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!
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.
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.
(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)
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 Slate, Petapixel 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.