Behaving Badly

We all know the cliché; the “Enfant Terrible” – the out of control, rebel artist, gratuitously strafing his way through excess drugs, booze and sexual debauchery, yet somehow (miraculously) maintaining a consistent output of brilliant, original, groundbreaking work. They abuse their most important relationships, yet inexplicably, they’re still universally beloved and admired. It’s a nonsense, of course – a confection carefully crafted by marketing men to shift units, as any artist that has tried to live such a self-destructive life, for real, has rapidly discovered to their cost. Nobody can behave that badly and escape the consequences.

In upholding this stereotype as an ideal, is it we who are, in fact, behaving badly? Why do we egg them on, toward ultimate oblivion? Why do we insist our artists transcend mortality, when it is patently obvious they cannot. Nobody can. Are artists our blood sacrifices to an impossible standard?

George Orwell held that all human problems stem from a common cause. It’s a thread that runs through all of his best-known works. Charles Dicken’s novels, too, are testament to the very same thesis. Humanity’s ills can be attributed to the undeniable observation that human beings tend to choose to behave very badly.  

The solution, as obvious as it is, is not to impose more violence, laws, governance and force, to create the illusion of order. The people charged with doing that, in spite of their stated best intentions, invariably end up behaving extraordinarily badly themselves. The late Fidel Castro, to choose just one example, was demonstrably a poster boy for this terrible contradiction. No, the real solution is for individuals to choose, voluntarily, to behave much better than they do.

The prevailing zeitgeist holds that the key to thriving is whatever you can get away with. Like good little trained psychopaths, we imagine that taking whatever we want, justifying our aggressive greed on the basis of freedom, liberty and rugged individualism, while at he same time defraying the costs of our actions on everyone and everything else, is just fine. It’s how you win. It’s how you thrive. Capitalism is a religion devoted to this idea that behaving as badly and as capriciously as we want, toward other people, living things and the environment, is the highest ideal. We’ve essentially equated behaving badly with virtue and the highest good; so twisted is our logic.

Any sober examination of the facts quickly reveals that this cannot be, yet we doggedly adhere to the fixation. This, I submit, is unarguable proof of our collective insanity. Personal gain, at the expense of the destruction of other people and our shared life-support ecosystems, is no gain at all. Behaving badly is far from heroic, yet who do we laud as our heroes? Mendacious, dishonest, manipulative sociopaths, marked out by their extreme self-indulgence and conspicuous over-consumption. These are the people we want to be. Our fantasies and aspirations are about being able to behave as badly as the worst of humanity.

Humans have a seemingly infinite capacity to create self-serving justifications for their bad behaviour. In every case, their outrageous, petulant selfishness is wrapped up in talk of the natural order of things, as if it were some immutable law of physics. The truth is, that it’s the pure sense of entitlement to their own unlikely good fortune that the privileged seem to seduce themselves with.  

Those of a conservative inclination fervently and sincerely believe in their innate moral, intellectual and ethical superiority, which they feel gives them license to impose policies that are little less than murderous, on the poor, precarious, disabled and vulnerable. They don’t necessarily want to kill these people directly, but are quite relaxed about leaving them to perish. They don’t shed tears over the situation they, themselves, created and think that this is just Nature running its course, denying utterly their active part in helping Nature along. Regrettably, there is no hard evidence whatsoever for the genetic superiority of conservatives, which might have justified their entitlement to their good fortune, despite their obsession with DNA studies. The truth is that sudden misfortune can turn anybody into a down and outer, at a speed that few would be comfortable acknowledging. Yes, it could be you. Don’t fool yourself that you’re immune.

The recent Brexit and Trump campaigns and ballots appear to have unleashed a veritable orgy of bad behaviour, vindicating and elevating the seemingly worst-behaved candidates, giving license to the most base abuses by the winners and losers alike. The winners will, of course, be betrayed in the end, as what they voted for was pure impossibility. More bad behaviour. Expect similar in the forthcoming French and German elections. It’s what the electorate have been taught by example. When life’s apparent winners nakedly cheat, lie, evade their obligations to their societies and live lives of extreme and vainglorious opulence, is it any wonder that the bad behaviour of ordinary people seems wholly legitimised?

While the victors accuse the vanquished of character defects and moral deficiency, it masks the real socioeconomic causes of extreme inequality: there is a class of people making off like bandits, stealing from everybody they can – very bad behaviour indeed. Meanwhile, everybody blames the victims. Even more bad behaviour. The problem is that the victors can’t escape the boomerang consequences of their bad behaviour, in the end. It will come back to bite them and bite them hard.

It’s a peculiar irony that the privileged accuse the impoverished of a “culture of entitlement”, when it is their own sense of entitlement to their assumed privilege that has caused the suffering and misery in the first place. Swindlers always believe that everybody else is a swindler and further, that they should be better swindlers, so that they wouldn’t be so poor. These people deny their interdependence on the other people in the society they live in and never acknowledge that their existence is ultimately dependent on the kindness and indulgence of strangers. Other people are not prey, furnished for your sole convenience, so that you may take much more than you need.

