I caught part of a recent BBC Wales profile of Karl Jenkins, perhaps the most commercially successful “classical” composer of our times. I feel I must put in these inverted commas because the genre is not an easy one to talk about: it denotes broadly a world of virtuosity and rigour, a world of demanding music particularly in its contemporary forms. Jenkins’ music demands the inverted commas because in critical respects it’s not particularly demanding, is in fact resolutely accessible. He has his fans among classical musicians, but I imagine he’s well used to what may seem like an elitist snobbery from his detractors.
When I was a schoolboy I was interested in some of the whackier jazz fusion combos, including Soft Machine. Jenkins replaced the Softs’ sax player Elton Dean in the early 70s, and was important to the band’s evolution, but I always felt he didn’t quite fit, that there was something detached about him. It didn’t come as any great surprise when a few years later he left experimental jazz behind for the lush embrace of advertising soundtracks.
I’m not a fan, but that’s not particularly important. Praising Jenkins on the documentary the ad mogul Sir Peter Hegarty claimed that there was no greatness in making difficult music for an audience of 40 people; that truly creative people absorbed what was going on around them, and redeployed it somehow, in a way that had integrity but could appeal to a mass market (I paraphrase).
I guess it’s no great surprise to hear that coming from an ad man, but it only illustrates how denuded the idea of “creativity” is in the advertising world, which in many ways has shaped our culture, our mainstream sensibilities (entirely to their detriment).
Some great art is popular. Much of it isn’t, because, pace Hegarty, popularity or the lack of it is pretty much irrelevant to the quality of a piece of art.
Advertising requires imagination, and technical skills, but it is never creative in the way good art (let alone great art) must be. That’s because advertising is ALWAYS safe, and has to be, even when it seems to court risk (what it offers is the manner of the risky, but never its substance). Advertising is rooted in cliché, because advertising needs its instant hooks, the easy pull of the familiar; it needs to reassure even when it’s promising adventure. The focus groups wouldn’t have it any other way. Good art on the other hand, however it works, mostly takes us to places we wouldn’t normally go. It unsettles us to move us, not to buy something, but to re-experience in a new light some aspect of what we already have, or give us something perhaps we didn’t know we wanted.
Art and advertising are diametrically opposed. It’s not then surprising that in his recent TV paean to Brutalist architecture the great Jonathan Meades should in passing take a swipe at the stultifying influence of advertising. That said, Meades’ real target as so often was our cultural veneration of mediocrity, the safe, the undemanding. He traced a line from the the perceived grotesquerie of John Vanbrugh, through High Victorian Gothic, to the Brutalist design of the 1960s and 70s (or thereabouts). This, he argued, was an architecture which felt no need to apologise for itself, an architecture of ideas and the imagination, an architecture capable of refashioning the space it occupied. All this sits in contrast to the unassuming orderliness of Georgian building, beloved by the conservative mind, easily harmonious in its proportions, which some would see as elegance or even beauty, but others like Meades would find oppressive in its bourgeois lifelessness.
It would be unwise to argue that a design was good just because it was adventurous, or exciting. It might be these things and still not work, for other reasons. Assertiveness is exhilarating when you have something worth asserting; without it assertiveness is most likely to bring us bathos, or vulgarity.
Brutalism is a misleading term, suggesting something thrustingly hideous, but then what we think of as Brutalism isn’t even a style. Like most architecture it was a response to its times, a determination to find an adequate form for conflicting senses of hope and darkness, those apprehensions themselves born out of a feeling for the blankness of the natural world, the dependence on ourselves to make what meaning we could in our lives, at a time when religious faith appeared to be necessarily collapsing into the confines of the lunatic fringe. In many ways we’re still struggling with these darker apprehensions, all the more so since any optimism bubbling up around our emergence from the Second World War seems to have fallen by the wayside.
Instead we have a society increasingly polarised between the crushing and the crushed, where private and corporate wealth, protected from the consequences of its own grotesque misjudgements by public handouts, now commands shining and vapid temples to itself, the new towers of London evoking not so much awe as the vaingloriousness of San Gimignano’s merchant princes.
Through the ministries of consumerism we’re offered the consolations of constant undemanding distraction, whether through sanitised mysticism, or the forced and prurient excitement of Reality TV (never was a genre more ironically labelled).
That’s not the fault of Karl Jenkins, or any other creative soul working to do something good in these conditions; just because something’s not great doesn’t mean it can’t be good.
Unfortunately the danger seems to be more the other way round; so our apparent desire to shirk the serious or the difficult means we settle for consolation when we could do with confrontation, when we debase our own judgements to claim greatness where there’s only a kind of slavery.
I find advertising almost impossible to watch or read these days, no matter how well-crafted. I find it hard to look beyond the manipulative motives, the unsustainable pointlessness of it all, much as though this is the world in which I make my living. But at least when I’m making my living I know what I’m doing (in every sense); I’d never mistake it for something more important, something enduring. And I hope I’d never mistake the sentimental for the truly sentient, never mistake sensation for sense.