The Northern Powerhouse: A Stroll down Oxford Road

March 20, 2015

Oxford Road SICK festivalYesterday, I took the opportunity to breathe in the culture of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, by taking a stroll down Manchester’s Oxford Road

A few hours earlier, driving in to the city centre, I had listened to George being quizzed on his party political broadcast, sorry, I meant his budget speech, the previous day [Wednesday March 17th, 2015].

There has been quite enough coverage of that elsewhere.

My interest had then been further aroused by a caller to BBC’s Radio Five Live who said he was self-employed, and that he believed the government when they said they were creating a Northern Powerhouse. You can feel it in the air everywhere in Manchester, he added.

Really? I thought it was a good time to check on the theory of a spring-time culture which you can ‘feel in the air’ as proposed by Sumantra Ghoshal (1948-2004)

Oxford Road

My route took me through the University campus to Oxford Road just west of the University Hospital. I was heading for the newwly re-opened Whitworth Art Gallery. [Image by Alan Williams]

Whitworth Art Gallery

Lunch-time pedestrians were enjoying one of the city’s four seasons which can all arrive on the same day. Yesterday it was Spring. It was also the time of an artistic festival that had gone in for an eye-catching title SICK. This announced itself with the rather phallic structure shown above.

It also happened to be student rag week. Oxford Road was lined with stalls were erected for money-raising and for all the other motives of the student societies and activists. My image was a glimpse of the Students’ HQ

That Powerhouse Culture

If power translates into culture I could detect signs of a new vibrancy. I had to tread carefully to avoid the installation artworks, [and that was before I reached the Art Gallery]. Once there, the super-modernist surround of the sensational revamp seemed to merge nicely with the Victorian buildings off Oxford Road. My photograph was taken, facing left from the Whitworth’s entrance steps.

View from steps of The Whitworth

So, is the re-birth of The Whitworth part of powerhouse culture emerging in the North West of England, with thriving Manchester at its heart? Maybe. If so, it was summed up in a snatch of conversation overheard as two students hurried past. The accent of one was was more Brixton than Bolton:

” I’s a’ a me’aphor, inni?’ I heard her say.

Today, the eclipse

Yesterday Oxford Road, today the eclipse. Which, I suppose is also important culturally as another metaphor.


Wimbledon transmission among ‘UK’s Cultural Crown Jewels’ under threat

December 26, 2014

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A range of sporting events broadcast in the UK is protected by law. This attempts to control transmission arrangements for Football and Rugby World Cup finals, the Grand National, and The finals of Wimbledon

The BBC enjoys privileged transmission of a range of such events. These are under increasing threat through commercial pressures.

Recently, [ December 16, 2014 ] a story broke that The BBC has begun talks with British Telecomm [BT] about sharing transmission of Wimbledon after the BBC current contract ends in 2017.

Wimbledon is a protected species

Wimbledon fortnight in July is a cultural as much as a sporting event. Its symbolic significance is up there with the National Health Service. Political parties are united in the need to protect and preserves both in the public (and their own political) interests.

The arrangements illustrate something about the broader social culture in the UK and a widely held suspicion of unregulated commercialization of cultural events.

Mixed economy or mixed-up interventions?

I have never successfully explained the rationale to American friends who tend to view the phenomenon as quirky, and evidence of unhealthy state intervention in the workings of a free market economy. Any defense has to explain the funding of the BBC through a ‘license to view’ charged to anyone receiving BBC transmissions. In an earlier era this was enforced through the use of sinister transmission vans, targeting homes with TV aerials around the land.

“It’s the way we do things here” I say, rather defensively.

When culture and commerce collide

For all its iconic status, Wimbledon is also derided as a symbol of middle-class values state-sponsored and propping up an elite and effete sport. It is the target of much blokeish bile to that effect, as each July approaches.

When culture and commerce collide, the battles tend to be highly emotional. The discussion polarizes traditional values and the need for innovative change.

To be continued


Mr. Turner’s charismatic charm

December 5, 2014

Fighting TemeraireBefore viewing Mr Turner, I had read and heard almost universally positive views of the film. What was it that produced such unconditional praise?

Partly, I suspect, because the film appeals through visceral rather than intellectual means. That is not to deny an exceptional level of intelligence behind its creation and delivery. My point is that we risk being dazzled and beguiled perhaps in ways similar to those produced by close encounters of a charismatic kind.

Charismatic lettuce and tomatoes

Charisma remains a fascinating concept. It has become over-used in popular culture. In his excellent book on the subject, John Potts gleefully reported the description of a charismatic lettuce, which presumably resulted in charismatic sandwiches. [I was reminded of the recent headlines in which Ed Miliband was confirmed as lacking in charisma because of the way he ate a bacon sandwich in public.]

The review of reviews, Rotten Tomatoes, confirms my point about the charismatic effect that Mr. Turner has had on its critics. Not so much rotten tomatoes, symbolizing artistic abuse, but veritable vegetable accolades.