What the genuinely productive and thriving artists all discover is that gratitude and generosity matter and matter crucially. You can’t behave badly, indefinitely and get away with it. Eventually, it costs you your creative capacities and your art. Successful artists learn that ethics, self discipline and choosing to behave well, both to yourself and to others, is the secret. You have to be a well-behaved person to be a good artist. Sure, you can get away with atrocious behaviour for a short while, but it’s not a viable way of building a long term career. And the important thing about good behaviour is that nobody can or will make you. It’s a choice you have to make, over and over again, at every moment, despite the temptations to choose otherwise.

Our politicians, activists, the partisans in the electorate, business leaders, financiers, landlords, entrepreneurs, war mongers, scientists, media barons and rabble rousers could learn a thing or two from thriving artists. Behaving badly is the road to ultimate destruction.

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The Dangers of Day Jobs

Imagine if there was a method guaranteed to reduce your personal productivity by 35 to 75 percent. Would you take it? If you could choose to leave your own technology and software tools sitting idle at home, in a comfortable work space, arranged to your liking, to instead work on older, less powerful computers, with worse and fewer software tools and inferior Internet connectivity, chosen by somebody else, at a desk in an open plan room, would you choose that? Would you choose to create your best work in an environment where two out of three people have to hack workarounds, just to get their work done? If there was a working arrangement purpose-designed to screw you over and take full advantage of your creative output, while returning only a small sliver of the value of that output to you in return, would that seem like a good deal?

What if there was somebody whose sole focus was on preventing you from experimenting, learning, taking chances, failing, changing the pattern of your work and the products of your creativity, seeing new opportunities, innovating or self-directing your work? Would you keep working with them, even though their entire purpose is to hold you back and slow you down, for fear of losing control of you?

Would you choose to work somewhere that insisted that you fit in, instead of standing out? If only one in ten of your colleagues, at this mythical workplace, believed it provided them with the means to achieve their dreams and become their best self, would that be a place conducive to fostering your creativity? What if the organisers of that workplace saw you as a cost to be reduced, not as a value creator with loads of unrealised potential and a consumer of the organisation’s own products? Would you feel great about devoting a big piece of your life to that?

Welcome to the world of the day job – an arrangement that has been so one sided, in favour of the monied, for so long, that it is in very real danger of being a significant drain on the creative capacity of all of humanity. It has had an entrenched monopoly position for so long, viciously defended, that not working in a job has been almost totally impractical. The toll, in terms of lost opportunity, unrealised productivity and innovation, in crushed dreams and souls, is incalculable and tragic.

There are technologies that have the potential to overturn this situation, reducing the stranglehold that capital has over creative individuals. Blockchain has the potential to favour individuals, rather than companies. People are also simply refusing to work under these oppressive conditions. It makes no sense to them, when their work is their life. Why would any sane, rational person choose to be held back, in their life’s work and personal development? Why would they leave their self-actualisation to people asking the wrong questions?

But these are not the only dangers associated with having a day job, to support your art practice. Companies are often the refuge of people that aren’t very creative or innovative. As a highly creative, innovative person, you’ll be met with petty jealousies and people who think it their company-mandated duty to micromanage the creativity and innovation right out of you. You represent change and they resist change violently.

If, heaven forbid, your innovations actually make sense, those that have limited creative and innovative capacity, but who are in charge, will insist that your ideas cannot be implemented until they have thought them through themselves. They don’t trust your conclusions. They need to think about them in their own time. This, of course, is ridiculous. If they had any capacity for creative, innovative thought, they’d have reached the same conclusions you have already, but they haven’t been paying attention thus far and are unlikely to have a creative, innovative epiphany simply by taking their time about it. More likely, they’ll spend their thinking time marshalling spurious arguments against the change you propose.

So, as an artist, those are your choices, today. Spend your time fighting with one hand tied behind your back against the allied forces of capital, or acquiesce and work for a company, to fund your art, dealing with the frustration of being arbitrarily held back, for a large portion of your life. It’s not much of a choice, is it?

The hope is that this absurd arrangement has already almost played itself out and that blockchain technology will utterly transform the basis of value creation and reward. Time will tell. What we know is that the current world of work cannot sustain social contentment. The cracks are already showing. Change will come, one way or another.

Something’s got to give.

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Art, Pleasure and Desire

What do art, flirtation, affirmation, sex and erotic desire have in common? Does what they have in common illuminate the hearts and souls of artists, or delineate their values and what they think is sacred and fundamental about humanity? Can this linking thread provide effective respite and act as a potent countervailing force to the current tide of hatred, discrimination and heartless cruelty? What the hell kind of blog post is this, when the world is in such evident turmoil?

Art is about giving aesthetic pleasure. It’s also about solace and refuge, amplifying our feelings of hurt and alienation, so that we can work through and genuinely feel our emotional reactions, knowing that other humans feel what we feel, gaining comfort from that solidarity. Art is more akin to a big hug than you might think. That aspect of making love, which involves sharing a deep, loving, human connection, where your numerous, obvious faults are inconsequential, even as you present yourself in your most exposed, intimate and vulnerable state, stimulates the same brain chemicals and areas of the brain as experiencing art does. Art appreciation, to your brain, is highly analogous to making love. Both connect us to an important and, lately, a tragically overlooked aspect of our fundamental humanity. They bring us pleasure.

