John Ruskin for libel after the critic had accused him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’

At the trial Ruskin’s counsel queried the price Whistler had charged for ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket:’

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

‘The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?’

‘No,’ replied Whistler, ‘I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.’

Whistler won the case, but was awarded only a farthing’s damages. The court costs bankrupted him.

Bitter experience didn’t convince Whistler to moderate his views. In 1890 he published ‘The Gentle Art of Making Enemies’, a record of, and reflections on, the Ruskin case.  He dedicated it to ‘the rare few, who, early in life, have rid themselves of the friendship of the many.’

Whistler reminds us that creativity doesn’t necessarily come hand-in-hand with congeniality; that innovators don’t always arrive with good table manners; that inspirational talent often has a sting in its tail.

Truly original thinkers must by definition be somewhat egotistical. They have to attach a particular value to their own distinctive worldview. They must feel comfortable with going against the crowd.

This creates dilemmas for Agency leadership. We want our creatives to break convention in their work, but we balk at too much unconventional behaviour in the office. We want them to express their individuality, but to do so within a team; to be emotional on paper, but rational in meetings. We want our talent to be creative, but we don’t want it to destroy too many things along the way.

I think leaders of creative businesses need to be tolerant. We have to accommodate a certain amount of vanity, misbehaviour, sharp words and rule breaking – if it is in the service of the work. But when eccentricity creates collateral damage; when it is self-serving and injurious to colleagues, then we have to step in. We have to draw the line at abuse of power.

Creative leaders must learn to harness talent to a commercial goal without diminishing its potency, and without compromising the company’s values. This is not easy. It requires judgement. And we must be ever mindful of Whistler’s own observation:

‘An artist is not paid for his labor, but for his vision.’

No. 148

Are You Solving a Problem or Managing a Dilemma?

Flandrin 'Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea'

Flandrin 'Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea'

An astute observer recently pointed out to me that much of my advice seems to contradict itself. This is true. On the one hand I encourage listening and empathy; on the other hand I believe in a strong authorial voice. Sometimes I advise pragmatism and diplomacy; at others I suggest tenacity and idealism. I propose sensitivity to texture and tone, alongside reduction and simplicity; I advocate doubt and scepticism, alongside confidence and conviction.

In part this is because diverse situations call for diverse forms of strategic engagement. We need different tools for different tasks. But on a more fundamental level it’s because life is inherently confusing; people are cryptic; business is complex. The human condition is a paradox.

As strategists we often think of ourselves as problem solvers. We figure out the puzzle, crack the code, answer the question - and move on. But this may sometimes be an unhelpful characterisation of the task in hand. And in the process we may risk misunderstanding our Clients’ and our consumers’ concerns.

Not all the challenges we face in life and business are problems that can be solved. Not all the questions have right and wrong answers.

Often we are confronted with dilemmas: issues that are complex and conflicted; the opposing tensions between fundamental needs and ongoing desires, between different drives and motivations; the varying interests of individuals and groups.

Dilemmas are issues that won’t go away. They can’t be solved. They can only be managed.

In ordinary life most people have to deal with the conflicting needs of children and parents; with the contrary ambitions of partners within a relationship; with the ongoing tensions between work and life, health and happiness, head and heart. We all have to balance the pressures of the short and long term, of individual and collective good.

As business leaders we may have to consider the contrary pressures of the commercial and the reputational; the conflicting rights of individual employees; the tension between freedom and responsibility within teams; the balance between the incompatible needs of different disciplines.

These are not problems that can be solved; questions that can be answered. They are complex, enduring dilemmas that must be carefully calibrated; and responded to with subtlety and nuance.

Perhaps the paradox at the heart of the human condition explains why so many popular dictums contradict each other. Should we strike while the iron is hot, or keep our powder dry? Do birds of a feather flock together, or do opposites attract? Are two heads better than one, or do too many cooks spoil the broth?

It may also be why many of the aphorisms we turn to in business embrace ambiguity: we ‘think global and act local;’ we have ‘freedom within a framework;' we 'speak softly and carry a big stick.'

In the world of commercial creativity it has often been said that our fundamental task is to ‘manage tensions’: between the rational and the emotional; between behaviour and belief; between the creative and commercial; between cost, speed and quality; between art and science.

So let’s not suggest that our brand or business has all the answers, when sometimes there are no answers to be had. And let’s not promise to solve a problem, when the best we can do is manage a dilemma.

I’ll probably carry on giving conflicting advice - confident in the conviction that successful leaders employ tools, training and tips alongside intuition, instinct and judgement. This is the skill and craft of leadership.

Great leaders may not solve every problem; but they will ensure that every dilemma is better managed.

No. 128

Me, Myself and I: What Kind of Self-Portrait Would We Paint for Our Brands?