Mr. Turner’s charisma

The film oozes charisma. there is a self-confidence in its visual impact. The demonstrations of sky- and sea- scapes were stunning and dog-whistle evocative. Reading the reviews is a humbling experience of dimensions of technical excellence which go unnoticed by amateur critics like myself.

The central performance by Timothy Spall as Turner was utterly compelling. This was the charisma of the physically near-grotesque yet ultimately endearing character. It also celebrated the notion of the disregard for convention of the creative genius. Does that sound like a cliche? If so, is it my cliche imposed on something subtler intentions?

Mike Leigh and distributed leadership

Over the years, Leigh has earned high regard for the integrity of his work, characterized by his unique improvisational style permitting artists to co-create characters. In leadership terms, this proves opportunities for distributed leadership.

The outcome is a set of performances mostly of high-quality, but inevitably individualistic. This has creative impact at the level of the individual and at the dyadic relationships with Spall’s Turner. What the approach gains in differentiated performances it loses in a lack of cohesion at the wider level of a narrative.

High on artistic values with a whiff of the didactic

The film manifests high artistic values. We are drawn to the scenic beauty and accompanying existential anguish which inspired Turner. We are invited to appreciate his innovative techniques he brought to his art.

For me, at times, the overall impact had rather too much of the earnest and didactic about its treatment of Turner’s artistic and moral integrity. This is rescued by a non-judgmental insistence on its ambiguities and contradictions.

Beyond Worthy

The result is an experience that is visually engaging and intellectually stimulating, this is a film beyond worthy, if not quite the masterpiece implied by critical comment. Which, come to think of it, is another way of interpreting Mr. Turner.

Image

The Fighting Temeraire [creative commons via Wikipedia]. One of many wondrous paintings by Turner weaved into the film.


Symbolic leadership and the significance of the discovery of the Sulawesi cave paintings

October 19, 2014

The discovery of the cave paintings in a remote region of Indonesia seems likely to change our understanding the origins of artistic creativity

According to a BBC report [October 8th, 2014]

Australian and Indonesian scientists have dated layers of stalactite-like growths that have formed over coloured outlines of human hands.

Early artists made them by carefully blowing paint around hands that were pressed tightly against the cave walls and ceilings. The oldest is at least 40,000 years old. There are also human figures, and pictures of wild hoofed animals that are found only on the island.

Art and the ability to think of abstract concepts is what distinguishes our species from other animals – capabilities that also led us to use fire, develop the wheel and come up with the other technologies that have made our kind so successful.

The dating of the art in Sulawesi will mean that ideas about when and where this pivotal moment in our evolution occurred will now have to be revised.

The co-creation of art and culture

Symbolic representation through art seems to have been around as long as the formation of early cultures. It is not unreasonable to develop the [‘social constructionist’] view that culture and symbolic communication co-evolved.

New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik picks up on a related theory, that creative art of the type found in cave paintings was the consequence of a feminization of early cultures: Ape-woman started creating art and the social skills of cooperation while Ape-man developed hunting and gathering skills with greater emphasis on competition and conflict. It occured to me that the artistic Ape-woman was herself engaging in a competitive survival tactic for winning kudos through her displays of creativity.]

Gopnik is quick to concede that any theory of the origins of art needs to come with as health warning.

The fallacy of the single cause of culture does not become less fallacious when it’s set farther back in time. Symbolic communication, even in its higher form as art, is always a tide ebbing and flowing, rather than an event that just arrives.

The capacity to communicate symbolically

These ideas suggest that the capacity to communicate in symbols is an ancient skill that contributed to the survival and success of our species.

It remains vital as there is a need for more visionary leadership to help us protect our world from the unintended consequences of our technological interventions.


Is Narcissism always a bad thing?

August 12, 2014

NarcissusNarcissism is often associated with ‘the dark side of leadership’. Recent studies offer a revised perspective

A review in The Economist [March 22nd, 2014] was entitled Narcissism: Know thy selfie. It reviewed two recent books on Narcissism: Mirror, Mirror: the uses and abuses of self-love, by Simon Blackburn, and The Americanization of Narcissism, by Elizabeth Lunbeck.

Lasch and the Culture of Narcissism

In examining these books it is worth going back to the psychodynamic treatment of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. It is worth revisiting this classic study as the critic As Siegel summarized the work:

in “The Culture of Narcissism,” Lasch took what was still mainly a narrowly clinical term and used it to diagnose a pathology that seemed to have spread to all corners of American life. In Lasch’s definition (drawn from Freud), the narcissist, driven by repressed rage and self-hatred, escapes into a grandiose self-conception, using other people as instruments of gratification even while craving their love and approval. Lasch saw the echo of such qualities in “the fascination with fame and celebrity, the fear of competition, the inability to suspend disbelief, and the shallowness and transitory quality of personal relations.

The full-on connection between narcissism and many of the evils of modern society was always likely to attract a revisionary accounts such as those of Blackburn and Lubeck.

