All posts by Grant

Design and the corporation, first wild, now tame?

RobertFabricant-620x415Have you seen the piece Robert Fabricant wrote for Wired as a year-end review?  I think you’ll find it both chilling and cheering.

Fabricant says “leading design firms are contracting or exiting the business.” Where did all this talent flow? Fabricant says it went to Fortune 500 companies.

Cheering?

Well, yes. This is good news for those of us who believe that the corporation is systematically challenged when it comes to capturing and thinking about culture. No, not corporate culture. I mean the body of ideas and practices with which each of us (and all of us) construct and negotiate the world. (AKA “trends” but of course so much more than merely trends.)

THIS culture is an essential knowledge for the corporation. It is the source of “black swans” and “blue oceans,” the dangers and opportunities, that confront the corporation. Mastering culture will help the corporation flourish even in a world of terrible, otherwise inscrutable dynamism. But no. The corporation prefers to treat culture as a dark matter. It knows culture is out there, but it can’t retrofit its models to account for it. The result is tragic.

So it’s good news that designers are now joining the corporation. Though we can just imagine the moments of first contact as the C-suiters look out of their princely offices over the parking lot to observe…anomalous data.  Colors, shapes and models that break the otherwise uniform sea of sensible sedans. Minis, Fiats, BWM i3, Teslas, cars that say the owner pays attention to the world around her, prizes the exquisite visual choice and the witty design decision, likes that shock of recognition when a shape in the world gives voice to an idea in our heads, who actually lives for a material culture that makes culture material.

This is not the C-suiters reaction. No, their reaction is “wait, what?” This is their idea of pattern recognition, noticing when things look, like, weird. Welcome to the designers. They are, like, weird.

I remember my first contact with designers. I was a freshly minted PhD and I went to a conference on built form staged by Setha Low. I was doing the anthropological thing, which is, when in the presence of people different from yourself, trying to guess the grammar, the culture, from which their view of the world springs. And the best I could do in the early days was to notice that designers managed a paradox that seemed beyond the rest of us (or at least me). They had their feet on the ground, even as they kept their heads in the clouds. Weird, yes. Wild, too.

Designers managed to be more or less fully domesticated, capable of adult behavior and professional careers, even as they harbored an enfant sauvage within, a creature who put creativity above conventional niceties, who was in fact not so domesticated after all. To use the cliché, designers somehow managed to think inside the box and live outside of it.  This impressed me deeply.

Which brings us to:

Chilling?

Is there something chilling about the fact the design is now taking up residence in the corporation? I think there might be. For all these years, designers kept a careful distance. They were in but not of the world of business. But now, if Fabricant is correct, they are at risk of falling into the gravitation field of the corporation, into what for some may be an incinerating embrace.

What if we are looking at the domestication of design, the end of its ability to think in restless, anarchic ways, the very extinction of the discipline as the fount of creativity in our midst. Those of you who have the ethnographic data, please do comment.  Do you see any of the early signs? Designers getting complacent? People going home at 5:00? The end of that thrilling charrette-mentality where it’s all hands on deck and we’ll sleep when we have to, eat when we must. The real sign may be this: when the designer’s car in the parking lot begin to go out, now good grey sedans, no longer colorful, provocative, counter-expectational “vehicles” for passengers of any kind. Then we will know the thing is done, the field is dead.

I suggest designers think of this as a hostage negotiation. They must insist on a trade. We the designers will bring you this precious knowledge, the ability to use design thinking and cultural knowledge, if and only if we may remain an edgy, disturbational, counter-intuitive presence in your midst.

More probably, the outcome will look like this. The corporation will hold designers in its thrall for a couple of years. Then two things will happen. Noticing how miserable they are, some designers will leave. The corporation will see they have so wounded the golden goose that culture and creativity is no longer forthcoming. It will then turn into a willful child, throwing away its “broken toy” and moving on to some new enthusiasm. Released from their Babylonian captivity, designers will return eventually to form.  And the world will be, like, weird again. And wild.

post script

I set this post to Darrel Rhea for comments and he came back with a beautifully observed response.  I will post this tomorrow.  Please come back!

Ralph Lauren, the 80s called, they want their ad back

Here’s a recent ad for Ralph Lauren’s fragrance Polo.