Cristofano Allori 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes'

Cristofano Allori 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes'

There’s a myth that the first person to draw was a shepherd who traced his own shadow in the dust with his staff.  It’s telling perhaps that man’s first picture was of himself, a selfie. We are social animals, but we are also enormously self-centred.

This myth of ‘the invention of the art of drawing’ is captured in an engraving at an excellent exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London. ‘Portrait of the Artist’ embraces all manner of images of artists, both self-portraits and pictures by colleagues, pupils and friends. (It runs until 17 April.)

One cannot help but be fascinated by self-portraits. Here we get to observe what other people see in the mirror; to assess how they present themselves to the world; to see how they want to be seen.

There were practical reasons for artists to engage in self-portraiture. Drawing or painting oneself provided the opportunity to practice, experiment and explore; to consider different facial expressions, moods or pictorial styles. And the models came free.

But artists had other motivations. Sometimes they wanted to leave mementos of themselves for family and loved ones. Sometimes they sought to advertise their talent to potential clients. Sometimes they wanted to celebrate their status or success to a broader public. And sometimes they had a message to pass on.

Edwin Landseer 'The Connoisseurs: Portrait of the Artist with Two Dogs'

Edwin Landseer 'The Connoisseurs: Portrait of the Artist with Two Dogs'

Artists’ choice of context and theme was often telling. Sebastiano Ricci painted himself attending to Christ teaching in the temple. Johan Zoffany recorded himself amongst his fellow Royal Academicians. Jan Steen depicted himself watching card-players in a pub. These artists were declaring their piety, their prestige, their lack of pretension. Edwin Landseer portrayed himself with his dogs looking over his shoulder admiring his draftsmanship. He seems to be suggesting that they at least properly appreciate his work.

Occasionally artists would adopt mythical roles in order to signal a coded theme. Artemesia Gentileschi presented herself as the female personification of painting itself, La Pittura, a conceit unavailable to her male colleagues. Cristofano Allori portrayed himself as Holofernes beheaded by Judith. He modelled the figure of Judith on his former lover, ’La Mazzafirra,’ and had her mother standing by as the murderer’s assistant.

Of course, often self-portraiture expressed intense self-reflection. Lucian Freud peers out from the midst of deep shadows, his eyes dark with world-weary experience. Maria Cosway stares at us with arms folded as if to indicate her disappointment or disdain. And then there is Rembrandt. He put on costume and fancy dress, but painted himself with unflinching honesty: scrutinising the decay of age, the regret and yearning within.

Rembrandt  'Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap'

Rembrandt  'Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap'

One departs the exhibition with a strong sense of the complexity of the human psyche; of the layered self. When we look in the mirror we see many images of ourselves. We are self-centred and self-satisfied; self-doubting and self-deluding. We self-publish and self-promote. We are self-obsessed.

Maria Cosway 'A Self-Portrait '

Maria Cosway 'A Self-Portrait '

You would think that in the field of marketing and communication we would be well versed in the contours and complexities of the layered self. But, whilst many of us in the business tend towards solipsism, how often do we subject our own brands to proper scrutiny? How often do we assess them from within rather from without?

What kind of self-portrait would we paint for our own brands? Would we be puffed up and proud, keen to promote our prestige and status? Would we, like a teenager taking a selfie, betray our own fickle airs and shallow affectations? Or would we, like Rembrandt, be honest, searching and direct?

Perhaps we too should occasionally take a long hard look in the mirror.

 

‘Mirror, mirror on the wall.
Tell me mirror what is wrong?
Can it be my De La clothes?
Or is it just my De La song?
It’s just me, myself and I.
It’s just me, myself and I.’

De La Soul, Me, Myself and I

 

No. 117

‘Today Is Their Creator’: Creative Lessons from Robert Rauschenberg

I recently attended a retrospective of the American artist Robert Rauschenberg. (Tate Modern until 2 April). Blimey. I can’t claim to have had an emotional connection with his work. So much cardboard, cartoons and cut-outs; so much repurposed refuse and random bits and bobs. I suspect my tastes are too conservative. But walking from room to room, through a chaptered narrative of the artist’s career, I could achieve some kind of rational connection. I found myself admiring him. And I certainly felt there was a great deal that commercial creatives could learn from this mercurial talent.

 

1. Be Restless

Rauschenberg was born in 1925 into a fundamentalist Christian household in Port Arthur, Texas. Having served in the Navy during World War II, he took advantage of the GI Bill to travel abroad and he briefly attended art school in Paris. He subsequently studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an institution that encouraged experimentation across a whole host of media. There he learned to do ‘exactly the reverse’ of what he was taught.

Rauschenberg was a restless spirit. The breadth of his output was breathtaking. In the course of his career he explored the possibilities of print making and paper making; photography and collage; pop art and abstraction. He painted in stark black and white monochrome, and in bright vivid colours. He designed costumes and stage sets; worked with found objects and images; experimented in kinetic and interactive art. He collaborated with other artists, with dancers, musicians, scientists and engineers. He choreographed performance pieces and co-created the first Happenings.

