Bureaucracy in Art and Culture

A Collection of Rare Encounters

We are at the 2020 Creative Bureaucracy Festival!

Bureaucracy in Art and Culture is featured at the 2020 edition of the Creative Bureaucracy Festival, the international forum for government innovation.

For the festival, I prepared two videos. The first one discusses why there are so few works of art on the theme of bureaucracy and bureaucrats, while showing some of the most well-known examples. The second one presents five of my favourite movies about bureaucracy. Followers of this blog will recognise some of the material, but there are new additions as well.

You can register for free and follow all the events (in English and in German) part of this amazing event on government innovation. Enjoy!

No Government

Listen to beautiful trip-hop artist Nicolette reflect on the connection between the structure of social preferences and the necessity of government.

I am not aware of much music on the theme of bureaucracy and government. Suggestions?

The Organization Man: in every person, there is a bureaucrat


The Organization Man (De Organisatiemens) is a project by Geeke van Bruggen, based on three months of embedded research at the Dutch Ministry of Health. The resulting book is a written and visual diary. Geeke graduated with this project at graphic design department of the Royal Academy of Arts in the Hague in the summer of 2017. In daily life, she works as a management consultant. Below, we present an informal interview with Geeke taken by  Andrei.



1. How did you come up with the idea for your (graduation) project? And are there any similar projects (that you know of) underway either in the Netherlands or elsewhere in the world? 

My graduation project is a follow-up to my thesis, called The designer as management consultant. It describes a world in which rationalization has gone too far, where man is subject to a social environment characterized by a typically modern form of alienation — an alienation which is mostly manifest in bureaucratic settings where employees are not only subject their work, but their personality, smiles and opinions are all reduced to being a function of “the system”. As I saw it, this alienation penetrated the signs, language and culture of various organizations. Designers have contributed to this culture by brushing away contradictions in an endless synthesis of utility and aesthetics. My thesis challenges designers to bring employees back to the drawing board and to have them determine their own cultural environment.

In my graduation project, which is the visual diary we are talking about now, I wanted to explore the tension between man and the work environment in real life. I wanted to know and reveal how being part of an organization influences human behavior.

There are many other artists that are interested in organizational life. For this project I was inspired by some:

  • Pilvi Takala, who infiltrated in Deloitte and recorded and published the reactions to her presence
  • Snelwegverhalen by Melle Smets, a very rich book on the hidden life of Dutch railways
  • Olifantenpaadjes, a project by photographer Jan Dirk van den Burg that researches the way in which people bypass formal structures by creating their own pathways
  • Jill Magid, who was commissioned to research the intelligence agency and then forbidden to publish her work.

2. On the 4th cover of the book, you write that ‘in every person, there is a bureaucrat and in every bureaucrat, there is a person’. What do you mean by this? And why does an artist find bureaucracy so interesting now?

It is very easy to criticize bureaucrats, but at the same time it is very hard not to become one when you work for a bureaucratic environment. What I want to say is that it is only human to show bureaucratic behavior. And there are even some situations where bureaucratic behavior is linked to very praiseworthy values, like precision and impartiality. So I guess this sentence is a kind of disclaimer for me to say, Hey, I understand you, but organizational life also has very freaky sides, in the sense that organizations typically give rise to an in-group that strives for unanimity and thereby overrides individuals and individual thinking, leading to short-sightedness and self-indulgence. For me, bureaucracy is an interesting topic because it is both understandable and undesirable (and, sometimes, straightforwardly dangerous).

3.  At one point, you note that your book can be read as a ‘pamphlet for the liberation of the organizational man’. What do you mean by the ‘organizational man’ and what does he (or she) need to be liberated from?

I want to make people in organizations reflect on the environment they have become part of, so that they can take stock and change things that have become normal when they shouldn’t be so.

8th floor of the Ministry (“public health, innovation, information”; credits Katarina Juričić)

14th floor of the Ministry (“cure”, sign urging people to clean up; credits Katarina Juričić)

4. A lot in the book seems to focus on the interaction (or contrast between) personal space and professional workspace (for example, the images on pages 76-79). What did you find specific about the way in which these two spaces interact in the Health Ministry’s bureaucratic space and why do you think it is important that we reflect on this? 

