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July 2011

Winning the war

Somebody was speaking to me today about how important story telling is for a speaker, and I couldn’t agree more. The Cox Report on English teaching, like most Government sponsored reports, was full of well meaning waffle, but it did have one blindingly brilliant sentence in it: “Narrative may be regarded as a primary act of mind”.

And so it is not only in public speaking that telling stories is critical, it’s critical all the time – it’s primary in fact; for only when we tell the story and move away from the abstractions of our language that we really convey the message that we intend.

Take the other day. I was on a Skype call to a friend and they had a business problem. They said to me, “James, I am not sure what to do. I have this product which I acquired a year ago – it’s going well, although I need to do more marketing. But there is this new product and I am sure there is an even bigger market for it, and I could add it easily to my portfolio, although it is quite an investment to acquire. What should I do?”

What a decision! I don’t know – what should he do? I could analyse further, drill down and find out a little more may be, and from that provide a more informed opinion. But the trouble with a more informed opinion is – it is only an opinion; but if I drill down enough I will be giving advice. And then if he takes it and I am wrong … ultimately he needs to make the decision. Enter the story.

I say, rhetorically, do you remember World War II, my friend? He laughs. I have always thought, rightly or wrongly, that the biggest single reason why Hitler lost the war was at Moscow. Remember he was at the gates – his whole army could have taken the capital and sent Stalin fleeing to Siberia where with the best will in the world conducting operations would have been to say the least much trickier. But at that crucial moment when Hitler needed to tell his Generals to take the capital, he did something else.

He ordered them to take Moscow AND he ordered them to take Leningrad and Stalingrad as well. Against the advice of his own Generals he split his army in three parts and from one attack on one objective, three much smaller German armies attacked three widely separated objectives.

The rest is history as they say, for Hitler failed to take Moscow, failed to take Leningrad, and most significantly failed to take Stalingrad – Stalingrad being really the point where the whole tide of the war turned against him. The War was there for the winning, but instead of focusing his forces, Hitler in an act of blind arrogance and self-delusion threw it all away.

So it is in business. Do we have the resources to fight a war in more than one market? Are we dividing and weakening our capabilities? Can we follow this through? Thus I ask myself.

“Ah!” he said. He understood. I didn’t know his answer, but the story focused his mind on what he needed to do. And the rest is history.

The Motivation of Art

Like most people I love art in all its forms, especially literature, music and painting. We take it for granted that art exists; after all, the papers are full of reviews of it. Only last Saturday the Telegraph was stuffed with interesting art reviews. But as I read some of them I thought: is this art?

Take the case of ‘performance artist’ Marina Abramovic. A colour picture showed her sitting on a large mound of bloody bones, as if fresh from a butcher’ shop, her hands handling the bones, and her smock saturated with blood. Then we learn that she “stark naked … ate a kilo of honey, drank a litre of red wine, carved a pentagram onto her stomach using a razor blade, whipped herself, and lay down on a cross made of ice for half an hour, bleeding copiously.”

The reviewer, approvingly and with relish, goes on to describe further excesses as works of art – and doubtless proves it art because people queue to see it, including Sharon Stone and Lady Gaga. Wow! VIPs here then?

The article is nearly one and half pages in length – amazing exposure in fact. Again, it sounds fuddy-duddy to question whether this is art, but is it? People thinking something is doesn’t make it so, anymore than millions thinking Hitler was the saviour of Germany made that so; he wasn’t – and millions of people were deluded.

So it is in the art world. There seems to be a nihilistic and nasty movement, which is anti-art and so anti-life, masquerading as the real thing and it has got a grip on the media and critical establishments. We had a great launch of the Bournemouth by the Sea Arts festival last night at the Royal Bath Hotel – and here too we had one act of conceptual nonsense parading as ‘art’.

What is art? Art is the revelation through some media – including, but not limited to, words, lines and sounds – of the soul of the person, situation or thing. By which I mean: the truth of that person, situation, or thing is made manifest; so always, no matter how ugly, hideous, or distorted the object of artistic representation is in itself, art reveals its intrinsic beauty; makes visible its shining.

Thus art is never mere excrement on a wall, or condom in a bed, or random fall out, because the ‘soul’ of some one, some thing, some situation, is always complex, is always meaningful, has always the ‘logos’ present. For ‘conceptual’ artists this is too difficult to understand, so they simplify – they ‘soapify’ it and serialise chunks of reality, which is why cleaners at exhibitions frequently bin these items by mistake.

The anti-art marketing process is simple but effective: here’s a slab of excrement in your face – you know what excrement is, they challenge? – ah, so, you recognise my art. They do their ‘thing’ and it is done. Let us, then, be done with giving credit to conceptual termites pretending they are artists and this is art – it is not and neither are they.

Art like life portrays and conveys complexity even within the simple: a sunflower in the hands of a great artist suggests far more than ‘mere’ sunflowers. True art even when dealing with the evil and unlovely creates beauty – and beauty inspires and motivates. Put another way: our energies and capacities are enhanced by real art, and correspondingly diminished by conceptual drivel, muzak, and reality TV.