Rauschenberg never settled on any one style or form of expression. With his appetite for the untried and untested, he remained resolutely in the present.

‘It is completely irrelevant that I am making them - Today is their creator.’

Rauschenberg was blessed, and perhaps cursed, by what one critic called ‘a perceptual machine.’ He just kept seeing, feeling and thinking different things.

Rauschenberg’s impact on the broader creative culture of his day and on subsequent artistic movements was phenomenal. Most obviously to me the Britartists of the 1990s seemed to be in his debt: way back in the 1950s he created a piece out of his own bedding; he designed a work around a stuffed angora goat; he took a drawing by the established artist Willem de Kooning and erased it…

I guess all of us in the world of commercial creativity should ask ourselves: Are our own ‘perceptual machines’ functioning and well oiled? Can we sustain an appetite for the new as we grow old? Are we, like Rauschenberg, truly, relentlessly, restless spirits?

 

2. Explore ‘The Gap Between’

‘I want my paintings to look like what’s going on outside my window rather than what’s inside my studio.’

In 1954 Rauschenberg began to integrate objects he’d found on local New York streets within his canvases. Wallpaper, windows, wheels and ‘one way’ signs; Coke bottles, brollies, light bulbs and stuffed birds. They all found their way into his Combines, as they were called. It was an approach that brought together painting and sculpture in a new and compelling way.

‘A picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.’

Monogram

Monogram

Rauschenberg seemed fascinated in art that more intimately embraced reality; that broke out of the boundaries that had been set for it; that explored the liminal spaces, betwixt and between.

‘Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)’

I was struck by this idea of exploring ‘the gap between.’ So often in the commercial sector we impose our own constraints on creative expression, or we accept the constraints of convention. But in an ever-changing world there’s always interest to be had in the borderlands between collapsing categories; on the frontiers of technology; at the cusp of change.

In my own time at BBH some of our best work inhabited the threshold between different channels, practices and technologies: press ads that behaved like posters; posters that behaved like films; films that played backwards; shorter timelengths, longer timelengths; longer copy, no copy at all; reflective still images, special builds, interactive posters, POV camerawork; films that focused on real people, real events, real experiments; Chinese takeaway lids. So often the opportunities occurred at the margins of standard practice, on the edge of the frame.

Are we as alert as we should be to the creative potential in collaboration, combination, co-ordination? Do we remember sometimes to make the medium the message? Are we eager to explore the ‘gap in between?’

Retroactive II

Retroactive II

 

3. Be Ruthless

‘I’m not interested in doing what I know or what I think I can do.’

By all reports Rauschenberg was charming, gregarious and fun. A smile was never far from his lips. But he was ruthless with ideas, both his own and those of others. He knew that you cannot progress if you still have your feet in the past.

When Rauschenberg arrived in New York as a young man in 1949 the dominant creative movement was Abstract Expressionism. But he was determined from the outset to make a clean break.

‘You have to have time to feel sorry for yourself if you’re going to be a good Abstract Expressionist. And I think I always considered that a waste.’

In 1962, around the same time as Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg began experimenting with silkscreens. He reproduced and artfully arranged found images that were historic and contemporary; political and cultural; mundane and arresting. These silkscreens brought him substantial recognition and, in 1964, they won him a prize at the Venice Biennale. He immediately called home and instructed his assistant to destroy any silkscreens left in the studio. He was alert to the insidious seductions of success.

Are we in the commercial sector as willing to dismiss established practice and break for the new? Are we as decisive as Rauschenberg? Can we claim to be as ruthless with our own success?

 

4. Let’s Get Lost

As I was about to depart the exhibition, I returned to a piece called Mud Muse. In 1968 Rauschenberg filled a large metal tank with 1000 gallons of bentonite clay and collaborated with technicians to animate this clay with bubbles that responded to the sounds around it. The result was an art exhibit that gurgles, slurps and plops. I watched a party of young school kids consider it. They were at once amazed and amused. And they demonstrated the emotional connection that I had failed to make.

Mud Muse

Mud Muse

‘I still have an innocent curiosity about how things go…All I’m trying to do is get everybody off the highway and, if anybody follows my lead, they’ll soon be lost too.’

Perhaps this is Rauschenberg’s best lesson. I’m sure sometimes we over-think our engagement with ideas. Sometimes we should let go and embrace a little innocent curiosity. Sometimes we should just take a turn off life’s highway. Come on, let’s get lost.

‘Let's get lost
Lost in each other's arms
Let's get lost
Let them send out alarms


And though they'll think us rather rude
Let's tell the world we're in that crazy mood.


Let's defrost in a romantic mist
Let's get crossed off everybody's list
To celebrate this night we've found each other
Mm, let's get lost.’

Chet Baker/ Let’s Get Lost: Frank Loesser, Jimmy Mchugh

No. 116

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