Indeed, the book is about the interaction between personal space and professionals space, or, more precisely, what happens when you lock up 1000 people in one office-building. I think the simple fact of having to cross security, having to find your floor in a 20-story building and having to fight for a workplace does a lot to a person’s psyche. The images on these pages are an illustration of the widespread frustration that exists within organizations like these and the tendency to get rid of these frustrations, which then creates new frustrations.

5. You include a visual representation of Zorgorgansatie en administratie. Could you tell me more about the origin of these images and why you decided to include them in the book?

Two sections of the book are made up of so called visual essays. These essays are made up of presentations of the clashing values of the system, thereby revealing the contradictions and tensions that are part of it. These values include rationalization, automation, regulation, smoothening, control, and uniformity (vs. spontaneity), personal annoyances, (hidden) ways to reclaim the workspaces, as well as signs of rebellion. The image you refer to is a so-called infographic, explaining to the public (and probably to the civil servants working in this field) how our health-system is organized. Bright colors and iconic images entice us to believe that this world is well-organized and easy to navigate, whereas in real life this world is ambiguous and hard to grasp. In the book, this image is opposed to an image showing a document in which a civil servant tracked the edits he made to a document of his colleague, revealing an unpleasant tone, thereby representing the unruly reality of policy making.


6. Toward the end of the book, there is a list of drawings that represent different furniture structures and shapes (mostly tables and chairs). Does this say something about the activities of bureaucrats and, probably more to the point, about the way they relate to each other and/or to non-bureaucrats?

For this project I made an inventory of all the furniture of the working floors of the ministry, going from the 6th to the 19th floor. I did this to force myself to see ‘everything’. In the book I used the drawings I made as an illustration of the uniformity and repetitiveness of the environment, that is to say, of the controlling nature of the architecture and of the (interior) design.

7. The expression ‘organization man’ is, I think, taken from William H. Whyte’s 1956 book, The Organization Man, which is a book that criticizes the collectivist ethics and conformism of people working for private corporations (and not directly for state administrations). In his book, Whyte notes that ‘We do need to know how to cooperate with the organization, but more than ever, so do we need to know how to resist it.’ Do you think your work is an act of resistance? Moreover, where do you see the role of projects such as yours in our relating to the world of bureaucracy and administrative organizations?

Yes, the title is inspired by William Whyte’s book. I think the collectivist ethics and conformism he criticizes is not limited to corporate culture, but also very much present in other big organizations, such as state administrations. And yes, I think my book is an act of resistance. In making this book, I resisted the logic of the system in two salient ways: first, I avoided the concept of “client,” someone who gave me an assignment and thereby controlled the outcome of the project. Second, by resisting the Ministry’s tendency to censure me when proofreading the manuscript. My book is something no one asked for, an alien infiltrating the system. Next to cooperating with the organization and resisting the organization, there’s also trying to change the organization. For this, we must prevent ourselves from ignoring it or pretending it’s not there. For my project to have impact on the phenomenon it reflects on, a dialogue is necessary. That is what I hope to be able to work on as a follow-up to this project.

The Organzation Man is for sale at 25 euros. To obtain a copy readers can email the author at info@geekevanbruggen.nl.


Bureaucracy In the Loop

Not all representations of bureaucracy involve boredom, doom and gloom. Sometimes bureaucracy is just hilarious, hysterical absurdity.

In art and popular culture, bureaucracy is often tragedy; when it is is not, it’s farce.

And bureaucracy has rarely been more hilarious and farcical than in the the 2009 British comedy In the Loop. The movie, directed by Armando Iannucci, is based on the cult British TV comedy series, The Thick of It (which deserves a separate post) and also inspired the later US TV adaptation Veep.

The plot turns around the attempt of the US President and UK Prime Minister to prepare the ground for a war, and the efforts of bureaucrats and political operatives on both sides to prevent it. But the plot hardly matters, as the real story is about the mishaps of everyone involved  in their actions to  outmaneuver their opponents by organizing fake committee meetings, forging documents, giving TV interviews that go horribly wrong, and so on.

