On art and the raving of lunatics…

Taylor Swift has apparently made a video.

The right wing is charging her with being overtly political. The left wing is accusing her of cashing in on the latest cause.

Maybe they’re both right… but they’re most assuredly both wrong too.

I’m old enough to remember the early days of music videos. The good ones were always edgy or outrageous. The best of them were incredibly controversial.

It seems to me that art in its many forms probably should be controversial. It should make you think. It should take your breath away. It should drive you to consider uncomfortable ideas.

Here’s the important part of today’s message, though… if people saying words makes you too uncomfortable, you always have the option of changing the station. In all my many years of life, no one has ever walked up to me, forced my eyes or ears open, and made me an unwilling participant in art. The artist chooses what to do, and I choose whether I’m going to engage with it.

Having a hissy fit because you don’t like a video makes you look and sound like a complete raving lunatic and guarantees that I can’t take you seriously as an adult human being.

Grieving for Our Lady of Paris…

I had another post written for tonight, but in light of the great fire sweeping Notre Dame cathedral those words fade to less than insignificant.

With its cornerstone laid in 1163, Notre Dame saw nearly the entire rise of Western civilization in its shadow over the last 855 years. It saw Paris grow and expand into one of the world’s handful of indisputably great cities.

As a young 18 year old American in Paris, I was fortunate to pass through the cathedral over 20 years ago. Honestly I don’t remember many details of that trip now, but I remember standing in the nave of Notre Dame and being awestruck – exactly the effect that it’s long ago designers and builders had hoped to achieve.

I’m not religious in any significant way… but Notre Dame wasn’t about just being Catholic, or even being Christian. Yes, the great structure was raised to the glory of God, but it was also about celebrating great art, and architecture, and an undeniable knowledge that there is, and there should be, something larger than ourselves. You couldn’t stand before the great rose windows and feel anything other than humble.

Tonight I grieve for the people of Paris, and France, and the world at the loss of such a treasure trove of our collective history. This world is poorer and darker for its loss.

The dark art of staff work…

For going on fifteen years now, I’ve heard how PowerPoint is making us stupid and is at least a contributing factor in people not being developing actual communication skills. In fact, there was quite a kerfuffle back in 2010 about a brave lieutenant colonel who was booted out of Afghanistan for daring to admit he spent his days in “endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information.”

That’s the kind of snark we appreciate here at jeffreytharp.com, but it is not the kind of truth-laden sarcasm that is much appreciated by most at echelons higher than reality. There are a few exceptions though, officers like H. R. McMaster (now National Security Advisor) and James Mattis (now Secretary of Defense) are both well-known critics of PowerPoint. Mattis, has gone so far as noting that “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” McMasters, more diplomatically, notes that “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control… Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Although these two leading lights are notable exceptions to an establishment that has drawn PowerPoint into an ever closer embrace, they are the exceptions (even now almost a decade later). The sad fact of the matter is that when it comes to staff work on an average day, he who controls the PowerPoint controls the meeting – the flow of information, what gets presented and what doesn’t make the cut, how far (if at all) in advance someone will get an early version of whatever information is hiding in plain sight on those slides.

Information, you see, no matter how badly displayed on a conference room wall, really is the coin of the realm. It’s precious and is so very often guarded jealousy by those who have it against those who want it.

As a staffer in the belly of the beast it’s my job to make those slides say whatever the boss thinks they need to say. It’s not so much about the truth as crafting the message in such a way that nothing comes as a surprise, the rough edges are rubbed smooth, and the viewer is carefully guided away from information someone doesn’t necessarily want them to have or questions they’d really prefer the person being briefed not ask. I find it’s generally helpful if you suspend disbelief and go along with the program. Making waves won’t necessarily get you in trouble, but it will make your life just that little bit harder than it would have been otherwise.

There’s a bit of a dark art to doing staff work – and the better you do it, the darker that art becomes and blossoms well beyond your individual ability to make a PowerPoint briefing dazzle. In fact, the dark art of staff work feels like something that might just be worth talking about in a companion volume to Nobody Told Me… if I can just sit down and muster up the internal fortitude to actually do the writing.

Back in my swivel chair…

Today was not an unmitigated success. There were no meetings and, if I’m honest, that goes a long way towards making a day more tolerable if nothing else. Then there was the great cleaning of the inbox. Clearing out near 300 backlogged messages that had no hope of being answered felt like a win… until I then was left to ponder the hundred or so that remained and actually needed some kind of answer. I spent way more of the day plowing through those than I want to think about. The amount of time wasted on email would be spectacular if anyone ever bothered to add it all up. They won’t, of course, because no one really wants to know the answer for fear they may have to do something to make that number more reasonable.

So now I’m back to the office. They say great art comes from great pain. That could very well be true. I don’t know if “pain” is the right word here and I’m in no way vain enough to call what I’m doing art, but my best and most consistent writing almost always finds its source at the office. Sure, that could be because for five days out of every seven that’s where I spend more waking hours than anywhere else. I like to think, though, that it’s because the bureaucracy is a vast treasure trove of stories begging to be told. If I weren’t part of it, I’d have a hard time believing that anything so convoluted could even give the impression of functioning.

I’m not thrilled beyond all reasonableness to be back in my swivel chair, but for the sake of the blog it’s a good thing… and that’s as close to glass full as I’m going to be able to manage.

Fame and fortune…

Every artist has their medium of choice. Mine just happens to be PowerPoint. That’s convenient, because PowerPoint doesn’t demand a great deal of artistic skill. What it does demand is a willingness to go googly-eyed staring at twin monitors all day long while clicking on a selection of hundreds of small boxes in an effort to bring about the desired effect. Honest to God, sometimes after I get done with a set of charts, not even I know what they’re trying to say, but by God they look good doing it. And really, it’s all about bringing a good looking set of charts to the meeting. If push comes to shove, if they’re built right, the people in the room will be too dazzled by the graphics to be all that bothered by what they’re actually hearing.

Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much of a street value placed on badass PowerPoint charts. I feel like there should be some kind of trendy art studio that specializes in this kind of thing. Like other great artists, I fear that my work will never be fully appreciated in my own lifetime. Many years from now, surely someone will stumble across a disk of my slides and realize, belatedly, that they are in the presence of a master, whose skill with a slide deck was truly underestimated.

As an alternative, perhaps I’ll start selling signed originals in the hallway after meetings. That’s a sure path to fame and fortune, right?