Before Covid I worked out of a stale, windowless office in midtown Manhattan. I kept a note on the edge of my computer screen that read “What do you really want?” and liked it because what it lacked in profundity was made up for by its brevity. I could place different emphasis on each of the words when I read it aloud depending on the circumstances; usually stressful ones and perhaps even that career-saving moment of hesitation before pressing “send” on an angry e-mail. It was partly recognition that work conflicts are layered and stratified and that interactions with others can be intricate in the business world, so many ego’s and so much risk. And so is the journey towards self-knowledge. We rarely act in my own best interests under pressure and instead have acquired skills to avoid discomfort, to prevent the flow of certain brain chemicals and to crave others, making daily micro decisions with a bias towards continuity and comfort.
This time of year, late January to early February, is a time of assessments and evaluation. Working out what the next year should look and feel like, change should be in the air but this year again feels uncertain and another excuse for passivity. In the company I work for, we start the year with an annual conference which I dread a little. It’s held in a place like Miami or Atlanta which we are told is for practical and economic reasons but we all suspect it is just poverty of imagination. Apprehension comes from exposure to work colleagues, usually seen once a year, behaving with an over-abundance of positivity and joviality. For me at least it is the denial of problems that stings the most, the fear of raising them, of being seen in a bad light. This year it was only a little different, a virtual meeting via zoom and a new CEO at the helm. Both were a welcome relief, yet even in this new format it was impossible to escape that corporate cliché; loud pop music supposedly to get us energized and motivated, the fiction of aligning us – mainly exhausted middle aged men, with a more youthful generation.
It was good to get first hand views of our CEO whose career was famous for its purposeful jumps from position to position up the corporate ladder, approaching the organization like a rock face with transparent ambition to reach the top. The myth is that he absorbed rich experience on his assiduous journey and has become a kind of role model for anyone attempting the same exacting climb. He is young, lean and polished and thankfully in possession of a sense of humor, almost the complete opposite of his Trumpian predecessor, someone who would sap each meeting of its energy and leave its humiliated participants with resentment.
Yet there remained an air of false, fake positivity during those two days without a single challenging question nor alternative, conflicting view making it take on the air of an outdated and rather vapid theatre, everything that Beckett and Orwell imagined. I tell myself that this is not unexpected, corporations are not democracies although I wish they were sometimes, I would love to vote for our bosses, have them plead their case, and have forums where challenges and opportunities could be discussed openly with large and diverse groups of employee’s. This is not our reality and during the length of this conference I prayed that perhaps if someone would raise a hand and brave the wrath of the management, there might be a spark of electricity, I might be roused from my slumped position in front of the computer.
Some years ago I met, through one of my wife’s friends, the Swiss artist Urs Fischer. We went out a few times to dinner and joined some of the parties he had at his loft but I never got to know him well. At that time he was a solidly built guy with a thickly tattooed body, the ink extending up to his neck. On first sight you might have placed him as a soccer hooligan or, on hearing his Germanic accent and seeing his ruddy face close up, a forester or a wood carver. I could imagine him with an axe, an angular person; thick necked and hair fashionably but severely shaved on both sides. He was on the cusp of much wider fame and I assumed had already made considerable amounts of money from his work. One time when we met in his loft he made the most perfect roast chicken and when I opened the refrigerator door which was positioned strategically by his hand-made dining table, I saw that all it contained were rows of identical champagne bottles in a luxurious, Warholian repetition. On another occasion he produced loafs of bread that he had made to form a life sized log cabin that he was about to show while at the very back of the room, his deeply absorbed face up-lite from the blue flickering light of a computer screen, seemingly protected by an invisible barrier of fame preventing further trespass, was Rudolf Stingel, his presence merely ornamental that evening.
Fischer’s career is a blueprint for an artist’s career, the choice of galleries and museum shows, the scale of ambition and support were expertly calibrated. And of course, the response from collectors extraordinary thanks to this heady, sexy mix of dealers, museum curators and magazine editors. His artistic practice also followed a familiar formulaic projectary. Statuesque works made of unstable materials such as wax or bread progressing to wildly expensive bronze monstrosities placed on Park Avenue, the late 1990’s blueprint from Koons to Hirst. He also had an interest in new technologies and possibilities for printing which led to a groundbreaking show where he had made wall paper images of the previous show, including life sized guards and layered different work on top of this. It was deeply theatrical and I was mesmerized, I noted the artist Richard Prince at the opening equally as wide eyed at the audacity but the knowledge that Fisher was once involved in theater design informs and colors the way I now think of all his work. The other reason I’m thinking of his work now, and in a different context, is because of a sign over his studio door “If you do not have a plan for your life, someone else will.”
The conference drags on, a page full of numbers appears on my screen and a monosyllabic voice tells us about them, where they come from but not what they mean and so my mind drifts further. A midsummer’s day in 2019, the year before Covid. I’m sitting on my terrace on 57th street, next to me an absurdly handsome young English boy in his late teens or early twenties and opposite on a rocking chair, his younger sister. Acting as a mediator or interpreter is their mother, an old girlfriend of mine which they know all about, I assume it is a family joke and is the reason they are treating me with a mixture of mild contempt and curiosity. The boy has been in America for about 24 hours and has already made up his mind – it’s not for him, what is the fuss about? I sense his disappointment, travelling so far to a place he has heard so much about only to find it a little worn out and a little decrepit, is imperfections exaggerated and illuminated because of its boastful nature, its overblown reputation. I’m not the kind of person that recognizes beauty in another man and when Mary tells me some actor or other is good looking, I genuinely fail to see it. I suppose look at other men through a Darwinian lens and assumed women do the same, but I suspect their true leanings might be more towards Austin. So what would Jane Austin make of him? She would approve of his looks of course, but will also take note of his breeding like a canny horse trader and his inheritance like an accountant and he will pass each test. Perhaps that why I’m mildly annoyed at his confidence, the certainty of his pronouncements, his ill-informed prepossessions, but the truth is more convoluted, it’s because these criticisms remind me of my own at his age discovering America for the first time. I remind myself that he is the product of an education system that produces robust self-confidence or total snobbery depending on your world view. The night was still warm, I watched the building opposite in its nocturnal restlessness, lights blinking and dimming suddenly in the black well between us, from the shop downstairs the smell of freshly baked bagels leaked into the air and from time to time we caught a faint sight of that evening’s faint diaphanous moon.
The daughter has a passion; the environment, and can barely contain her need to express herself or the magnitude of her frustration. Her mother looks at me a little wearily, it’s been heard more than a few time before, she is told that she “singing to the choir” but I’m thankful for the small electric charge when I meet her eye again, for the intimacy we once had and my heart surprises me with a stolen beat. But what to do with her daughter, how can she find her purpose? She is that age. Hopefully she will fall in love and then her inability to save the world might be less pressing and cause less distress. Politics? I suggested – she looked at me with hopelessness, deflated, the very thought of that life of compromise, speeches and intrigue holds little appeal. Now I may have a better answer thanks to a throw away comment during the conference. It came from the head of human resources who said “ESG” will be “really big going forward” without further elaboration. And it came to me, that’s what I should have recommended to my friend’s daughter, this is exactly the kind of endeavor she could be throwing herself into. The idea that large corporations are not just machines for generating profits and cash for their stockholders but that they have a greater purpose, agents for change – improving their environmental responsibilities, their social interactions, and the governance structures to support themselves. Companies are now apparently no different from the individuals they employ, no different from artists and must have goals and a path to follow. But it’s also a reason to get lost into a corporation, generating data with pronouncements and key performance measurements to hand nervously to the public, it will blunt anyone’s ambition.