The main character, Malcolm Tucker — a foul-mouthed spin doctor (Director of Communications for the UK Government) played by inimitable Peter Capaldi — has already acquired a cult antihero status in popular culture due to his short temper, brash manners and colorful language delivered with a strong Scottish accent. Ironically, as unreal as Malcolm Tucker’s language and behavior seem, I have personally had in my short career as a civil servant a boss who was as brutish and even more foul-mouthed than him (and, coincidentally or not, my boss was also Director of Communications but for another government).

Never underestimate the power of reality to outdo even its most preposterous artistic representations.

Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison in In the Loop (2009). Photo by Nicola Dove/Nicola Dove – © In The Loop Productions 2008

For students of bureaucracy, the movie is interesting for a variety of reasons.  First, there are the battles between politicians (like Simon Foster, the weak-willed British minister for international development at the center of the plot) and top brass administrators, such as  generals, directors, and secretaries of state. Second, there is the ambiguous role of the political entourage of the politicians. These political aides and advisers mediate between the politicians and the bureaucrats, which leaves them exposed to all kinds of hilarious abuse and  ludicrous demands from both sides. Third, the movie is a wonderful illustration of policy making as driven by accidental politics, untended consequences, personal animosities (and amorousness), crises, scandals and sheer stupidity.

Policy making ‘in the loop’  is a world away from the iron cage of cold rationality, rules, and bureaucratic procedures, yet it is equally unsettling in its chaotic madness. At least, it’s fun.

You can get the movie from Amazon. Highly recommended.




The Death of a Bureaucrat: how bureaucracy is laughable but makes you crazy

(Note: this is a guest post by Caterina Preda presenting the movie The Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea)

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea is one of the best-known filmmakers of the post-revolutionary Cuban cultural landscape. In several of his films, he discusses the problems of the new revolutionary society and criticizes the remainders of the pre-revolutionary period. One such example is the film Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), released seven years after the victory of the Cuban revolution and, as the director acknowledged, expressing his own experience in confronting the absurdities of Cuban bureaucracy and their opposition to the professed revolutionary ideals.

The film targets Cuban bureaucracy, but its underlying critique could also be relevant for other national bureaucracies. For 1 hour and 25 minutes, we follow the protagonist of the film, the nephew of Francisco J. Perez (or Paco, for short). As Paco is  buried, the first scene shows the speech of his boss. The boss speaks about Paco’s life, who was a proletarian, ”a paradigmatic patriot”, and praises him for having invented a machine to speed up the production of revolutionary busts of José Marti. (warning: spoilers ahead)


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Ikiru: Kurosawa’s take on the bureaucrat at the end of his life

Akira Kurosawa is world-famous for his movies about samurais, but he has also written and directed a great movie about the life of a bureaucrat, Ikiru (1952) [To Live] .


Ikiru (1952 Japan) aka To Live aka Living
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Shown: Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe

The movie follows the last days of Kanji Watanabe, a petty bureaucrat working in the same dusty office for the past 30 years, who is suddenly diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. Facing death, Kanji attempts to truly live, for a first time after all these years of monotonous and meaningless existence. And he decides to fight the bureaucratic system that has provided him with numbing comfort over the decades, in order to finally get something done – a small public children’s park – that would become his legacy to the world.

The movie is considered a real masterpiece. The acting is superb. The cinematography, pacing, and editing all bear the marks of Kurosawa’s genius. (You can watch two critical analyses here and here.)

In Ikiru, bureaucracy is portrayed as the epitome of meaningless work and the anti-thesis of life itself. The piles of papers in Watanabe’s office have crowded out all joy and purpose. They threaten to fall any moment and crush the protagonist, after having consumed his soul already.

“Busy, always so very busy. But in fact this man does absolutely nothing at all, other than protecting his own spot. The best way to protect your place in the world, is to do nothing at all. Is this really what life is all about?”