The artist flirts both with their subject (whether that be a human being, the natural environment or our collective imaginations) and with their audience. Making art is a subtle form of seduction, where the artist effectively asserts that, while for perfectly sensible and practical reasons, he (or she) won’t make love to their subject, they will be rendered as utterly desirable nevertheless. The appreciation of that desirable depiction is further confirmation of the subject’s desirability. The audience, in appreciating the work, reinforces the notion that, while no actual love will be made, the artist and their subject are, indeed, worthy of desire and love. The creation of beauty, in art, is a means of expressing desire. Art and sex are inextricably linked.

Flirtation, for hundreds of years, has had a very bad reputation, seen as something seedy, dishonourable and undesirable, but there is a school of thought that says it has a very important affirmative function. We all tend to dwell on our shortcomings, our saggy, imperfect bodies and the ailments and afflictions that seemingly disqualify us from thinking ourselves worthy of desire. Low self esteem and self loathing are all too common. Yet, this excessive focus on our flaws is not truthful. It’s an exaggeration.

When somebody has the compassion and empathy to identify and then affirm our many excellent qualities, which make us highly desirable and worthy of being loved, we tend to distrust them, at first, and try to discover their hidden agenda. We feel they’re buttering us up in order to deceive us or take advantage of us. In extremis, we believe their flattery to be a form of vicious sarcasm, intended to highlight the flaws in us that we think are so obvious and overwhelming. But they might not have that intention at all. Perhaps their purpose is to rebalance your negative self image, reminding you that you have enormous worth and that, were it practical and sensible to do so, they would have no hesitation in making love to you, finding you exciting, stimulating and your body and mind pleasurable and erotic. Maybe all they’re trying to do is remind you of why you’re worthwhile, as a creative, fertile, fecund, growing and wonderful human being.

There can be little doubt that reminding us we are lovable, through art and/or flirtation, communicating shared pleasure and exciting the parts of us that are all about feelings of inclusion, safety, coziness, appreciation and loveliness can have profound healing potential. They bond us together in our human family. Instead of making us feel alienated and threatened, we feel belonging and that our presence makes a positive difference. In the current political climate, this is what we urgently need.

As an artist, there are friends I would dearly love to paint (nude or otherwise), people I would love to act playfully with, devoid of any agenda and judgement, harmonies I would love to sing with my musical pals and folks I hope I could express my deep and abiding appreciation toward. Their very presence has the potential to excite and arouse my spirit. That’s not a bad approach to the divisions and hatred that have been shamelessly exploited by those seeking power and personal gain, of late, if you think about it. Hate and discrimination are evidence of low quality of thought. Maybe people harbour those low quality thoughts because they haven’t felt enough love, desire or pleasure. It could be a projection of their own pernicious feelings of unworthiness and an attempt to deflect this feeling onto other groups of people. Their lives may already be a dystopian, precarious, anxiety inducing, living hell. They may hate because they feel cornered, with nothing left to lose. At root, that’s a brain problem. Insufficient dopamine in the frontal cortex. Art and art appreciation could help. So could telling other people what you like most about them.

We think of ourselves as rugged individuals, but we’re hard wired for inclusion, community and social constructs. This is because we’d perish otherwise. We’re our own worst critics and would never love ourselves enough to make up for the love we ought to feel from those around us. We don’t have the capacity and yet possess a strange and perverse propensity to see the very worst in ourselves, rather than the best. In short, we need people and art to periodically and consistently remind us that we’re desirable.

The root of the problem may be that literally millions already feel excluded, lacking any real connections to their community and not experiencing any social cohesion at all. They might feel abandoned and neglected, so when somebody points to their enemy, real or imagined (or cynically contrived), they leap to support this person, whether or not that person has any real intention or ability to materially change their circumstances. It’s manipulative and cruel, but in the absence of any real hope, their only seemingly viable option.

Artists have a role to play in correcting this societal distortion. They can do much to remind humanity of how desirable each and every individual truly is. They can deliver pleasure, where there is only misery. Art can save the world and may yet have to. Changing minds, through creating feelings of deep-seated inclusion, would seem to be the key.

Artists that make this their life’s work are pretty special.

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Keep Calling It What It Is

Artists, I’m afraid, have blood on their hands. They are as guilty and culpable as any of the worst tyrants in history. Why? Because of the skill and guile with which they complicity constructed the unreality we all now inhabit. Story by story. Emotional impact by emotional impact.

If you don’t think we live in an unreality bubble of our own making, then you really haven’t been paying attention to recent world events, or else have been, but have been so stupefied by the myths and illusions force-fed to you since childhood, that you believe the unreality to be reality. Can there be any rational, self-aware, sentient human being that doesn’t look at the state of current geo-politics and shake their head in despair? Does anybody regard this as an acceptable business-as-usual situation? Is this how it’s going to be, from now on? How the hell did we get to this place?

