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.
June 23, 2013
Barack and Michelle Obama address the achievements and challenges facing Northern Island.
I was not intending to blog yet again on a speech by a leading politician. As I listened to the context of the speeches and introductions [17th June 2013] I became more intrigued about the political messages and composition of the speeches. President Obama had taken the opportunity of meeting with an audience of mainly young people prior to the G8 summit being held this week. Here are my immediate notes:
A sixteen year-old introduces the First Lady. She speaks clearly with clear yet well-crafted words of hopes and demands of young people.
Michelle Obama speaks. Her words are also clear and well-crafted. Here is someone who believes in a future guarded by the aspirations of young people. It spoke to Northern Island but she could have been speaking in any of a hundred other countries. The message is partly clear because it is uncluttered.
See introduces her husband with well-received gentle irony.
Barack speaks. At first his message is not clear and well-crafted. Its local references do not quite work. The jokes do not quite work.
He moves almost hesitantly to his main point, his key metaphor. Much has been achieved in fifteen years since The Good Friday agreement but there is still much to do. He spoke of walls keeping communities separate. Now his speech was clear. Northern Island continues to remind the World that there may not be peace but we must hold to the promise of peace.
Fifteen hundred young people and battle-hardened politicians were still applauding after the Obamas had left the hall.
The speech by President Obama appears to have been made in relatively relaxed mood the anticipated difficulties of dealing with the Syrian conflict at the G8 meeting. President Putin was sending vigorous signals that the West was calamitously wrong in its emerging policy towards arming the insurgency in Syria.
February 3, 2013
The Pret A Manger food chain has withdrawn its line of Virgin Mary crisps from sale, following protests from Catholic leaders
The crisps were tomato flavor, and the name indicates a relationship to the Bloody Mary cocktail, a potent and popular concoction of vodka, tomato sauce, Tabasco sauce and assorted and idiosyncratic ingredients introduced by innovative cocktail makers. Among enthusiasts for the drink was one Ernest Hemingway.
While Bloody Mary has always struck me as a term with potentially inflammatory connotations for Christians, it seems to have mostly avoided demonology. The deepest objections come from those who rail across the demon drink in all its manifestations.
The Cult of Mary
The labeling of Virgin Mary crisps, however, triggers off far more powerful reactions. The Catholic Church has elevated Mary, Mother of Christ, to what has been described as cult status.
A gift to the poor
Unsurprising that Catholic leaders protested vehemently over the crisps, and Pret backed down after a broadside from the Protect the Pope website. The offensive crisps were withdrawn and donated to the poor. I have heard no objections to this further symbolic gesture.
The brouhaha reminded me of the outrage during the Pope’s visit to England in 2010 over the leaking of weird ideas to jazz up the visit. The bizarre outpourings of a brainstorming hit the headlines briefly. Another downer for practitioners of creativity-spurring techniques, I thought at the time.
This week also saw the story of Halal meat contaminated with traces of Pork, offensive to the dietary observations of Muslim and Jewish religious practices.
Religions sustain their beliefs through symbols. A perceived attack on the symbols is a perceived attack which goes to the core of the religious beliefs.
On giving offence
I had no intention writing this blogpost to offend the sensibilities of subscribers to Leaders We Deserve. The image above was taken from Catholic Answers Forum. The story seems to me to have considerable interest to leaders and leadership students.
March 3, 2012
A highly-charged symbolic story has emerged around David Cameron’s ride on retired police horse Raisa. Headline writers demonstrate their creativity
The New York Times captured the symbolic dimension to the story neatly:
Prime Minister David Cameron’s ride on a retired police horse in the Oxfordshire countryside appears, for now at least, to lack the elements of a full-blown scandal. But as political symbols go, the horse and its links to the tabloid newspaper scandal roiling the country seems likely to become, at the least, rich fodder for political satirists and cartoonists. In Brussels on Friday [March 2nd 2012], Mr Cameron was peppered with as many questions about Raisa, the horse, as about Britain’s refusal to sign on to a new treaty.
Henry 5th and all that
It set me wondering about the potency of horses in narrative. Where better to start than Shakespeare? The hero king Henry 5th and the villain Richard 3rd are tales retold as great movies with the monarchs and their nags as the stars.
The story seems to have attracted the press after initial press statements had appeared to be unconvincing denials of a matter of fact, namely that the Prime Minister had ridden on a horse pensioned off from the police service and placed in the care of horse trainer Charlie Brooks. Mr Brooks is the husband of Rebekah Brooks, who is involved in the hacking stories at News International. Both are close friends of David Cameron , as is a senior policeman who may have helped in the arrangement to pension off Raisa, the nag at the centre of the story.
