I wrote the last set of notes (here
) while I was in New York, in between rehearsals and carrying on with my day job in London. I always find writing on a subject like culture an interesting experience, because I’ve kind of dedicated my last ten years to understanding and trying to explain it, but yet I still find it incredibly difficult to articulate. I seem to write nothing for a few months, and lots of little thoughts and ideas accumulate, until they tip over the side and I feel compelled to write it all down before I forget it (I have a terrible short term memory). With that in mind, I’m trying to make a more conscious effort to write down little notes as they crop up, in order to remember them, but also to move on from them onto the next set of thoughts (which also ties into some of my reading on Buddhism and mindfulness).
So one morning when I had a couple of hours to spare between meetings, I had a walk around MoMA, with the contents of the last letter reverberating around my head.
I hadn’t been to MoMA in more than fifteen years. I’ve only been once, and I remember being at quite a formative point in life (I think I would’ve been 14 and just starting to take a vague interest in art), and just seeing everything had a really lasting effect on me. It introduced me to different styles of art, and began an interest contemporary art, surrealism, and Dada. Up until that point I saw art as being mainly sort of impressionist-type stuff, that while technically great, I found emotionally boring (don’t @ me). Art didn’t feel like it was for me.
So I was really looking forward to going again.
As I walked in I was listening to Don Cherry’s Organic Music Society, which is excellent. Astral, cosmic, and with a weirdly lo-fi feel to it, it was the perfect soundtrack to a wander round a gallery. Now, I’m not going to lie, there were quite a few moments when I definitely found myself with a stupid grin on my face, as there were quite a few moments when the music felt like they played into what I was looking at. Yep, I’m that guy.
This weird combination of art and music did, however, get me to thinking a lot about the relationship between art (in its broadest sense) and the viewer. I studied English Literature at university, and the modules on critical thinking and theory were the ones that I found the most interesting – Death of the Authortype stuff. Do we need to know anything about the artist to appreciate the art? My view used to be that it was important to divorce one from the other – that art was what you made of it, and that the impression and perspective of the viewer was part of the process of creating art. However, as I’ve developed my thinking around culture, I’m not sure that stands true any more.
Is our emotional connection to art disconnected from our sense of cultural belonging? Surely the cultures and subcultures that we are part of form a massive part of how we perceive cultural artefacts (such as paintings, music, literature etc). So that would suggest that there’s a number of factors at play in how we build an emotional connection to art; the artefact, the intention (and cultural belonging) of the artist, the individual viewer / listener response, and the cultural belonging of the viewer. If all four of these aspects align, then surely that’s a sure fire hit?
It was at this point, sat down in front of work from Gerhard Richter, that Don Cherry sang about the balance between uniformity and individuality, with regards to our way to relate to the world. This was one of the moments when I obviously started grinning / borderline laughing. Cosmic! If culture is our way of finding a way of relating to the world, then the artefacts that we create (and consume) are our building blocks for identity.
Cultural artefacts help us explain how we see the world, and the act of creating art or a cultural artefact is a way of creating something new that didn’t exist before. It helps us to articulate something that feels intangible. I was at a series of talks a few weeks ago, and Marcus du Sautoy (who wrote The Creativity Code) spoke about AI and creativity, and while I was really skeptical of his views on the importance of AI in the creative process (that’s for another letter), he talked about art as our way of communicating and explaining our consciousness, which I thought was really interesting. Consciousness is something that we have very few ways of expressing – it’s such an ethereal and personal concept, much like it’s difficult to explain how we see colours, smell smells, or hear sounds. Our perspective on our perceptions is built by our consciousness, and given it’s unique to us, it makes it really difficult to explain.
In Path of Compassion by Thich Nhat Hanh, there’s a line where Siddhartha (the young Buddha) says “our consciousness is like an artist, painting every phenomenon into being”. This connection between our consciousness, our perception, and art is strong. This felt like a bit of a break through, and it’s really reinforced my thinking around cultural artefacts being strongly linked to building our sense of self, while also helping us to explain who we are to other people. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the two – different artefacts help us understand ourselves, while also showing others who we are too. Maybe this is complete common sense to you, but for me this felt like a big moment.
There are also more physiological evidence for this too. As you read this, I’ll be into the second day of an adland conference in Brighton, and yesterday I saw Professor Sophie Scott (a neuroscientist from UCL) give a talk on the voice, how we (humans) developed our ability to communicate over time. One of the things that leapt out to me from her excellent talk was that our speech and voices change when we speak to different people. We make a subconscious decision to mimic other people based on wanting to fit in with who we’re talking to. So even at a physiological level, we use communication to signal our affiliation to certain cultures and subcultures. This is another symmetrical relationship too, as we have a neurological response to the sounds of other people’s voices. So our voice communicates more than we realise, and use of language and sound indicates and signals specific identity.
So our voice indicates affiliation to different groups, as does our choice of the cultural artefacts that we choose to create, consume, and share with others. This desire to understand and explain where we belong, as well as trying to help explain our consciousness and the way that we look at the world is intrinsically tied to culture and cultural artefacts.
Back to MoMA. As I carried on wandering around (and listening to the last half of Organic Music Society), I started to think about how friends think about art and music. As you get to the upper floors of MoMA, it has a more contemporary feel – there’s more and more of what some friends would describe as ‘challenging’ art. The back half of the Don Cherry album is also a bit more avant garde too – I know a lot of people who’d describe that as just as challenging as some of the work I was looking at. For me, the connection between jazz and contemporary art is pretty strong – there are obvious chronological and social connections, but I started to think about both create meaning from seeming chaos. Seeing work by Pollock, or hearing work by Cherry, it would be easy to imagine someone saying that it was ‘just mess’ or ‘just noise’. That a child could create it, and that it took no skill. I’m sympathetic to this, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve said similar things in the past.
So what has changed?
I think the answer is in exposure. Like I mentioned the last time I wrote a proper letter, ‘the more ideas that you’re exposed to, the more those new ideas will feel familiar’. So the only change that took place was that I became more and more exposed to jazz, and more exposed to ‘weird’ art. In my own experience I chose to explore, but this idea of exposure makes bringing new ideas to people challenging, and controlling for exposure can be hard. In the excellent Boiler Room interview with the people behind Mister Saturday Night and Douglas Sherman (Loft original), they talk about Larry Levan introducing new (challenging) music and it clearing the dancefloor. Most people would respond by playing something different, but Levan would put the record back on. And play it again, and again, until people started to like it. He forced exposure to make something acceptable (and loved).
A large part of my job is talking to clients about culture and new ideas, but as part of that I spend a lot of time bringing new ideas to brands. Sometimes those ideas are too surprising, and so don’t take hold, sometimes they’re too familiar. Finding the balance is really tricky, but a huge part of my job. I’ve realised that as well as understanding culture, my job involves a lot of reframing problems and putting new lenses on ideas in order to make them MAYA (most advanced, yet acceptable). Despite working in the industry for more than ten years, every day I realise how little I know, and so set about trying to find new ways to explain culture, reframe ideas, and make our work as an agency MAYA.
Writing to you is a brilliant way of working these thoughts through, and hopefully reading this is as useful for you as it is for me writing it. So I’m going to try and keep up with sharing my rambling ideas 🙂.