The Importance of Working Earnestly
Nineteenth century artists believed in art for its own sake. Has this attitude trickled into our expectations of how we should live?
In the 19th century, Aesthetics were the new kids on the intellectual block: they clamored on behalf of art for its own sake. Pleasure and beauty were the only ideals worth attaining. Art and morality were not diametrically opposed, but one should have no bearing on the other. Not all artists or cultural critics took to this philosophy—Evelyn Waugh outgrew it after an experimental phase; Matthew Arnold argued against it in his essay On Culture and Anarchy; Oscar Wilde warned against the consequences of unchecked indulgence in his Faustian novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ironically, Wilde, most famously associated with the Aesthetic movement, wrote the most effective case against it by creating a character longing to escape Victorian constraints and social mores. While some might point out that Wilde’s homosexual lifestyle flouted Victorian convention, the argument can still be made that he did not eschew all mores.
The end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first have seen the rise of a new aestheticism: professional aestheticism, in which emotional satisfaction supplants the ideal of a job well done. After all, the reasoning goes, you are in your cubicle for at least eight hours a day—shouldn’t you enjoy what you’re doing? Bathed in the fairytales of Zuckerberg, Gates, and Jobs, we are lulled into believing that we too can drop out of college and leave “square” careers in favor of entrepreneurial independence. Much like Dorian Gray’s desire for relief from the social straitjacket, disgruntled workers seek to allay their malaise by going the way of the ubiquitous startup, the untamed West of the professional universe. At the top of the liberal arts totem pole sits the envied but ultimately insignificant Thought Leader, humorously described by David Brooks in a December 13 column.
This desire for workplace satisfaction in the face of lean economic times has created an awkward tension on both the supply and demand side of the labor force. For one thing, you can’t be happy at a job you don’t have: unemployment, while decreasing, still hovers at seven percent. Secondly, the expectation of being happy at work has devolved into entitlement, following this line of thought: if I am not happy at work, then I am undervalued and must be wasting away. It’s a vaguely Marxist premise, assuming oppression that disregards the basic model of labor economics and alternate paths to better opportunities.
Still, work with a purely utilitarian motive is not the answer, at least not as a viable alternative to workplace bliss. Humans are not automata, and a value of work beyond simply putting food on the table is warranted. It’s important to be aware of why one is working, to strive for a larger goal other than meeting the standard obligations. This arrangement of priorities presupposes the willingness to overlook the occasional encroachments on workplace comforts. In other words, if you hate what you’re doing, but are committed to why you’re doing it, or for whom you’re doing it, such purpose eclipses the need for the ephemeral professional aestheticism a bored worker craves, at least some of the time.
Work is called work for a reason—it is not meant to be effortless, nor is it a method to find oneself or to have all one’s fantasies come true. It is a means to survive and one’s obligations. Beyond that, nothing else is owed to the worker. If one wants to achieve Jobsian Vallhalla in the cubicle, then one must draw inspiration from outside the workplace.