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Labor Daze
Art of the Workplace Vise

It was 1933. Workers were an unhappy bunch. The Depression was hanging on. So was the 1920s’ mentality toward labor, so effectively enabled by a Supreme Court indistinguishable from a corporate boardroom: Employers treated unions like parasites and workers like chattel. State and local police happily lent their nightsticks whenever companies needed to bash workers around to keep them in line.

That year, Diego Rivera, the great Mexican artist, was hired to paint a mural in the lobby of the main building of Manhattan’s brand new Rockefeller Center. He decided to mingle images of the Founding Fathers with that of Lenin looking down on a scene of policemen clubbing striking workers — an arresting scene in the nerve center of capitalism. Nelson Rockefeller never allowed it. The story has it that when he picked out Lenin’s likeness, Rockefeller fired Rivera straight off his scaffold and had the work replaced by something about giants playing javelin with tree trunks.

So goes the story of corporate art to this day, which mirrors the story of corporate conduct, so far as workers are concerned: Never subvert. Always conform. And never hang the wrong picture in the office — unless you’re lucky enough to work in an environment not yet beholden to Wall Street’s rules of discourse. Before my days at The News-Journal I worked in a chain-owned newspaper. I hung a picture of Malcolm X above my desk, a handsome portrait of a smiling Malcolm with one of his quotes: “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.” I was ordered to remove it. I was told it was “too political” (in a newspaper, mind you). I hung it up at The News-Journal within days of my arrival here, where it has remained since — a small but telling difference between corporate and family-owned newspapers. The difference obviously goes beyond what you can hang on the walls.

It’s now a given that workers are tight-leashed extensions of their company, and not just on the job. Stories abound of employees in all sorts of sectors losing their jobs for projecting an image or an opinion in their personal lives (on the Web, in public, in letters to the editor) that clashes with the image their company wants to project. This strange and amazingly accepted conception of workers as company property is mirrored not only by what’s not allowed on company walls, but by what does end up hanging there. The trend for many years has been to nail “inspiration” and “motivation” to company walls. It beats nightsticks. But it’s a difference of methods, not intentions.

You know the type. A beautiful Western sunset captioned by the words “Believe & Succeed”; a waterfall dribbling on the word “Attitude”; one of those big thunderheads against a nice blue sky, over the ocean, with a tiny sailboat heading toward it and the words “Embrace the Challenge” beneath it. The posters are produced by companies like Successories, whose pitch goes like this: “Motivate employees by surrounding them with messages of confidence and success on posters, calendars, awards, mugs and more ….”

The words are meaningless, like fortune-cookie proverbs after a Chinese meal. But their intentions aren’t. “Motivation,” “inspiration,” company-brand “confidence” have become substitutes for what companies are not surrounding their employees with: better pay, more stable benefits, fewer working hours. The national workforce clocks in more work than in any other Western democracy. It’s been watching its median income fall year after year like that relentless waterfall, its retirement security disappear into that Western sunset. And its health insurance is as vulnerable as that sailboat heading for the thunderhead, all while corporate profits have been soaring and shareholder value (rather than workers’ value) treated as the mother of all deities. It’s not the worker’s “attitude” that could use a little adjustment.

That’s why when it comes to company art, I prefer Despair, Inc., whose “art of demotivation” is “playing in corporations everywhere” (well, not quite; one can only wish). Example: the image of a big bunch of skydivers holding hands in a circle, and the caption “Idiocy: Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.” Or the picture of a snowflake illustrating this: “Individuality: Always remember that you are unique. Just like everybody else.” Or this send-up of the little sailboat embracing a challenge: “Fear: Until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore, you will not know the terror of being forever lost at sea.”

It’s not Diego Rivera. But you get the message. And it’s a damn sight more honest than the alternative.

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