The father of a friend of my wife recently died. The father had worked all his life for a medium-sized company in provincial Germany. The outrageous slings of fortune meant that he had held a modest job despite education and intelligence. Nevertheless, he was always happy, always smiling. The company for which he worked with such modesty and devotion fostered loyalty in the paternalistic way many companies in Germany used to do. One of the features of this paternalistic care was that when a former employee died, no matter rank, the company would put a death notice in the local newspaper. Loyalty between company and employee until death!
The medium-sized company in question was acquired by a much larger company quite a few years ago, and in moved the management consultants with lots of disruptive advice, some of it surely good, some of it surely bad. One result was that the bonds of loyalty between company and employees started to loosen. Lately this has meant that the company no longer sponsors the mentioned death notices. 10 or 20 thousand Euros per year may have been saved, but the hurt to loyal employees is deep. How stupid can employers be? One management seminar on the building of corporate culture will cost more that the annual cost of the death notice ritual, but will surely bring less corporate culture, will bring much less staff loyalty. So really bad business. But more importantly, so inhumane! 50 years of service not meriting the small cost of a death notice. Saving a few Euros appearing more important than allowing a working life to have its final exclamation mark.
It brings to mind a sentimental Danish song about a poor stone mason, Jens Vejmand, who after a long and hard life of cutting stone does not even get a head stone on his grave, only a measly wooden cross. The song was created by Jeppe Aakjaer and the world-famous composer Carl Nielsen in the proud tradition of social agitation – the same tradition that created the photos of turn-of-the-century New York slums by Jacob Riis and the literary masterpiece Pelle the Conqueror by Martin Andersen Nexoe. In fact, Aakjaer himself wrote a book, Anger’s Children, that led to considerable improvement in the living conditions of agricultural labourers in Denmark. This tradition of social agitation is not something exclusive to Denmark, of course. In Germany Georg Büchner declared Friede den Hütten! Krieg den Palästen!, in the US we had Steinbeck and, surprisingly, Elvis Presley with In the Ghetto. Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind is of ever-lasting relevance, and it is sad that Dylan gave in to self-indulgence instead of using the Nobel Prize pulpit to address our current manifold inhumanity.
Yet Dylan’s silence reflects how the arts have fallen silent generally in the face of social issues. We lose a generation of the young in Spain, Greece, Italy and the United Kingdom, but politicians are mostly quiet and so are the arts. The arts seem to have little to tell us about the plight of the refugees apart from what emanates from the photographers’ lenses, despite the shocking abundance of dramatic material. The economists are, at long last, starting to wake up to the reality of the proletarisation of the middle class and the despair of the traditional proletariat. But where is the novel that describes the sadness of the middle manager seeing his social situation eroded along with his economic prowess, where is the poem that eulogises the despair of the Rust Belt destitute?
The arts seem to have taken refuge in the intensely private, in the sexual, in the fantastic, in the experimental. Dickens, Zola, Victor Hugo, Eisenstein, Goya would have had things to say. But their heirs are silent.
Why do we not understand that loyalty is a many-splendoured thing that we should honour in the small, as well as in the big! Why do we not understand that rejection is repaid with rejection, and loyalty repaid with loyalty? Why are the arts not showing us the pitfalls and the right way?