It’s a cultural antique. This is what advertising used to look like when designed to flatter male egos and sell goods that were designed to flatter male egos in a cultural moment designed to flatter male egos. These days, its “Really? Get over yourself.”

Ralph Lauren has not been superbly in touch with the cultural moment. (Not since the 1980s when he helped define the cultural movement.) But this is really egregiously out of touch. I guess he doesn’t have a Chief Culture Officer.

What looks and feels more contemporary?  Have a look at this Fitbit ad.

The difference?

It’s not about one person.  It’s about lots and lots of people.

It’s not about young males. It’s about a variety of people.  Because some years ago, advertising and branding learned it had to let in everyone, not just the Young and Beautiful…and Male.  Who gets the credit here?  Sylvia Lagnado and Dove? Who else?

And it’s not about someone with that terrible look of self congratulation, that overweening red speedboat of an ego.

It’s not about speedboats but the diversity of ways people have found to entertain and exert themselves. This is plenitude in action.

Yes, this ad is an exercise in diversity because the Fitbit is designed to capture data generate by any activity. But notice the tone, the reckless, frenetic charm of this spot. It’s not about anyone’s ego. There are no beautiful people here. No celebrities. It’s a “Here Comes Everybody” exercise, to use Shirky’s phrase. There are a variety of deep cultural reasons why diversity is so important when crafting cultural meanings.

We are on the verge of a season that shows a relentless stream of James Bond movies, and with each season, Bond looks a little stranger, a man so besotted with himself that it’s hard to imagine rooting for him.  How do we identify with a monster of vanity? Those days have passed. This is where you are, Mr. Lauren, on the wrong side of history.

Secrets of Key and Peele

iu-3I started watching an episode of Key and Peele (Comedy Central, Wednesday, 10:30) recently.

Before long I got mesmerized by a movement between two things:

1. how good the performance is, how agile is their mastery of contemporary culture, how detailed and exacting is the performance. There’s apparently no place these two can’t go. And, in the old metaphor, they go not as tourists but as anthropologists.

AND

2. the point of the skit.  It was funny. But not so funny that it rewarded the length to which K&P played it out.  Like every other viewer, I could see where the skit was going and now I was obliged to sit through the mechanical production of the joke.

The smaller problem is clear. Everyone gets the joke sooner than we used to.  A great river of content has run through us and we get good at consuming it.  So good that we can reverse engineer most anything and see where it is going.  But jokes especially in skit comedy come wrapped in a certain format. For practical reasons, and perhaps for cultural ones, they have to run for a certain duration.  In the old days, this was fine.  We were working hard to get the joke.  These days it feels like a trial.

The larger solution is, I think, is that tension between 1 and 2 with which we opened and that mesmerizing movement between them.  We need this movement and it works, possibly, because it takes us between two intellectual operations, mapping the joke and watching the performance.

Now it doesn’t matter how labored the joke is.  The “other half” of the skit, the cultural performance and passage, sustains us.  As does the movement between joke and performance which is just so interesting.

To say how and why the movement works so well you would have to be a cognitive psychologist or someone with ready access to a MRI. It’s something to do with the effects of a serial continuity.  Two things the run against one another but in parallel. Novelty interrupting continuity and vice versa.  Or something.

It’s a mystery. But an essential mystery, one that helps us see how culture works these days.

Mike Nichols, father of American improv

iu-2Mike Nichols died yesterday.  As my contribution to the memorial, here is the essay wrote about him in a book called Transformations. It describes his role in the creation of American improv.

Mike Nichols

(from McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transfomations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.)

Mike Nichols is an American director of plays and movies, the latter including The Graduate (1967), Silkwood (1983), and The Birdcage (1996). He is married to Diane Sawyer, a journalist. He was feted at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, where his “lifetime achievement” in film was celebrated by 3000 people, including Richard Avedon, Itzhak Perlman and Barbara Walters. If popular culture in America has an aristocracy, Mike Nichols belongs to its titular class.   Three thousand people came to celebrate, but most were there in homage.

