Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Distance

The Bollingen Library and the future of media

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The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

About a year ago, I began to notice that many of the books in my home library came from the same place. It all started when I realized that Kenneth Clark’s The Nude and E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion—two of the most striking art books of the century—had originally been delivered as part of the A.W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Art and published by the Bollingen Library. Looking more closely, I found that the Bollingen Foundation, whatever that was, had been responsible for countless other titles that have played important roles in my life and those of other readers: Vladimir Nabokov’s massive translation and commentary of Eugene Onegin, the Richard Wilhelm edition of the I Ching, D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, Jacques Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Huntington Cairns’s extraordinary anthology The Limits of Art, and, perhaps most famously, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Intrigued, I sought out more books from the Bollingen imprint, looking for used copies online and purchasing them sight unseen. So far, I’ve acquired tomes like The Survival of the Pagan Gods, The Eternal Present, The Gothic Cathedral, and The Demands of Art. Along with a shared concern with the humanities and their role in modern life, they’re all physically beautiful volumes, a delight to hold and browse through, and I hope to acquire more for as long as I can.

Which, when you think about it, is highly unusual. Most of us don’t pay much attention to the publishers of the books we buy: we may subconsciously sense that, say, the Knopf imprint is a mark of quality, but we don’t pick up a novel solely because of the borzoi logo on the spine. (The one big exception may be Taschen, which has built up a reputation for large, indecently attractive coffee table books.) Publishers would love it if we did, of course, just as television networks and movie studios would be happy if we automatically took their brands as a seal of approval. That’s rare in any medium: HBO and Disney have managed it, but not many more. So it’s worth taking a closer look at Bollingen to see how, exactly, it caught my eye. And what we discover is that Bollingen was a philanthropic enterprise, essentially an academic press without the university. It was founded in 1945 by Paul Mellon, heir to the Andrew W. Mellon fortune, as a tribute to his late wife, a devotee of Carl Jung, and while it initially focused on Jungian studies—it was named after Jung’s famous tower and country home in Switzerland—it gradually expanded into a grander project centered on the interconnectedness and relevance of art, history, literature, and psychology. As names like Gombrich and Clark indicate, it arose out of much the same circle as the Warburg Institute in London, which was recently the subject of a loving profile by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, but with far greater resources, patronage, and financial support.

The Nude by Kenneth Clark

In the end, after publishing hundreds of books, sponsoring lectures, and awarding generous stipends to the likes of Marianne Moore and Alexis Leger, the foundation discontinued operations in 1968, noting that the generation it had served was yielding to another set of concerns. And while it may not seem to have much relevance to the problem of media brands today, it offers some surprising lessons. Bollingen started as an act of philanthropy, without any expectation of profit, and arose out of a highly focused, idiosyncratic vision: these were simply books that Mellon and his editors wanted to see, and they trusted that they would find an appreciative audience over time. Which, in many respects, is still how meaningful brands are created or sustained. Matthew Yglesias once referred to Amazon as “a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers,” and although he was being facetious, he had a point. It’s easy to make fun of startup companies that are obsessed with eyeballs, rather than sustainable profits, as venture capitalist Chris Sacca put it on Alex Blumberg’s Startup podcast:

That’s usually a bad move for an early-stage company—to get cash-flow positive. I have strong opinions about that. Everyone I know who pushes for cash-flow positivity that early stops growing at the rate they should be growing, and gets so anchored by this idea that “we need to keep making money.”

Sacca concludes that you don’t want a “lifestyle business”—that is, a business growing at a pace where you get to take vacations—and that growth for its own sake should be pursued at all costs. And it’s a philosophy that has resulted, infamously, in countless “hot” tech companies that are years, if not a lifetime, away from profitability.

But I think Sacca is half right, and despite the obvious disparity in ideals, he all but circles back around to the impulse behind Bollingen. Venture investors don’t have any desire to run a charitable enterprise, but they end up doing so anyway, at least for the years in which a company is growing, because that’s how brands are made. Someone’s money has to be sacrificed to lay the foundations for anything lasting, both because of the timelines involved and because it’s the only way to avoid the kind of premature compromise that can turn off potential users or readers. We’re living in an age when such investments are more likely to take the form of startup capital than charitable largess, but the principle is fundamentally the same. It’s the kind of approach that can’t survive a short-term obsession with advertisers or page views, and it requires patrons with deep pockets, a tolerance for idiosyncrasy, an eye for quality, and a modicum of patience. (In journalism, the result might look a lot like The Distance, a publication in whose success I have a considerable personal stake.) More realistically, it may take the form of a prestigious but money-losing division within a larger company, like Buzzfeed’s investigative pieces or most of the major movie studios. The reward, as Yglesias puts it, is a claim on “a mighty engine of consumer surplus”—and if we replace “consumer” with “cultural,” we get something very much like the Bollingen Foundation. Bollingen wasn’t interested in growth in itself, but in influencing the entire culture, and in at least one book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, it went viral to an extent that makes even the most widely shared article seem lame. Like Jung’s tower, it was made for its own sake. And its legacy still endures.

