The Ultimate Culture Guide 2009: H

Honest Work

In this era of stimulus packages, bailouts, and rising unemployment, work is a buzzy topic. Alain de Botton, the Swiss-born, London-based writer, takes on the subject in his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, to be published by Pantheon in June. Exploring several fields—from cookie manufacturing to accounting to rocket science—the book, as De Botton describes it, is a “hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty, and horror of the modern workplace.” Recently the author spoke with Paul Holdengräber, director of public programs at the New York Public Library. The two will continue their conversation in a “Live from the NYPL” talk on June 8.

PH: Your book’s title reminds me of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel so powerful that it pushed some people to suicide. Is work that terrible?

AB: Alongside love, work is the number one area of fantasy where people imagine they will find happiness. Of course, Freud famously believed that the two ingredients you need to get right for satisfaction are work and love.

PH: Why do you think so little has been written about work?

AB: Partly it’s practical. Most writers only know about the world of writing. Also, it’s very hard to say to an organization, I’m a writer and I’d like to come visit your workplace to learn about it. No one wants a writer sitting in a corner taking notes.

PH: What did you discover while doing this mixture of ethnography and anthropology?

AB: Really what I came away with was a feeling of awe at the complexity and dedication that goes into every single thing that is made and sold in the modern world. Never in the history of civilization have we had so many people working together in such complicated, interconnected ways. And it seems to me that it’s the task of writers to observe and celebrate this, and also mourn it, because sometimes it has very depressing side effects. I always think that the world of work only gets a showing in the business pages. Or on CNBC. It’s understood economically. But work is also a human affair, an aesthetic affair, and there are more ways of looking at it than just through the economic prism.

PH: Why is work such a good subject now, particularly given our current economic problems?

AB: It’s when people lose their jobs that we realize how important work is. We live in an artistic culture that values withdrawal and contemplation, but there is also a role for busyness, for throwing yourself into a job that consumes all your energy and prevents you from thinking—where you can look at yourself in the mirror and say, I’ve done an honest day’s work.

His Time

Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima, whose work deals with time, technology, and Buddhist ideas, is having his first London show in four years, at Lisson Gallery, opening November 25. We’re also fascinated to see what he cooks up with Wayne McGregor, the avant-garde choreographer who often melds technology and dance, in a ballet collaboration that debuts at the Royal Opera House on November 4.

High Snark

Known for his incisive sociological studies of his fellow Brits, photographer Martin Parr brings an idiosyncratic eye to everything he shoots—and collects. “Planète Parr,” at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, June 30 to September 27, surveys both his work and his personal collections of postcards, photo books, and kitsch objects like Saddam Hussein watches and Margaret Thatcher teapots.

Harlem Renaissance

Stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday got their start there. The legendary Apollo Theater turned 75 this year, and as part of the celebrations, it’s staging a revival of Dreamgirls, which played more than 1,500 performances in the eighties, long before it was a hit movie. The story of the Dreams trio begins at the Apollo, where the show premières in November, before traveling around the country.