Nichols came to America as Igor Peschkowsky. He arrived from Berlin in 1939. He was 7, his brother was 3. They made the journey by sea alone. His father preceded him to New York City, his mother would follow 18 months later. In New York City, Mr. Peschkowsky turned the boys over to the uneven kindness of an English family. Nichols was now bereft of his native country, his native language, the company of his mother and father, and his family’s standing in Europe. “I was a zero. […] In every way that mattered, I was powerless.”1

Nichols endured the pains of adjustment, though he had fallen farther than most. His advantage, an eye for detail and ear for nuance, was itself a torment.

“The refugee ear is a sort of seismograph for how one is doing. […] A thousand tiny victories and defeats in an ordinary conversation.”

To make matters worse, a medical intervention in childhood had left him hairless so that he was obliged to wear a hat, or a wig, everywhere. Buck Henry, a childhood friend, remembers him “as far outside as an outsider can get.”2

Nichols was obliged to engage in immigrant improv, that essential shield with which newcomers protect themselves from the endless embarrassments of a new world. Any native knucklehead could needle and vex at whim. ‘Saratoga,’ says the knucklehead with that “but of course you must know this” air. Judging from the speaker, the conversation, and the tone of the challenge, Saratoga is a literary journal, a cherished brand of American root beer, or the train that travels between Los Angeles and San Francisco. (It is probably not an Aboriginal place name. That would be too easy.)

The family established itself. His father was a doctor. In time, prosperity and standing were modestly restored. Then more tragedy. His father died, his mother suffered chronic emotional difficulty, and the family descended into poverty and sometimes squalor. Nichols fashioned his own system of education (chiefly, popular theatre and classical literature) and found his way to the University of Chicago where he arrived, at 17, to a happy discovery. “Oh my God, look, there are others like me. There are other weirdoes.”

Nichols took to the theatre. The University of Chicago was loaded with talent: Paul Sills, Ed Asner, Severn Darden, Barbara Harris. He directed his first play and performed in several more. In one of them, his disguise was pierced. He was Jean the valet in a production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. His role called for a working-class man, one of the few adaptations this Russian-German Jewish aristocratic American weirdo could not manage. He was found out by a woman in the audience, an “evil, hostile girl” staring at him from the front row. “[S]he knew it was shit.”3

What happened next is one of the “origin myths” of American culture. One day, Nichols saw his inquisitor waiting for a train in a railway station in Chicago. He approached her and asked, in a German accent, “May I sit down?” Elaine May replied, in accent, “if you wish.” The rest is, as they say, history. Nichols and May made a spy scenario out of thin air. Without benefit of introduction or social ceremony, and in spite of disastrous first impressions, they were now friends. It felt to them both, Nichols said later, that “we were safe from everyone else when we were with each other.”4

Certainly, it has the compactness, the telescopic redundancy, of an origin myth. The origin of American improv is an act of improv, first of the moment, then of the stage, then of popular culture. What Nichols and May did in the train station, they repeated at the University of Chicago, and then on the Dupont Show of the Month to an astonished America. The captive of Miss Julie and fixed theatre was released into the sheer creativity that was in any case his immigrant experience. And with improv, America finds its way into opportunities for new dynamism. The path to assimilation proves to be the steep upward ascent to wealth, glory and fame. Two people give themselves over to this single act of spontaneity and everything changes: the interaction, their relationship, their careers, and an important part of the career of contemporary culture.

In the middle moment, the world is charmed. Nichols and May are perfect, blinding. Touched by this creature, Nichols discovers new talent and the possibility of fame staggeringly beyond the acceptance he courted, a boy in a wig, a couple of years before. Elaine May is adored, pursued, protean in her creativity, charismatic on stage and off, larger than every occasion and every other companion, impatient with mortals, and terrible in her anger when this is provoked. (Pursued by two men making kissing sounds, May says, “tired of one another?” and when one of them responds, “Fuck you!” she turns on him and asks, “With what?” (Ovid would surely have wanted this for his compendium of transformations.)