The origins of the current malaise, variously and euphemistically described as “managed democracy”, lie in the Cold War, where nuclear weapons made the power-crazed megalomaniacs in charge so supremely powerful, that they could end humanity at a stroke. No wonder they came to see themselves as Gods, indifferent to the concerns or importance of ordinary people. The “little people” were utterly insignificant, in the delicate balance of nuclear terror. With a life-extinguishing holocaust in their grasp, there was no reason to consider the lives of ordinary people at all. They were an irrelevance. Henceforth, they simply weren’t considered at all. Power and the maintenance of control were considered to be far more important. To the power brokers, they were the only thing.

The problem with having all that power and control is that you can use it capriciously, for whatever phantasm or cockamamy project that enters your power-addled, delusional, deranged bonce. Whatever irrational superstition or baseless belief system you subscribe to, you can now throw the entire weight of total annihilation behind it. You can launch any goddam crusade you choose, no matter how ludicrous, primitive, cruel, base and arbitrary.

These were the conditions under which a primary nuclear power broker, Henry Kissinger, embarked on the ultimate imperialist project – world government. It was with this power that he also sought to pursue the interests of people who, for millennia, had thought of themselves as the chosen people. Not only were they chosen by God, according to their Bronze Age texts, but now they were chosen, too, by the God-like controllers of nuclear terror. Anybody that disagreed could be conveniently labelled an anti-Semite and thus neutralised.

Understandably, there were Arab leaders, themselves drunk on dictatorial power, that didn’t like this plan very much. They lacked access to and control of nuclear weapons, but the next best thing, they figured, was a suicide bomber. Under the auspices of their Bronze Age texts, they convinced their populations of the moral rectitude of suicide, taking a radius of innocent bystanders with them. This, in their twisted calculus and rhetoric, would be enough to drive the American nuclear-wielding psychopaths and criminals out of the Middle East.  

Both sides were utterly delusional in this: their respective projects had no basis whatsoever in objective reality and no amount of brutality, force or terror can change a mind. Yet, minds had to be changed. People had to be managed into thinking that both projects were ethical, moral and righteous, even though both dealt in little more than greed, vengeance, power-lust, death and destruction. Populations had to be controlled in their thinking, or they might take control of these weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of the power junkies that knew the launch codes. Worse still, they might come to their senses and dismantle these insane weapons altogether!

Divide and rule was the reliable, standard, ancient answer. Simple solutions that created “us” and “others”. The invention of non-existent enemies of the people was the way forward. Terrorist masterminds whose headquarters could never be located or pin pointed. Fear, uncertainty and doubt. Consumerism. The cult of the self. Mass communications and the entertainment industry, owned and controlled by nuclear weapons suppliers. Individualism supplanted the ineffectual murders and assassinations of union organisers and uniting leaders. With individualism, there are no martyrs created.  

A concerted effort, on an unimaginable scale, was undertaken to ensure you didn’t see reality for what it really was. Massive surveillance systems were constructed, masquerading as search engines, blog sites and social media, with algorithms created to ensure you remained within your own echo chamber bubble, addressing and interacting with only the people you agreed with, insulating you from having any possibility of genuine debate or winning minds through the strength of your arguments. Instead, the algorithms would emasculate your intellect and keep you in a perpetual state of ineffectuality.

But anger and hate meant profits for the corporations and bankers enriched in the management of democracy. Angry people click and clicks mean ad impressions – ads to sell you products that will reinforce your isolation and solitude. Hate factories, printing brazen headlines filled with bile, sell more copies. We reward our manipulators with every click and purchase – the ultimate captives and Stockholm Syndrome acquiescent. Silent, complacent and accepting.

If you brainwash populations with simple narratives, though, eventually the cracks appear. People innately sense that all is not how it seems. Their lives are not more secure and comfortable. They aren’t fulfilled and happy. In many ways, their existence is debt-ridden and precarious, or else constrained and hemmed in, as their savings evaporate faster than they can accumulate and appreciate. Eventually, they figure out that all politicians lie. They can’t be trusted, their simple narratives are discredited and it is obvious they can neither help the people out of their enforced immiseration, nor had any intention to do so.

Into this trust vacuum, opportunists can step in; people willing to openly and deliberately lie, who promise everything and have no intention of delivering anything. They scapegoat the most vulnerable and deliberately misdirect attention from the real enemies of the people – the banks and corporations whose wealth gallups off at an accelerating rate, while the real wages of the vast majority of humanity stagnate and diminish. They preside over the greatest redistribution of material wealth in human history, while we blame immigrants and the disabled.