Narcissism and balance

Blackburn argues that a ‘healthy’ self-image is bounded at one pole by excessive self-regard, and at the other pole by lack of adequate self-image. This adds needed nuance to the Lasch position, as well as to the popular connection between narcissism and the dark side of charismatic leadership. His plea is for positioning the individual more carefully in their context. The prevailing view of egotistical leaders may have slipped too much into polarisation. Where he is closest to Lasch is in his cutting observations of advertising which seeks to bolster the self-image of the consumer (Blackburn takes the ‘because you are worth it’ message of L’Oreal as an example]

‘Good narcissism’

Lunbeck adds the point that the neo-Freudians have tended to focus on narcissism as bad, and that Lasch contributed this cultural belief. Freud, she argues, saw the development of self-regard as a form of ‘good narcissism’.

Narcissism as a dilemma

Both Blackburn and Lunbeck show us that narcissism may be more of a dilemma to be understood than a universal curse.

Suggestion to leadership tutors

Essay question: Is Narcissism a bad leadership characteristic? Discuss, drawing on the work of Simon Blackburn and Elizabeth Lunbeck


The Commonwealth Games illustrates the potency and symbolic nature of sport

August 2, 2014

The Commonwealth Games takes place in Glasgow as Scotland temporarily suspends campaigning for its referendum next month on independence from the United Kingdom

The Games reminded me of the Christmas Day truce in World War One. Not that I was there personally for Glasgow or WW1. According to the legend, on Christmas Day 1914, British and German troops downed arms, left their trenches and played a football match before resuming battle.

Don’t mention the war

In Glasgow during the Games, it was very much ‘don’t mention the war for independence’. If so, the truce was successful. This was perhaps because it was not clear to either the Yes or the No campaign whether political posturing would lose much-needed votes.

Overall, the Games have proceeded in an atmosphere of scarcely- controlled hysteria. Hysteria among spectators; among adrenalized athletes gasping out their semi-coherent replies at interviews minutes after completing events (“tell us what you are feeling as poster-girl now you have failed to win a medal in your favorite event”); and above all, hysteria among the assembled ranks of the broadcast media.

Gilded and giddy commentators

The BBC had more than its fair share of gilded and giddy commentators interviewing athletes and proud parents. These were performances honed by BBC experience of numerous interviews with Andy Murray and celebrity mum Judy before, during and after Wimbledon fortnight over the last few years.

The Gold standard

Great efforts were made to preserve or even enhance the value of the gold standard. The actual events were represented as all equivalently-compelling and equivalently worth watching. After all, they all offered changes to win Gold. The prospect of winning ‘yet another gold’ was the dominant marketing offer from the start of the Games. Each session was going to be special as there were so many gold medals to be won. Somehow the discourse permitted at the same time acknowledgement of the equivalence and specialness of gold and of gold-medal winners, and the lower status silver and bronze medals . (Another image: the satirical sketch of the British class system beginning “I look up to him because he is upper class and I am middle class”).

All events are equal but some are more equal than others

I enjoyed most of the actual athletic events, particularly those that lasted fewer than several hours of running, cycling, or wheel-chairing around the track. You could keep your percentage time watching athletes up by ‘using the red button’. Otherwise you were faced with a choice of multi-tasking or taking full-on the high-intensity but very cozy chats between the assorted teams of BBC commentators and guests.

Soon our revels will be over

I multi-tasked, with mobile, tablet, and library book at the ready at all times. In a few days the Games truce will be over and the referendum campaigning will begin again.


BBC Radio Four. Champion of cool rationality

May 8, 2014

While other media succumb to cheesiness, Radio Four remains a bastion of rationality

Yesterday, I combined business with pleasure, listening to Radio Four, driving to the metropolis of downtown Bramhall for early morning coffee, and thinking about a rewrite to a chapter in a textbook on leadership and rationality.

Radio Four remains a bastion for cool unemotional broadcasting. Even the most dreadful event is communicated with the minimum of fuss from Radio Four World.

If I want cheesiness…

If I want cheesiness, Radio Five is a button away. Radio Five World has cornered the market in the sort of personal hardship stories which are banned from Radio Four.

Back on Four, I hear the reassuringly rational tones of a national treasure who has been broadcasting for many a decade. She is in conversation with someone from the Empire. Sorry, I mean The Commonwealth.

Her guest is a creative artist whose work involves the indigenous culture of New Zealand. Talk turns to the expression of Maori culture through rugby, and its ferocious team performance of the Hakka before matches.

“And this Hakka. What’s it all about?”

“It’s a kind of war dance.”

“War dance!?” [Rationality alert.]

“The chanting and rhythmic stamping of feet bond the players into a team”

“Ah. That all seems very rational.” [ A relieved interviewer is audibly more relaxed.] The conversation was not drifting beyond the boundaries of the Dominant Rational Model.

Meanwhile, on Radio Five

I switch to Radio Five Live. An empathic interviewer is sharing the distress of a mother whose child is being bullied by Face-Book Trolls.


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