And then, in the manner of some myths, it ended. Improv became formula. May wanted to keep inventing but, as Nichols tells us (in an act of greatness) he could not keep up with her and he began to lose his courage for risk-taking on stage. The improv, the act, and the relationship, die in succession. The actors are estranged. Nichols returns to the theatre, not to act, but, the ultimate retreat from improv, to direct. He has a period of madness in which he seeks to destroy the art that reflects his wealth and taste. He resurrects himself to make one or two good films but keeps his distance from sheer, untrammeled creativity, falling back on fixed and commercial theatre. Elaine May suffers a more spectacular destruction. She falls under the influence of a man manifestly her lesser, and directs him in a disastrously unsuccessful film: Ishtar (1987). This is shit: over-scripted, under-directed, wooden, Beatty-ish, and just not funny. The first creatures to enter Chicago improv had fallen back to earth.5

1 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, p. 198.

2 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, pp. 202.

3 Sweet, Jeffrey. 1978. Something Wonderful Right Away: an oral history of the Second City and the Compass players. New York: Avon Books, p. 73.

4 Lahr, John. 2000. Making it Real: Mike Nichol’s improvised life. The New Yorker. February 21 and 28: 196-214, p. 204. There is some confusion in the record about precisely what was said in the train station. In the Sweet interview, Nichols says that he used a German accent. Lahr says nothing of this but suggests that May replied with a Russian accent. This may have been the two sides of the improv, but it seems to me more likely that Nichols spoke, and May replied, in a German accent. This was after all their first date.

5 My account of the beginning of improv indulges itself in a mythic language and a fuller account can be found in the opening essay “History” in Sweet, Jeffrey. 1978. Something Wonderful Right Away: an oral history of the Second City and the Compass players. New York: Avon Books, p. xv-xxxiii

The middle is a dangerous place to be

IMG_1642According to a Goldilocks logic, the middle is a good place to be. It’s the Via Media between two extremes.  It’s the place politicians [used to] fashion compromise.  It’s the place most of us look for balance. Typically, the middle is a place of safety.

Or at least it used to be.  My first glimpse of this when someone told me, years ago, about “glocal.”  This is a portmanteau made up of “global” and “local.”  What falls out is the middle, the spaces between the whole of the world and one’s immediate community.  In a strange twist, we became more cosmopolitan and more provincial at the same moment.

The death of the middle is especially evident in the world of movies. We have block busters on high.  They have budgets of one or more hundreds of millions. We have a great tribe of indies below. The budget here is typically tens of thousands, effectively whatever the filmmaker can squeeze out of their own and their parents’ credit cards. In the middle, the pickings are scarce. Judd Apatow mostly. Not, as they say, that there is anything wrong with that.

The death of the middle is also evident in the world of music.  Here is Derek Thompson on where we stand.

The top 1 percent of bands and solo artists now earn 77 percent of all revenue from recorded music, media researchers report. And even though the amount of digital music sold has surged, the 10 best-selling tracks command 82 percent more of the market than they did a decade ago. The advent of do-it-yourself artists in the digital age may have grown music’s long tail, but its fat head keeps getting fatter.

But today while reading an very interesting essay by David Autor, I came across this chilling passage.  There is, it turns out, a hole in the employment market as well.

“the structure of job opportunities in the United States has sharply polarized over the past two decades, with expanding job opportunities in both high-skill, high-wage occupations and low-skill, low- wage occupations, coupled with contracting opportunities in middle-wage, middle-skill white-collar and blue-collar jobs. Concretely, employment and earnings are rising in both high- education professional, technical, and managerial occupations and, since the late 1980s, in low-education food service, personal care, and protective service occupations. Conversely, job opportunities are declining in both middle-skill, white- collar clerical, administrative, and sales occupations and in middle-skill, blue-collar production, craft, and operative occupations.”

Are these missing middles related?  I leave that to readers.

Autor, David. 2010. “The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market Implications for Employment and Earnings.” Center for American Progress: The Hamilton Project. http://economics.mit.edu/files/5554.

image: I took this photo in London this fall.  I like the way the lamp standard divides the Victorian beauty on the right and the modernist beauty on the left.  A razor thin middle.

post script: the paragraph from Derek Thompson was added several hours after the post went up.

Women, power and popular culture

iu-1There’s a business school in the US in which female students routinely use the “interrogative lilt” when speaking in class.

This “lilt” turns assertions into questions. The phrase “this strategy looks promising” is made to rise at the end, becoming “this strategy looks promising?” The speaker is now asking for agreement instead of insisting on it.

