Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Sharing: be an open book.

When Claudia and I got married, my friend Simon read a fiercely difficult and wonderful poem for us, called ‘Having a coke with you.’ by Frank O’Hara. (this link gives both the poem and a video of Frank reading it - Simon bested Frank by a mile with his recitation http://goo.gl/agcxx ).

There’s a line in it, which if you don’t want to read the whole things runs thus:

‘and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them.’

We are partially driven by creativity, which manifests itself in many different ways, and is demonstrated by what we say, write, sing and paint; I liked it when Neil MacGregor, who on introducing ‘A History of the world in 100 objects’ remarked that ever since man has been making objects, he has been making beautiful objects.

That the creation of wealth is the modern obsession, confirms the primacy of performance and artistry in modern life: banking and capitalism are as much an exercise in showmanship and chutzpah as they are of science and maths. Our current economic woes make it plain that creativity can disguise itself as algorithm in even the most hard-hearted mathematician and that however hard we may try, and however, much we want to believe in it, empiricism and science still can’t trump the vagaries of the speculative mind.  

I suspect that the need to create is hard-wired in us, and encapsulates our need to understand the world we live in by reflecting on the events that have happened to us, and sharing our perceptions with each other. These perceptions of the world come in the form of pictures, stories and songs, and sometimes, a picture, story or song will resonate so clearly with us that it will change the way we think about the world. We all have our own examples, and this is one of mine (again borrowed from ‘A history of the world in a hundred objects.’:

The Ain Sahkri Lovers is an 11000 year old pebble, which shows that the person who carved it knew something about love and tenderness - this is not a portrayal of two people merely mating - this is two people making love, and that is an important distinction. What is perhaps most telling is that someone, a very long time ago, perhaps on the edges of insight, self-awareness and abstract thought, felt it important to make this depiction of this act, and perhaps share it with others. And we have been doing it ever since.

I had reason to reflect on this recently, and I had to question what purpose it served to share with you my thoughts through my blog, and whether the potential risk to my own reputation was worth it. I would be very surprised indeed if my blog made it into any future list of important works, but the process of writing has for me been transformative: spending time thinking about the issues that I have dealt with in life and at work, thrashing out what I feel and believe about them, and then wrestling with choosing the right words to share it all with you is time well-spent: I emerge with a much clearer idea of how to deal with problems that I have often been struggling with. And hopefully, you find it interesting too, and have the chance to gain an insight into someone else’s world - engaging, if not life-changing.

Of course, the opportunity of the open-access world of the internet is also the risk: words that you publish with sincerity and earnestness are there to be consumed and used at the whim of whomever may choose to, and there is no means of gate-keeping what people may do with your work. Meaning is defined by context, and taken out of context, it is possible to make someone’s writing an easy portrayal of what a turnip they are, and this risk will exist however careful one is with content and phrasing.

The option exists to reflect in private, and not air one’s thoughts, and this is what a great many no doubt choose to do - often, I imagine, with a huge amount of personal benefit. But I am minded to stick my elbows out a bit in a world that seeks to silence the individual: it is not so much that the world needs to hear what each person has to say, but that each person stands to gain considerably from having managed the challenge of grappling with complex issues and emotions, and found a way to express those feelings with consideration and empathy.

Duchamp is my ally in making this point: he argued that artistic creation is not only carried out by the artist, but also involves the process of being viewed (or read or listened to) by the audience - the interpretation of the work by the person consuming the art is a central component of the creative process, as the impact and meaning differs from person to person.

Thus in sharing my blog with you, I have always hoped that each time I click the ‘publish’ button, I am starting something, fuelled onwards by the feedback and comments I get, and the conversations I have. I can make sense of the experiences I have had using the framework and insights that I have, but sometimes that sense has greater resonance when understood through someone else’s lens or perspective.

In revealing the way you think and feel, it can feel like you have created an asymmetry of information that is inviting exploitation from the unscrupulous: surely if they know something about the way you think, they have all the ammo they need to undermine you? Possibly. Much more likely is that one’s ability to be open allows others to understand you, work with you and respect you much more than they ever could if you played your cards close to your chest.

I once met a senior executive in a health care organisation who’s working style was every day to take a risk and reveal his deep ambitions and fears to those he worked with, and effectively invite them to work with him, or work against him. What would you do if the person you worked for was prepared to let you know exactly what he was trying to achieve, and how he would like to go about doing it? Seems easy doesn’t it?

Perhaps more of us should try it.

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