Will we ever be able to kill the work ethic? More than a century after Max Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, you can post photos of yourself smoking blunts on Instagram and celebrate drag party culture, but still, “You Better Work.” Both RuPaul’s “Supermodel” and Rihanna’s “Work” are incantations of Weber’s Beruf—vocation—gussied up as pop dance tunes. In both tracks the singers—usually symbols of freewheeling, raunchy sexuality, but when it comes to work, like the rest of us, downright puritanical—repeat “work” as a kind of devotional chant. Rihanna, the more Calvinist of the two when it comes to work, is somber whereas RuPaul is joyful: two distinct attitudes of prayerfulness.
They are hardly the only individuals casting the impetus to work as our vital life force, what animates us and brings us together. Corporate team-building leaders and food bloggers are in the same business, answering to our bizarre desires to manifest fun and leisure through work, or to consume visions of work in our free time. And it pays: last year, a study into what makes a bestselling book in America found that “As to escapism, Americans’ idea of that means inhabiting somebody else’s job.” Movies also attract large audiences with titles invoking the mystique or comic possibilities of a profession, see The Accountant, Anchorman, The Bodyguard, The Pianist, Secretary, Taxi Driver, and, more broadly evocative, The Boss (or, lately, Boss Baby). Even in our precious free time, we love watching other people work and ogling their workspaces and tools.
We dream of pretty work, adventurous work, hard work, important work, lucrative work, inspiring work, stable work, productive work.
The workplace TV show is so established by now as to have spawned profuse subgenres; the female-lead professional drama is a perennial programming staple, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Murphy Brown through to Ally McBeal and The Good Wife. Reality TV, in turn, has sub-subgenres like the workplace-injury thriller (Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch) and the task-based game show (Top Chef, Project Runway). In work TV, there seems to be no specialism too niche: 20 percent of Norway’s population has tuned into National Firewood Night, a show about chopping, stacking, and burning firewood, at least once. To the dismay of antiwork or postwork partisans like James Livingston, many of us don’t seem that capable or even interested in dreaming of a life after work. We dream instead of pretty work, adventurous work, hard work, important work, lucrative work, inspiring work, stable work, productive work.
Why is it so hard for us to create a work-free space, even in our own heads? Are our imaginations so limited when it comes to how to pass the hours as we choose?
Cynics might suggest that these tastes are molded by the options our capitalist overlords allow us. They own the media, after all. But I wonder whether work’s hold on our imaginations comes from a more idealistic tradition.
Perhaps we owe our inability to separate work from life to the most optimistic proponents of their unification: the standard-bearers of nineteenth- and twentieth-century avant-gardism. As curator and art critic Helen Molesworth notes in an essay, “Work Ethic” accompanying a 2003–2004 exhibition of postwar artworks, it was precisely through laborious production that utopian avant-garde movements such as Arts and Crafts and Bauhaus strove to meld art and life. By integrating beautiful utilitarian objects like carpets and teapots into it, participants in these movements sought to create a better world, and, in the process, to celebrate the artisanal and technical labor that went into making these objects. Emerging from this legacy were generations of artists who blurred the distinctions not only between work and leisure but also between work and entertainment, sometimes ironically, sometimes not. Artists staged performances in which beholders watched them at work digging ditches (Chris Burden) or hanging laundry (Martha Rosler). National Firewood Night, with its Nordic inflection of nationalist nostalgia, celebratory materialism, and focus on ritual, is another branch off the trunk of this avant-garde family tree.
The avant-garde attempt to unite art and life through productive labor has been too successful for our own good.
Shows like our president’s own The Apprentice that make a spectacle out of work aren’t merely lowbrow, derivative versions of esoteric performance art, but are in fact the remnants of this very same modernist tradition, testimony to the power and durability of the old dream of uniting art and life through socially useful labor. This dream has been too successful for our own good: even as the material rewards of work—hourly wages, financial stability—diminish for all but the very rich, it takes up ever more space in our lives, and in our heads. Many of us must actively fight the impulse to check our work email on weekends. Even when we’re done with the work day, we kick up our heels only to gaze at reality show participants doing things that look more like productive work than perhaps our own desk- or sales floor-bound jobs do: sweating over sauté pans or risking their lives on crab fishing boats. Or we gaze at beautiful cooking blogs. Or we attend talks and conferences to hear from and simply to be near people with cool, glamorous, high-profile, and ostensibly high-paying jobs.
Back down on earth, even the mundane indignities of work, only slightly exaggerated in Mike Judge’s Office Space, can make for great entertainment. Originally released in 1999, Office Space has unfortunately aged exceedingly well—its dark humor about the expendability of workers and the near-worthlessness of professional white-collar skills is all the more devastating after the global financial crisis and precaritization across the workforce. Like Burden, shunning “skilled” artistic work by shoveling his ditch, the software engineers in Office Space know they’re not producing anything meaningful, but unlike the famous artist, they are not paid to be ironic about it. If we’re not longing after productive work, at least we can chuckle at our own absurd condition.