Today, most people feel no shame or guilt at torturing asylum seekers, or sanctioning the needy to death. We’re morally disengaged. Our cruelty is enshrined in the fictional language of noble, worthy, higher causes. We’re all innocent bystanders, waiting for somebody else to step in and act. As individuals, we believe ourselves powerless, yet we’re unable and unwilling to organise collective action. We can’t even envisage what a fairer, less intrusive, humane and just society might look like. Every utopian narrative flounders on irrational, devoted adherence to rulers, an elite class, law enforcement and violence. We lack the moral compass and ethical bearings to accept that how others choose to live their lives is none of our goddam business, enthralled as we are to our Bronze Age texts, our bile filled news media and our angry social media interactions. We possess ample collective imagination to envisage the very worst, but are hopelessly ill-equipped to design the best means of organising human affairs. Why should that be? This was the deliberate aim of the power brokers who decided to manage our democracy. It worked. Our minds were not changed by terror, violence and brutal force. They were changed by the repetition of the threat of these things.

We live in a post-truth society, run by psychopaths so cynical, that they believe in perpetual destabilisation; our new hypernormalisation. How this affects individuals is not even considered by those who inflict it, because the global power balance is all they care about. They wage perpetual, non-linear wars, where you can never tell who is allied with whom, what the enemies’ objectives are and even who the enemy really is. Meanwhile, wealth is quantitatively-eased out of nations, tax-free, leaving the populace with the debt burden and the austerity, in a futile attempt to meet the interest payments on the money thus printed. They don’t care what you think or how traumatised and stressed you are, so long as they stay in power, with the ability to kill us all in a single exchange of nuclear fireworks.

Artists participated fully in creating the unreality. Instead of revealing the global power game and its sick, self-serving participants, we wove enticing, untrue stories and served them up as reality. They were noxious confections, but we made them. Instead of changing the world for the better, we were content to write songs about the decay, but from the point of view of disinterested bystanders, watching Rome burn with chic detachment. Our work was so convincing that whole populations are completely and totally unaware of actual reality. Actual reality consists of unaddressed climate change, environmental destruction, carcinogenic foods, blanket surveillance and manipulation, mass curtailment of freedom and imagination, pointless jobs, indignity and a failure to let humanity’s collective creativity prevail. Most of all, we’re being farmed and milked, so that people that already have the ultimate power over life on Earth can have more. What will they do with it? To what end? How much power is enough? They don’t even know.

How do I know we have slipped increasingly into unreality? One of my most popular blog posts is “25 Ideas for Daydreaming”. My stats reveal that this post has gathered readers exponentially, since I wrote it, five years ago. We want to escape more than ever, it appears.

When the Cold War gave way to its successor, our hypernormalised, managed democracy, Reagan and Thatcher were in the ascendant. At the time, both were considered to be jokes – buffoons and cranks. Today, bizarrely and weirdly, both are revered as great statesmen, but both started us on the trajectory to the place we have now reached. The reality is that both actually were fools – the willing dupes and puppets of finance, corporate power and nuclear power brokers dedicated to global control. In our unreality, though, we don’t see them that way. The carefully constructed myths have instead prevailed.

A colleague where I work and I were discussing how much of this terrible reality we should expose our children to. After all, they’re just kids and you don’t want to kill their innocent hope stone dead. As a parent, you have to decide judiciously which information to hide, while they’re young. In other words, you’re left to choose which fictions to instill, as our parents had to, regarding authority and religion. Some parents chose to call those things what they really were – abusive structures of power acting against most people’s interests, which if you trusted in them, could get you killed. Today, I think the same applies. If you know what power and our managed democracy really is, then you should call it what it is – dangerous, insane, megalomaniacal games for the benefit of a tiny minority of cynical psychopaths, which if you trusted in them, could get you killed.

There are, in fact, complex, intractable realities that, for our ultimate survival, we must all face. We must strip bare the unreal illusions and deal with our actual situation, rather than remaining as sleepwalking participants in pointless, irrational, global power games, which have ultimate control of us all and our very minds as their goal. We’ve got to see the Bronze Age justifications for what they are – cynical manipulations and moral distortions. Are we so manipulated that we’ve lost our moral bearings, or do we still cling onto an essential sense of what is right?

Perhaps artists can do a better job of revealing the unrealities and help humanity perceive things more truthfully, this time. Or will we retreat into getting paid to lie, manipulate and mask the truth, as we have been doing? How complicit in our own oppression, enslavement and destruction are we going to be?  

In the end, the only hope we have is to keep calling things what they are. Honestly. Truthfully. Courageously.

Picasso once said: “The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?” It’s an interesting question, but the answer, to me, is obvious.

Because if artists don’t, who will?


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Barren Workspaces

Have you ever noticed that artists’ studios and a typical office look very different? The former is filled with tools, reference materials, things to inspire and stimulate the imagination and a modicum of happy chaos. The latter is anonymous, regimented, unremarkable, muted, easy to clean, devoid of personality, lacking in fripperies. When there are concessions to having splashes of colour, the brand identity subsumes the character of individual choices and preferences. The message is clear. Your individual brilliance not only doesn’t matter, but it’s to be actively suppressed and brought into line with somebody else’s personality. Heaven forbid that it should stimulate and encourage independent, creative thought. You are replaceable.

