Bureaucracy in Art and Culture

A Collection of Rare Encounters

Author: demetriodor

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?

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.

 

 

 

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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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.