In a business school!  If women are not learning to be forthright here, something is entirely wrong with the world.  I mean, really.

Popular culture continues to cultivate images that make woman look little, unassuming, unthreatening, unintelligent, and incapable.

Happily, some women are fighting back and using popular culture to redefine themselves. Videos from Ingrid Michaelson (Girls Chase Boys) and Meghan Trainor (All About That Base) give us two great cases in point.  But neither of these go after the “lilting” problem.

I am persuaded that this work will be done by actresses in the world of film and TV. They will portray women wielding power. They will show us how to transcend acts of deference.

The early days were frustrating.  Some actors would overcorrect. They “butch up” their performances but this had the unhappy effect of costing them nuance, as actors and as characters. There was a lot of growling and shouting.  But of course real power usually comes in a more subtle form (and is more effective for its subtlety).

But we are getting signs of a new approach.

In Murder in the First (TNT), Bess Rous as Ivana West and the acting CEO of Applsn confronts her boss.  She is leaving the company and wants to let him know.  He’s a world class bully and tries to intimidate her.  She doesn’t blink.  She doesn’t back down.  In a great performance of self possession,  Rous/West just doesn’t care. She meets his hostility with an attitude that sits somewhere between pity and contempt. No bluff, no rattling of arms. Just an implacable presumption that he doesn’t matter and that she does.  No lilting here. (Please could someone get this scene on YouTube.)

In episode 3 of The Killing (Netflix) we get Joan Allen (pictured) as the head of a military academy. And the pity of this performance is that it is designed to make her look a bit of a monster. But even as Allen satisfies this requirement of the role, she works in little grace notes everywhere. Which is to say this actress can deliver an overbearing authority and not lose control of subtle messages. This aspect of Allen’s art, the ability to assume authority without diminishes it or herself, was also on display in the Bourne Conspiracy.

Tea Leoni as Madam Secretary (in Madam Secretary, CBS) is giving us a variation on the theme. Her approach to power exhibits a light hand. Madam Secretary leaves no doubt that she has power and what she will do with it when dealing with people who disappoint her, but mostly she is alive to the humor and the ironies of the moment.  Call this a sprezzatura performance of power.It’s a welcome addition to our power vocabulary.  (Men have something to learn here.)

Compare this performance to the one being given in Homeland by Clare Danes as Carrie Mattheson.  This is a wonderfully ferocious “let it rip” approach to power. Clare/Carrie goes at it. (She succeeds in making the men around her look like time-serving careerists.)  This is sheer intensity, with no trace of ego or self aggrandizement.  (Men could learn something here too.)

Our culture is under reconstruction.  Gender, especially, is changing. And I think of all the ways the US qualifies as a “city on a hill,” as a prime mover in social progress, it’s surely here on the question of gender that we are most watched and most admired.

Elizabeth I, long may she rule over us

iu-3Today is the anniversary of the accession of Elizabeth I to the throne of England in 1558. For Elizabethans, November 17th became a great celebration, an opportunity for bonfires and fireworks. Towards the end of her reign, they thanked God for their monarch. Things were not so promising in 1558.

Elizabeth I was confronted by male aristocrats happy to relieve a woman of her power. She was confronted by commoners deeply skeptical of a woman’s ability to rule. She did not have a standing army, and she was plagued by both the “over mighty subject” and the “masterless man.” That English taste for disobedience flourished especially in the 16th century.  Sir Thomas Elyot warned, “men’s [hearts] be free and they will love whom they [like].”

Elizabeth was the beneficiary of her grandfather (Henry VII) and his brutal strategies for clearing the kingdom of people with a competitive claim to the throne. But she was also heir to the religious complications created by her father (Henry VIII). England was now the Protestant upstart, and a beacon for those people in every continental country who wished to break with Rome. The Pope declared that the man who killed Elizabeth would commit no sin. Spain believed that a destruction of the English court would be God’s work. Thanks, Dad!

There a lots of historical reasons to revive the celebration. Elizabeth represents the triumph of cunning over stupidity, intelligence over mere cunning, genius over mere intelligence. She was the triumph of will over skepticism, a Renaissance education over the domestic arts, and theatre of power over realpolitik.

But there are also lots of contemporary reasons to celebrate Elizabeth and to remember her.