Don’t let the buggers get you down…
What a wretched, vulgar Frenchman can teach you about having faith in your ideas
Everyone loves a juicy spat. (And spats don’t come any juicier than the Trump/Biden September slanging match).
But take a look behind the mud-slinging, slurs and insults and you’ll usually find two groups — the galvanised and the petrified.
The galvanised understand that everything has changed. The galvanised are driven by the promise of change’s myriad, dazzling opportunities.
The petrified, whose livelihoods depend on maintaining the current paradigm, will come out fighting. The status quo will be defended, change scorned and new ideas dismissed as just another fad. As @juliovincent suggests in his viral sensation, the petrified will gaslight us all.
As change rolls on, the galvanised will merrily work away at the peripheries, studiously ignoring the nay-sayers.
With buckets of daring and rock-solid vision, they will eventually shift the needle so much that they help usher in a new era.
The petrified, unwilling to face up to change and unable to see what the future might look like, are left in the dust.
’Twas ever thus…
Manet: the Wretched, Vulgar Visionary
Edouard Manet was a C19th needle-shifter.
His life’s work was the Impressionists’ clarion call. And God knows, the Impressionists changed everything.
But, crikey, did Manet ever get a lot of flack…
Pre-Raphaelite luminary and medieval revivalist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, thought of Manet as a:
French idiot… who certainly must be the greatest and most uncritical ass who ever lived.
English art critic Philip Hamerton, called Manet a ‘wretched Frenchman’. His withering review of Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe (1863) included the immortal ad hominem line:
The nude when painted by vulgar men, is inevitably indecent.
But Hamerton’s potshot was simply following popular opinion.
Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe had been rejected from the Paris Salon because it flouted centuries-old rules of what constituted good art. Hamerton must have felt he was on safe ground.
At the time, the Paris Salon was the only gig in town. It was where careers and fortunes could be made — on the proviso that submitted works were of mythological, religious or historical subjects, communicated a moral message and rendered colours realistically with brushwork refined and invisible.
Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe, whilst tipping its hat to Renaissance themes, featured luminous, naked flesh, direct female gaze, imperfect brush strokes, skewed composition and contemporary dress.
It was new. It was different. It was rejected.
When exhibited at 1863’s Emperor Napoleon III-endorsed Salon des Refuses, the painting scandalised Paris. Crowds came to laugh and jeer.
Rejected by the establishment, laughed at by the public and mauled by critics.
Manet remained undaunted.
I am fated to be vilified and I accept it philosophically… But after I am dead, they will realise I saw and thought with exactitude.
However, Manet needn’t have worried.
A critical fact had been overlooked by the Paris Salon’s jury, by Hamerton, Rossetti and by the Parisian scornful.
France was enjoying a societal, economic and technological upheaval. Change was in the air. Tastes were shifting.
Industrialisation had created a new clientele of the middle classes for whom the Paris Salon’s haughty mien bore no relevance.
This newly-minted bourgeoisie was seeking out art they could understand. They wanted to see their world — middle-class men and women drinking in cafés, boating, swimming, at the races and walking in gardens. And in an era where photography captured reality as no painting ever could, what relevance did the realistic technique so coveted by ancient Academic edicts have?
Sands were shifting. The mood was summarised by Guy de Maupassant in 1882:
Who will get rid of the Salon, this annual bore, wet blanket of personalities?
Splinter groups and Parisian art dealers followed the new money, starting up breakaway private salons. 1880’s 15 private Parisian exhibitions had grown to 117 by 1900.
20 years after the fateful Salon des Refusés, a new, more meritocratic market had been born. The Paris Salon’s centuries-old monopoly had dwindled to almost nothing.
The Ancien Regime had been guillotined. Manet’s rebellion and clear vision paved the way for the rise of Impressionism and the modern era.
The galvanised were vindicated; the petrified, left in the dust.
Adapt or die? I fear so…
One particularly spicy modern-day spat I stumbled upon in 2013 inspired me to kickstart my research (into the effects of education innovation on the UK’s independent schools sector.)
Like Manet 150 years before, Dr Martin Stephen, former head of St Paul’s School, stuck his neck out.
He wrote to the Times Educational Supplement, decrying the sector for its dearth of innovation, affordability and efficient governance.
With their freedom from crippling government bureaucracy, independent schools should innovate and be the cutting edge that acts as a beacon for education in general. I am at a loss to think of a single scheme in the Independent sector that… has the potential to change the face of UK education for the better… The world is changing around us. Adapt or die? I fear so… (letter here)
A week later, a group reply from the ten organisations governing the private sector rounded on Dr Stephen. Branding his letter a ‘diatribe’, the reply signed off:
…as he is the UK’s representative of an overseas for-profit schools group, here is one doctor with a particular interest in the patient’s demise.
This ad hominem jibe and its avoidance of addressing Dr Stephen’s concerns directly was a mystery to me.
Why would sector representatives choose to take down a single dissenter in such a defensive manner? Were they justified in their attack or were they brushing over the deeper challenges it faced?
Curiosity piqued and digging deeper, my research eventually bore out Dr Stephen’s concerns. The data revealed a sector bearing the typical hallmarks of an industry in slow decline.
Fees had grown unchecked for decades, pricing out middle-income professionals, the sector’s traditional clientele; innovation was limited to building ever-shinier facilities, not for growth (pupil numbers grew just 8% between 1990–2015), but to defend competitive advantage and protect their own customer pipelines; the all-important pupil numbers had been plugged by growing intakes of overseas pupils and a massive programme of fees assistance — the sector’s version of quantitative easing designed to restore confidence in the system; the rise of overseas franchises of well-known UK private education brands pointed to a sector unable to find growth on home turf.
Dr Stephen was, by all accounts, vindicated.
Galvanised into raising his concerns, he had hit a nerve. The response from the petrified was entirely predictable.
So what can we all take from this?
Like it or not, everything is changing. Opportunity is out there. There is no better time to kickstart your new idea.
So, be more Manet. Be galvanised. Stick your neck out. Stay the course. Focus on your vision.
Oh, and one more thing.
Angela Duckworth famously defines grit as:
…having what some researchers call an ”ultimate concern” — a goal you care about so much that it organises and gives meaning to almost everything you do. And grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow.
Even when the buggers try and get you down.
They’ll try, I promise. They’re petrified.