Amazon executive turned artist on making a pact with the devil
- Credit: Courtesy of Daniele Mah
A former exec with Vodafone and Amazon, Philipp Humm is an artistic gamekeeper turned poacher after swapping the board room for an easel.
He has turned his Hampstead home into a gallery of work which blends classical and contemporary imagery, often featuring corporate figures.
Humm says he's a figurative painter and sculptor because "humans are so fascinating. With our imperfections we offer ideas for a million paintings."
His latest exhibition at Saatchi Gallery continues his fascination with Faust, a German medieval figure who swapped his soul for knowledge and worldly pleasure after making a pact with the devil. In a film, sculpture and paintings Humm compares the devil to a hedge fund manager and Faust to a Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg - believing "if Marx were living today, he would say social networks are the opium of the people."
"Like Faust they are brilliant men, you could argue they started from a genuine point of view, but the only thing which really drives them is success, and with success comes the attitude that they are the new moral compass of our society."
While at Amazon he worked on a project where "they couldn't ask consumers their opinion so had to define what was going to be good or bad. It wasn't bad intent but you are taking decisions for people instead of listening to them."
If Faust is "the caricature of an ambitious man" Humm finds it fascinating to understand "what drives human ambition what are the positives and risks of ambition?"
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Just as Faust swaps his soul for scientific knowledge, Humm argues that blind pursuit of technologies from AI to nuclear power to genetics should come with the caveat: "there's no such thing as a free lunch, there's always a price to pay."
"We are constantly making this devilish pact in our lives but we tend to forget there is a trade off which involves giving away our souls. We look at what we can get out of it, but what is the risk of that deal? We have developed computers with enough processing capacity to enable self-generating artificial intelligence, more intelligent than the creator. It's like a monkey creating a human being who then puts the monkey in a zoo."
Jeff Bezos' investment in an anti-ageing company is another case in point
"We invest in technology to prolong life but don't think through the dream of eternity. You would have to have massive birth control to curb the world population or it will collapse. It becomes an elite idea with some who are mortal, and others immortal."
If the devil famously uses tricks and plays on human weakness, Humm compares Faust's brutal treatment of a 14 year old girl to "a Weinstein or an Epstein."
"It's primitive, selfish. No producer has produced more Oscar-winning movies than Weinstein but he couldn't control his basic lusts. Like Faust his aspiration trips over mortal things which pull him down."
All Humm's work starts with a "reflection," then visualising the idea through drawings. For him, starting to paint professionally late in life is an advantage: "As a painter you put on paper the thoughts and impressions you have in your life and I can draw on very rich experiences."
Inside knowledge of the business and tech world gives him the "understanding to have an opinion," but although he enjoyed that career: "I wouldn't want to go back to it".
"Life span permits us to live two lives these days. That's a concept people need to think about. What do I do in my second part, How do they fit together? If you die on the way that's bad luck, but you can't start from the bad luck assumption."
Fortunately, he's as successful in his second life as his first, but reflects it's a fallacy to believe our legacy will endure.
"When you run a successful business you are like a good actor playing Shakespeare, the text will survive but no-one will remember who this amazing actor was. In business you play a role then put it back on the hook. Someone else will pick it up."
Philipp Humm exhibits at Saatchi Gallery from October 13-17.