Going the Distance

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Fantasy Costumes

Every boat is copied from another boat…It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up on the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied…One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

Émile Chartier

I don’t often promote outside projects here—aside from the fact that this blog owes its very existence to the germinal impulse to market my own work—but I wanted to take a moment to encourage you to visit the online magazine The Distance, if you haven’t done so already. My wife, Wailin Wong, is the site’s editor and sole reporter, using all the resources that its sponsor, the software company Basecamp, can afford, and each story is beautifully written, illustrated, and designed. For all its surface pleasures, though, its mandate is seductively simple: it publishes deeply researched profiles, one each month, of privately held businesses that have been in operation for twenty-five years or more, and its subjects have ranged from a suburban bra store to an educational music program to the developer of the modern hamburger patty machine. In other words, if most business stories feel like a snapshot of the present moment—a new product, a new update, a new earnings report, often from a company that has been in existence for only a few years—The Distance is more like a series of portraits taken over time, showing how these businesses have changed and evolved. And while I’m far from an objective observer here, I think it’s a site that should be read by everyone interested in business, creativity, or the risks involved in constructing any lasting vision.

Because what strikes me the most about The Distance is that while each piece centers on a memorable, often highly eccentric entrepreneur—you could write a whole essay on how it takes a certain kind of idiosyncratic personality to build and sustain a business for a quarter of a century—the real, hidden protagonist of all these stories is time itself, as it is in a movie like Citizen Kane. A company that survives for so long, like a novel or a human face, is partially a reflection of a single individual’s will, but also of the outside forces that have edited it like a second author, to the point where the shape it finally takes is one that never could have been predicted at the outset. Horween Leather was founded at a time when leather was widely used for industrial components like seals and gaskets, but as the realities of the market and global production changed, it evolved along with them, moving into high-end goods like cordovan shoes and expensive watchbands. The Hala Kahiki became a tiki bar because its owners happened to economize by redoing the walls of their original tavern with bamboo fencing, which suggested a theme that has persisted for nearly fifty years. It’s as if each owner is engaged in an ongoing collaboration with the marketplace, which imposes incremental revisions and occasional wholesale reinventions over the course of the company’s lifespan.

Hala Kahiki

You see this kind of evolution everywhere in business—Lloyd’s of London was originally a coffeehouse where sailors would gather to make deals, and Nintendo started out by selling playing cards—but it takes a certain breadth of vision to make those patterns visible. It’s no coincidence that The Distance focuses on private businesses that haven’t taken outside investment: publicly traded firms or startups funded by venture capital rarely have the luxury of figuring things out over decades. Yet the example that these companies provide is a crucial one, even if it isn’t conventionally newsworthy, or if its lesson is ultimately one of how little we can predict or control. The single greatest obstacle facing most startups lies in finding a way to accelerate these evolutionary processes to fit within the timeframe that venture funding demands. You can see traces of it everywhere in the language entrepreneurs use, from the concept of the pivot, in which a company drastically changes its mission overnight, to the clichéd admonition to fail faster. But these buzzwords also hint at an underlying terror, a suspicion that the model under which such companies operate may be unable to tolerate the kind of gradual adaptation that a successful business requires. Time is an asset that most lean startups don’t have, which is why so many focus on apps or crowdsourced services that can be rapidly developed and discarded, rather than big, ambitious ideas that require complicated infrastructure to get off the ground.

Whether it’s possible to compress the kind of extended, serendipitous refinement that results in a company like Horween Leather into such unforgiving timelines, while still creating products and services that can change people’s lives, is an open question. All I know is that it’s a problem with enormous implications for our entire culture, and that the examples we find in The Distance amount to an indispensable starting point. As Bruce MacGilpin, the founder of the art storage company The Icon Group, says in the most recent story:

The thing that the old timer brings to any business is the confluence of experiences that they have over time, because sometimes you learn by trial and error and by sticking your hand in the fire when you didn’t really want to…So it’s often a difficult, evolutionary process…You try to capitalize on the right things and minimize the wrong ones.

MacGilpin doesn’t sound all that different from a startup founder fresh out of college talking at this year’s FailCon, but the process he’s describing unfolds across decades, not over eighteen months. And while money can make up part of the difference, there are also qualities that time alone can provide. What separates a company like Fantasy Costumes from the cheap pop-up stores that compete with it each October is the depth of its inventory, an assortment that has grown like a living organism over close to fifty Halloweens. It can’t be developed from scratch; time and chance selected it as much as its owner did. That’s true of everything about these firms. And the first step to understanding the challenges that affect creative endeavors of all kinds is listening very carefully to the stories that the survivors have to tell.

Written by nevalalee

November 10, 2014 at 11:18 am

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