A lesson from Martin Schongauer

What could possibly be the connection between a colourful ‘hygge’-style tin of butter biscuits and this fantastically extraordinary 15th-century woodcut by Martin Schongauer?

The obvious link is beauty. I find the one utterly charming, the other horrifying and sublime. The more significant link is temptation. Schongauer’s image shows the Temptation of St Anthony by demons and monsters. Tempters like that don’t exist today, do they?

Well, today’s hideous monsters are more devious. They hide behind cute, charming things. The tin tempted me by its great beauty and cheapness (£1.95 in Aldi) – sheer gorgeousness that I yearned to possess. I knew deep down that the back story might be dark and ugly, not because butter biscuits are bad for me (we all need a little comfort at the moment), but because (1) they are shortlived food items in a tin built to last a century; (2) they contain palm oil not identified as ‘sustainable’; and (3) the price of £1.75 is too good to be true. But – the dinky little deer! I fell in love with it. Under its guise, the demons – vast steelworks pumping out CO2; tyrannosaurus-sized bulldozers razing the rainforests – reeled me in.

Two days later I heard of a pristine rainforest in Papua New Guinea being flogged off by tribal elders and turned into a palm oil plantation. Even simple, tribal people, it seems, are susceptible to temptations. I thought of orang-utans driven from their homes, palm oil exported for biscuits while a blast furnace somewhere in China belched out CO2 for the ‘deer’ little tin: the demons’ plan was complete. Beauty itself has been hijacked to attack our moral sensibilities.

So how does this relate to my business? Well, it demonstrates that prettiness is hypocrisy if something demonic lurks behind it, and it reminds me to always keep sight of my values. Small businesses, by their nature, tend to be less destructive because they do not use resources on an industrial scale and are less process-driven and more intuitive. Rather than pushing costs to rock bottom, you can build a brand around rarity, the personal touch, and a commitment to sound values.

Yet in the current economic model an ugly ‘back story’ can remain completely hidden. This will continue to be the case until we get Food Standards and Trading Standards that make the protection of sensitive environments and vulnerable people mandatory; until we get an International Law of Ecocide; and until companies and countries refuse to trade with monsters.

Pretty tin of biscuits and a woodcut by Martin Schongauer showing St Anthony tormented by demons
Charging down monsters on a white horse.

I am in sincere hope that after Britain ceases to be subject to EU rules, we may in fact surpass them, repudiating an economic model that has been so destructive and leading the vanguard of change (white charger optional); that we may set up the strongest and most ethical trading and food standards in the world, bring beauty home and send the monsters that tormented St Anthony back to hell where they belong.

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