Pretentious? Nous? « BBH Labs
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Pretentious? Nous?

10th February 12

Posted by Jeremy Ettinghausen

Posted in Insight

Philosophy, Salvator Rosa

Author: Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London

When I went to school there were the Sports Guys and the Music Guys.

The Sports Guys liked doing circuit training, spraying Ralgex and making noises with their studs in the shower. The Music Guys wore heavy tweed overcoats, pored over the NME crossword and argued about the relative merits of Joy Division and Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King. I liked both categories, but fundamentally I guess I was a Music Guy.

I went to college equipped with Country Born hair gel, ‘fu shoes and Radio London mix tapes. I covered my walls with album covers from Wah, Defunkt and Echo and the Bunnymen. I danced all night to James Brown and Washington Go Go. (Mine was an awkward, heavy-shoe shuffle that alienated girls more than it attracted them.)

I confess I became somewhat pretentious. But I imagine it was an innocent sort of pretentiousness. A love of words and ideas and debate. Of music, books and film.

Obviously pretentiousness is somewhat silly and self-important, but that’s part of its charm. Look at Salvator Rosa in the self portrait above from the National Gallery. He’s painted himself as a sensitive, brooding philosopher , braving a dark, stormy world. He’s carrying a Latin inscription (natch) that reads ‘Keep silent unless you have something more important to say than silence’. How absurd, how pretentious, how cool…

Self Portrait in a Turban, Duncan Grant

Last summer I visited Charleston, the Sussex country home and social hub of the Bloomsbury art set between the wars. They painted the walls and furniture, they painted each other, they discussed pacifism, ballet and the global financial crisis. They made a show of drinking coffee rather than tea. To be honest I didn’t love all the decorative artwork and I wasn’t too sure about their sleeping arrangements. But I had to admire the fact that they had a view about the world, a design for living.

When I left college I fell into advertising as I thought it was one of the few professions where we Music Guys were welcome. Advertising is an art not a science, it’s creative persuasion, lateral thought. Advertising folk cultivated curious facial hair, absurd spectacles and MA1 Flight Jackets. I felt at home.

In the ’90s our Agency produced the Levi’s campaign and I recall it referencing Ansel Adams, Hunter S Thompson, Rodchenko, Bill Brandt, Burt Lancaster and more besides. Pretentious perhaps, but also bracing stuff.

Now let’s be clear. I’m certainly not a subscriber to the view that advertising is art. At its best it’s creativity applied to a commercial end. But I do believe that creativity needs to be inspired, catalysed and nourished by a broader set of cultural references and ideas.

Of late I’ve begun to  wonder whether we Music Guys have lost our way and our voice a little. I’m concerned that there may not be enough people discussing arthouse movies, German dance troupes, experimental theatre. Shouldn’t the Agency be abuzz with fevered debate about Hockney and Hirst? Shouldn’t creative reviews be inspired by more  than YouTube? I worry in fact that we have become less pretentious.

Perhaps people work so hard nowadays they don’t have time to develop what Denis Healey called a ‘hinterland’. Maybe it’s straitened times. We want to be seen as sensible, rational, commercial. Maybe it’s Anglo Saxon reserve. We apply a blanket pejorative to anything slightly outside the norms of conversation and thought. Perhaps it’s British anti-intellectualism. Our TV is dominated by unreality shows, costume anti-dramas, middle brow mundanity (what Simon Schama recently labelled ‘cultural necrophilia’). Our Queen prefers Lambourn to Glyndebourne. Our Prime Minister prefers tennis to Tennyson. And his favourite read is a cook book. Maybe we’re just too busy jogging.

Whatever the source of the problem, l’ve come to rue this loss of pretentiousness. I wish people more often cited the marginal and the maddening, the absurd and the abstruse from the world of art, academia and literature. Not just because it’s interesting, challenging, funny. But because today’s obscure eccentric is tomorrow’s bright young thing. Because creativity’s favourite bedfellows are difference and diversity.

So I’ve determined that I’m going to be pretentious in 2012. And I’ll encourage everyone else to do the same.

Honi soit qui mal y pense…

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