Even a writer’s desk differs markedly to an office desk. A writer typically has their books to hand, mementos, trinkets, cups of tea made in distinctive cups, inspiration, calm and a nod toward hygge. The desk and chair are carefully chosen and an individual choice. Writers arrange their writing spaces in this way because they intuitively or explicitly know that to do so makes their creative work flow better. They’re more productive and create better works, when their workspace is not an identikit cubicle, in a featureless office, located in a generic, out of town, bland industrial estate. If your business, as a writer, is creating credible characters, then the character of your surroundings matters.

One of the great ironies of our age is that management theorists and strategy specialists have discovered that hierarchies destroy value. The imposition of rigid structures and strictures positively reduces a company’s capacity to come up with creative responses to their contextual situation. Innovation is stifled. Innovation, it turns out, is not only necessary, but vital for a firm to survive and flourish. Continuous innovation, while even harder to establish and foster, is the crucial culture to keep a company relevant.

Telling the story of a company, its people and its products has never been more important. Those within the company tasked with this, however, have to create vivid depictions of the special and compelling nature of the company while staring at a beige divider, sitting under relentless fluorescent lighting, with their feet on unyielding, nasty, wiry carpet tiles. The chair is cheap and uncomfortable and the desk covered in some non-descript, faux wood-grained, wipe-clean, plastic coating. It’s not the most propitious starting point, is it?

Why, then, are so many offices designed in such a way that they are the exact opposite of what would be beneficial to the company’s own bottom line? Do all the chairs have to match because of somebody’s will and ego, or because it’s so much cheaper than letting everybody choose their own chairs? If the argument is cost, what damage does that saving do, in terms of lost innovation? The open plan may encourage collaboration, or it may kill any tendency to do important work, outside of what people have been directed to do. How do you dissent, or nurture a radical new idea, if everybody is watching, all the time? Is there anywhere you can think out loud? Where is the environment in which you can be wrong?

Offices are designed and constructed to be the silent killers of the companies that operate within them. They are arid, barren environments, that desiccate and shrivel every nascent innovation. They smother creative urges and discourage flights of the imagination. In essence, they are an intellectual cage, where creativity flows are dammed (and damned) at source. Inspiration has been designed out of the environment. They ensure that every departure from the norm is met with instant censure. Judgementalism, the idea that we don’t think things like that here, is baked into the very decor and furnishings.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could express the uniqueness and peculiarities, the interests, curiosities and fascinations that describe you, as a person, wherever you worked? You’d do your best work, in that environment, wouldn’t you? The most profitable thing any company could do is to give you the space and environment to consistently produce your most creative, singular and innovative work. I suppose that’s why so many artists work on their own. They can’t do it any other way. Working from home is also frequently more productive and effective, but companies fear the loss of visibility and control.

In truth, managers are more concerned with maintaining their privileged position, within the power structure, than with the sponsoring and encouragement of continuous innovation. That’s the way they act. It’s an indulgence that costs the company its very future and its viability. Creativity is positively sacrificed, on a daily basis, just to stay in charge.

When will barren workspaces disappear?

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The Extermination of Future Creativity

I’m a pretty creative guy. My brothers are too. My wife and I have two highly creative kids. We all like to make things, to produce useful things, to make a contribution and a difference. I’m sure that’s true of many families.  

In my working life, I’ve been involved in making creative tools that other creative people took and made highly entertaining and beloved works with. The point I am trying to make is that this particular creative tributary has its source in my mother, to whom we can all trace our ancestry. If she hadn’t existed, then none of the music, paintings, writings, technology or other creative artefacts that her descendants produced would have existed either. We don’t have any monopoly on creativity, but we’ve done our bit. Without us, there would have been slightly less.

Before she died, my mother revealed a secret about her childhood, but first some background. During the war, she was a refugee, separated from her father, who had been conscripted into the army. Her mother, my grandmother, had to cope with three small children in tow, eating hand to mouth, not knowing what their fate would be, as the war panned out. At times, they were wholly dependent on the kindness and care of strangers for their survival. Circumstances had thrown them out of their highly civilised, middle class comfort and into refugee status. It wasn’t their doing or their fault. Geopolitical changes, driven by profiteers, had torn up their daily lives and thrust them into want and uncertainty. It could have happened to anybody and frequently did.

At some point, this little fractured family, under extraordinary stress, came under the jurisdiction of highly efficient Nazis. To the fascists, my ancestors were a problem to be solved. Three small children and a mother that couldn’t support them. Scroungers. Untermenschen. Not worth the beans and gruel necessary to feed them and keep them alive. Much more tidy and efficient to simply eliminate them. It was for these reasons that some officious, obnoxious, facelsss, anonymous, Nazi bureaucrat, just carrying out the orders and wishes of the German people, placed their names on a list for transportation to one of their notorious concentration camps. A simple solution. Quick. Neat. Problem solved.

This was the secret my mother had kept from me and my brothers, until just shortly before her death. She didn’t want us to hate. She wanted us to cherish our lives, but not because some authoritarian bureaucrat begrudgingly spared hers, while the society she grew up in looked on in open contempt. Life is too precious to waste.

My wife came from clever, creative people too. She is outstandingly creative, musical, poetic and inventive. Her insights into data and her logical, deductive mind are rare characteristics indeed. It’s no wonder our children are creative.  

