This week I went to see an exhibition of work by Percy Wyndham Lewis, a man described by some as a genius on account of his radical writings and paintings. Apparently he did not like the name Percy and tried to shake it off – perhaps its poetic association did not fit with his self-image as the hard-man of contemporary artistic ideology. However, he certainly had no image problem in the physiognomy department: judging by contemporary descriptions and the various images of him, he was a handsome, fierce-looking young man – the sort one could imagine as fearless in the promotion of his principles. I was shocked, therefore, to see him interviewed on film in 1938, at the age of 56, looking jowly and rotten of tooth, sporting gratuitous arty accessories – a Sherlock pipe, a superfluous scarf, a ridiculous hat and ‘statement’ spectacles. Even though the look may have been ‘on-trend’ for artists at that time, the perils of image-management are clear: get it wrong and you can look more pillock than genius.
Wyndham Lewis lived at a time when very few people had a visible public persona to consider, but these days, thanks to free, internet-enabled social media, everybody can have one – considered or otherwise. This phenomenon impinged on me recently when I was recruited to write some short pieces for an online travel guide, Spotted by Locals. Before proceeding, however, the publisher required of me a mug shot and a potted biography – presumably so that would-be readers might judge the credibility of my recommendations in the context of my perceived identity. Fair enough – but, without a professional PR consultant acting on my behalf, I had choices to make. In the end, I submitted a photo of myself in jovial mode and, for the biography, made light of my lifetime of experience and accumulated wisdom. I wanted to ensure I would not be mistaken for a polemicist with a grudge-fuelled agenda. Percy, I’m certain, would have taken me for a wimp, but tourists, after all, just want to know where to get a decent lunch.
There was yet another aspect to the writing gig that I had not considered: the requirement to tweet in order to promote the publication. I knew in theory how the medium works, but had not mastered the practicalities and, unlike Mr. Trump, was nervous of tweeting the wrong thing to the wrong people. Hesitantly, I dusted off my dormant Twitter account and dipped my toe into the shark-infested waters. I was encouraged by an early success when I picked up a tweet from a chap who had a spare ticket to a sold-out gig that I was keen to attend (Jacob Collier – highly recommended). We concluded the deal by phone, as I very soon lost the thread, but I have since become more familiar with the technique – which I do not find intuitive – and am working to increase the number of my followers into double digits (@joeholdsworth47, in case you are interested). My relative success with Twitter, however, is only part of the act. Next, I have to refine my presence on Instagram.
Professional marketeers consider these digital self-publicity tools essential to raising the profile of any brand, although I suspect there is a limit to the public’s tolerance of such constant bombardment. Nevertheless, I bet Percy (I know, I can’t resist teasing him) would have loved and made full use of them. He was commercially unfortunate, in that he had few exhibitions, struggled to find eager publishers and had two World Wars interrupt his career. He made very little money from his limited audience, but a marketing campaign which co-ordinated his Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts could have done wonders for the monetisation of his output – though in his later years he would have been well advised to hire a personal stylist.