Beyond the rational
At a rational level, some kind of plausible explanation can be constructed. On the other hand, you might think that on a rational level there doesn’t seem much point in such an exercise. It will take a lot of effort to find serious wrong-doing. The potential of the story lies in the symbolism of a cosy group of wealthy friends using friendship to get further unpaid privileges.
Symbolism and leadership
It is a case of symbolic leadership, as portrayed, say, by Sir Lawrence Olivier mounted on his horse before the battle of Agincourt. It might also be seen as more a narrative interpretation of leadership. The symbolism is of Mr Cameron enjoying himself with his friends through privileged access to the aging Raisa. Faint echoes of Animal farm also seep into mind.
What the papers said
The whole episode offered creative opportunities for headline writers. The mirror went for losing the reins I did horse around with Sun’s old nag. The Telegraph offered
Horsegate: the PM will forever be saddled with Raisa. The Guardian went for the old cliche of closing the stable door
To be continued
September 10, 2011
The rugby world cup in New Zealand provides much food for thought about leadership processes, including the symbolism of the ceremonial Haka performed at the opening ceremonies and before the host country matches
The Haka may be seen as a modern and symbolic representation of an ancient perception of a leader as someone who channels the spirits of the supernatural world to inspire the actions of the people or tribe.
Later, the behaviours were described as charismatic and in the nature of a special gift from the Gods.
The appeals to social cohesion and committment is retained in the pre-match inspirational urgings of the captain, and sometimes of the coach.
To be continued
August 25, 2011
Steve Jobs, iconic leader and one of the great creative innovators of his era, leaves the company he founded and built into a global superstar
Tim Cook and Steve Jobs
The departure of Steve Jobs as leader of Apple on medical grounds has been anticipated in and outside Apple for some time. We can anticipate even more news coverage of the iconic figure whose design genius was behind a steam of products since the time of the first Apple personal computer, launched as the Apple 2
Quirky but much loved
This was quirky but much but much loved. Even the earliest versions were revolutionary in appearance and functioning. They suggested a future for personal computing that could not be imagined in the market leading IBM product and its host of imitators trying to be as compatible as a possible at lower cost.
The Apple Mac
Then the Apple Mac came along. This was even more obviously evidence of new species emerging. They are coming from a common ancestor, but retaining a genetic capacity to visualize as well as to digitalise.
IBM and clones under threat
Apple products become a serious threat to the generic sounding PC (i.e. IBM’s products and its clones). Compatibility was more an aspiration than a reality for each set of products, and even today there are enough differences to create famous entry barriers to switching from one of the two IT tribes.
Apple developed a brand image of innovation and design excellence. The company succeeded in grabbing a share of the emerging mobile phone market with its i-phone and then the tablet market with the i-pad. Apple stores became cathedrals for worshippers.
And each of the innovative leaps in the company was utterly associated with the design genius of Steve Jobs. Stock levels were seen to shift according to reports on his deteriorating health.
This is one of the clearest example of symbolic leadership to be found in modern times. Steve Jobs was Apple. The closest parallel I can think of is that of Walt Disney. Incidentally, you can find fascinating comparisons of the two companies in the book Disney Wars.
All is not gloom and doom
There are naturally signs of bereavement at present at Apple. But all is not gloom and doom. Apple has had a strong internal candidate waiting to step up. The evidence is that the company has faced the realities of succession. Tim Cook is already highly regarded internally for his operational and organizational talents. He was appointed in what seemed like one last symbolic act after his strong endorsement by Steve Jobs in his letter of resignation. We will learn much more of Mr Cook in the coming months. Will Apple now enter a post-charismatic era in its public image?
May 24, 2011
It meant something during President Obama’s state visit to England, as a joint message with Prime Minister Cameron revealed.
The two leaders published the communication in the Times. It seemed to be at pains to address the increasingly aging notion of the special relationship between the two countries. Instead, the word was ‘essential’. How modern. Special is an emotion laden word. Essential is a cool word of functional management. Special has symbolic overtones. Essential doesn’t.
As noted by The International Business Times
The relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. however is much older and complicated than the one between the leader and the Queen. The referral of the countries mutual relationship as ‘special’ can be traced back to a phrase used to describe the exceptionally close political, diplomatic, cultural, economic, military and historical relationship in a 1946 speech by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Since then, although both the United Kingdom and United States have close relationships with many other nations, the level of cooperation between them in economic activity, trade and commerce, military planning, execution of military operations, nuclear weapons technology and intelligence sharing is perceived as a unique one.
President Obama is strong at emotions when they are authentic. He is cautious when he has to wear his mask of command. He was the charismatic leader of his election campaign in Ireland yesterday [May 22nd 2011]. He was playing it for fun as well as for the votes back home with the Irish community. Today it was business as usual.