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Meaningful bureaucracy: two thoughts on Tardieu’s The Counter

Commonplace representations of bureaucracy  (those that usually cross the minds of people not doing any bureaucratic work) make it look like a meaningless (because dull, repetitive and boring) activity. For most people, bureaucracy is as grey and empty as it can get. Though widespread, such commonplace representations can be shown to be wrong.

Jean Tardieu (1903-1995), a French theatre writer (and also musician and poet), manages to effectively challenge the idea that bureaucracy is meaningless in a play written in 1955, titled Le Guichet (best translated as The Counter). The play has four characters: the Clerk (le Préposé), the Client (le Client), the Radio (la Radio), the Loudspeaker Voice (La Voix du Haut-Parleur) and the Diverse Noises Outside (Bruits Divers Au-Dehors). The presence of some non-human characters (such as the Diverse Noises Outside) is one of the distinctive characteristics of Tardieu’s theatre. The play itself is part of a trilogy, called The Triple Death of the Client (La triple mort du client), along two other plays, namely The Lock (Le serrure), which tells the story of the client of a brothel and The Furniture (Le meuble), telling the story of an invisible client who wants to buy a piece of furniture.

Tardieu is often associated with the theatre of the absurd (that was becoming a big thing in the Frances of the 1950s). Be that as it may, The Counter is, at least in my reading, mostly a play about how apparently meaningless activities such as being a clerk or street-level bureaucrat working at a counter are actually filled with meaning.

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Bureaucratics: Jan Banning’s vivid portraits of bureaucrats around the world

Bureaucrats in their offices are usually not considered the most photogenic of  subjects (consider the possible hashtags: #boringpeople #dulloffice #paperwork #iwannadie).

But Jan Banning’s series of portraits of bureaucrats in their natural habitats around the world manages to be both entertaining and sociologically perceptive. You might have seen the Bureaucratics project on social media (there are good posts at SlatePetapixel and fstoppers)  or exhibited in galleries and museums around the world.


India-17/2003 Sushma Prasad (b. 1962) is an assistant clerk at the Cabinet Secretary of the State of Bihar (population 83 million) in The Old Secretariat in the state capital, Patna. She was hired “on compassionate grounds” because of the death of her husband, who until 1997 worked in the same department. Monthly salary: 5,000 rupees ($ 110, € 100).

Jan Banning portrays 50 civil servants  – mostly low-ranking street-level bureaucrats like policemen and social workers – from 8 countries: Bolivia, China, France, India, Liberia, Russia, the United States, and Yemen.

The bureaucrats are pictured seated, directly facing the camera, almost merged with their office environment. In some cases, the office looks like it is going to engulf the person. In others, the bureaucrat is in control, everything has its place, the office is tamed.

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The mission of this site

Bureaucracy would appear to be the very antithesis of Art.

Bureaucracy is rigid, rule-bound, schematic, hierarchical, commanding, conservative, predictable, dull, grey, and despised.

Art is creative, free, vibrant, ephemeral , frivolous, elegant, subversive, cultured, colorful, and loved.

Bureaucracy is the very antithesis of Art.

At the very least, in Western culture, art is constructed as the antithesis of bureaucracy.

That might explain why there is very little art about bureaucracy. High politics has always been in the focus of artistic efforts. More recently, daily life, economic relations, and societal  inequalities have become common tropes of artistic expression. But not bureaucracy and bureaucrats.

It is the mission of this website to collect and curate various kinds of works of art and popular culture about bureaucracy, public administration, and civil servants. The scope of the collection is wide in terms of types of works, genres, and artistic mediums – paintings, novels, operas, photography, films, TV series, and so on. But the scope is narrow in terms of thematic focus – apart from interpretations of bureaucracy and bureaucrats, it covers issues of executive government, but not politics per se, public management but not private business relations,  corruption but not crime and general social delinquency.

The reason to start this website is the belief that such a collection can be assembled only with collective efforts. Works of art about bureaucracy being few and far between, it would take the wisdom and knowledge of a wide and diverse set of individuals to build a comprehensive archive.

Feel invited to contribute by suggesting relevant works to include or sharing your interpretations about them. We would be happy to publish guest posts and link to relevant content.

You can also follow this website on Facebook and Twitter.