Her father writes the most wonderful poetry and music. He has been a spiritual comfort to many, over the decades, in his work and through his sermons. My father in law’s mother had raised her own brothers and sister, after the death of their father and mother. One of her elder brothers, a highly intelligent, talented and creative man, had been a conscientious objector, during the first Great War. He had been white feathered and consequently found himself in a ditch in France, to uphold his dignity and honour. Even though the orphaned family relied on him as breadwinner, he died in agony in a French hospital, wounded and infected, screaming that he couldn’t die, because his younger brothers and sisters needed him to survive. We visited his grave recently. Nobody had, until we did.

The society he lived in considered him expendable. His creativity counted for little, compared to fighting a war for the vain glory of people who were far wealthier than he would ever be. The creativity of his descendants, who were never born, wasn’t considered at all. They never came to exist. Neither did the descendants of his two other brothers, who were also pointlessly killed in that same war.

When my own mother was placed on that list to transport her to a concentration camp, nobody considered what contributions her sons might make, or their children, her grandchildren. She was just a child. Children don’t have amazingly creative grandchildren. That’s as breathtakingly blinkered as bureaucratic thinking is.

Somehow, my wife’s grandmother survived and she did bring up her siblings, against all odds. Her descendants include my children. Had she perished, because her brother had been white feathered, my children wouldn’t be here now and neither would my wife and father in law. Nothing they created in their lives, no change that they made, would have ever happened. It would have been snuffed out quite literally at source.

My mother was taken off the concentration camp transportation list by a fluke event. My grandfather, while in the army against his will and better judgement, happened to notice a list of people for transportation posted on an obscure notice board, happened to read it and happened to spy the names of his wife and children on it. Imagine his horror! He then fought the bureaucrats and authorities to convince them that he had a job and that he could support them. They weren’t vermin and scroungers after all. It had all been a terrible and nearly fatally tragic cock up.

When we regard refugees as waste and trash, that we can exterminate quietly, through the infliction of intolerable suffering, what future creativity are we destroying? Is the saving made, by cutting short their particular branch of the human tree, really worth the cost of the creative contributions we will certainly lose from their unborn descendants? Treating refugees as disposable is indistinguishable from exterminating vital creative contributions from their future generations, of incalculable value and worth.

Today, when celebrities speak up in support of persecuted immigrants, who are only trying their best just to survive, they are pilloried. Their calls for decency fall on deaf ears. Mobs bay for their dismissal, dog-whistled into a shrill chorus by billionaire, tax-evading, non-resident media owners, drawn from the same elite classes that drum up and sustain wars, for personal profit and gain. These immigrants are worthless, they bark. Who cares if they perish? We should all care, because we have no idea of the value we’re destroying, maybe not from those refugees alive today, but from their subsequent generations. Caring for refugees is nothing more than enlightened self interest, if you can’t abide it on the grounds of compassion and wanting to be treated that way yourself, if you ever were in that circumstance.

Of course, nobody believes they could ever sink to the lowly status of a refugeee, In my experience and from family history, I can tell you that no refugee ever thought they would become one either. Yes, they were treated as second class citizens, as refugees in a strange land, but they were given the chance to survive, rebuild and make creative contributions, down the generations. Why wouldn’t any society welcome that?

If you are one of these nasty people that argues against immigration, don’t ask me to agree with you. Your views are ignorant and uninformed. You have no clue about what you are destroying. I have no time for your disgusting bigotry and specious arguments, driven by craven fear and propagandised, indoctrinated misidentification of your real enemies. In solidarity with all immigrants and refugees, I cannot agree with your rabid selfishness, because to do so would be to repudiate my entire family, its history and experience. Blood is thicker than water.

May you never find yourself in the circumstances of the people that are treated so callously and harshly by you, because they are in need, homeless, hungry, scared and stripped of their human dignity. Even if you have no heart, consider the wanton waste of the creative contributions their children’s children could one day make.

Please, don’t ever ask me to participate in or abide your narrow, vile, barbaric project. It’s indefensible.

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Creative Maintenance

Kurt Vonnegut noted, “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” The consequence, of course, is that everything we build, that has any longevity, eventually crumbles and decays. No matter how magnificent and finely crafted, no matter how excellent the materials and elegant the craftsmanship, time and wear makes even the best things eventually look tired and tatty.  

This is nowhere more true than in works of art, architecture or invention. Engineers, in particular, are a kind of artist whose best works are destined to be neglected, abused, overused and eventually demolished and replaced, rather than preserved and restored.  

Over the summer, I spent some time in Monaco and Genoa. These places have known real wealth and opulence. The fabric of these cities owes its character to the application of massive power and sheer money. Whatever the builders decreed was constructed and sometimes to the very highest standards achieved by mankind. Works of quality were lavishly adorned with priceless artworks; impeccable and irreplaceable, but exposed to the elements and hence destined to fade and erode. The problem bequeathed to subsequent generations is how to restore these once magnificent edifices to their former glory. It’s quite literally a monumental task.  

Sometimes, the skills simply no longer exist. Without the charity of benificent patrons, those crafts were simply not viable as ways to earn a living. Once the money and power evaporates, the guilds that once sculpted, carved, painted and gilded cease to exist. They are unsustainable, in a world of marked income inequality – an inequality that, today, is widening at an accelerating rate. Without the opportunity to perfect crafts skills over a lifetime of learning, through actual doing, it is impossible for anybody to meet the same standard of workmanship from a cold, standing start, no matter how well intentioned the effort. Money cannot buy skills accumulated over decades. They can’t simply be recreated on demand.

One route to keeping the artisans match-fit would be to engage in maintenance on a grander scale than we typically do. Why don’t we? It seems that most business models fail to make provision for the cost of maintenance and everybody wants to build something new, instead. Both the artists and their sponsors would rather create something afresh, rather than honouring the work of a forebearer, by lovingly preserving or restoring it. They call it “creative destruction”, but we should never forget that it is also plain old vanilla destruction, at root. This being the case, it’s also somewhat wasteful. Precious materials are often wantonly discarded – materials that are now extinct and unobtainable, through over-exploitation.

The interesting question, for me, is whether or not it is possible to be a creative maintainer. Can you find creative satisfaction in restoring, rather than starting from scratch? I propose that you can. Although it’s not your signature on the finished work, the restorer is worthy of placing their signature on the restored work (though they never do). Their contribution to the idea and concept is to give it new life and extended longevity, so that future generations will also be able to enjoy the intentions conveyed by the artist, in their original work. As such, restorers are worthy of much more recognition, reward and respect than they are given, today.

Monaco and Genoa are crumbling. While the new constructions are magnificent in their own way, what makes you sad is the things people come to see, which give these cities their unique signature, are the buildings, frescos and monuments that are, at best, a generation away from extinction. Even now, their existence is so precarious and their splendour so faded, that it’s often a disappointment to see them in this state of disrepair. It’s almost distressing. Who wants to go on vacation in a once beautiful city to experience the emotions of despair and distress?

As wealthy and opulent as the owners of these magnificent artefacts were, you’re also left with the disturbing feeling that, for all their munificence, is this it? Is this all money could buy? Renaissance palazzos are, after all, sadly lacking in creature comforts, such as heating, air conditioning and basic plumbing. Electric lighting and network connectivity was still science fiction, when these places were built. Surely the patrons of these monuments should have invested a little of their wealth in the invention of central heating, HVAC and stronger, more durable building materials, such as steel. What condemns a lot of the older buildings, splendid as they are, is the fact that they are not fit for modern purposes. Inhabiting them is more like a sentence in purgatory, than a brilliant experience.

Even the redevelopment of the Genoese old harbour, a multi-million dollar Renzo Piano extravaganza, only relatively recently completed, is already showing signs of inadequate maintenance. You can sense that the decay will only accelerate, leaving the good intentions only a memory and the newly built infrastructure unfit for purpose. The elevated bypass roadway nearby, a marvel of sixties engineering and bold urban planning, is a rusting eyesore. In the absence of any official attention to aesthetic pleasure, it is covered in random acts of graffiti. Ironically, it is daubed in anarchist slogans and symbols, as if to point an accusing finger at the authorities and hierarchies that allowed the infrastructure to fall into this state of disrepair and ugliness. Set between the crumbling Renaissance palaces and the foreshore redevelopment, it amply illustrates the sheer lack of attention to maintenance and its consequences. Conmen operate beneath it, ripping tourists off through their sharp patter and well-rehearsed scams. It’s a microcosm of what happened here centuries ago, but on a grander scale.

Corrosion is really hard to combat, because like so many things in life, it creeps up on you. There isn’t a crisply defined moment when it is obvious that something needs maintenance, because it’s self-evidently broken. Instead, things lose their beauty and utility by degrees, demanding that we make a judgement and choose the moment when we have to pay attention to bringing those qualities back, before they are lost entirely. Humanity is not very good at picking that moment correctly. Things often get way out of hand, before we rein them in.

We also have to recognise that some things cannot be restored without effectively remaking them. Reworking a masterpiece painting cannot hope to exactly reproduce each brush stroke, in its correct order, as originally applied by the artist. What the restorer is actually doing is making a brand new painting, using the masterpiece as an underlay and guide. If they are good at their craft, you won’t see the departure from the original, but rest assured that what you are seeing is less the work of the original artist and more the work of the repainter. We pretend that isn’t so, but that doesn’t change the actuality. Newly applied pigments are definitionally a new painting, whether or not the substrate is a blank canvas or a priceless masterpiece.

So, good maintenance is, I argue, a fundamentally creative act of the highest quality. We condemn our favourite pieces of art to eventual extinction, by not crediting the skill and creativity of restorers and consequently discourage anybody from aspiring to become one. This is, I claim, to our ultimate detriment, especially in a world where the greenest thing you can do is prolong the useful life of finely made things. We lose the things we love and further degrade our environment, if our first instinct is always to destroy, discard and replace.

Creativity can have lots of guises and maintenance is one of them.

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