Every artist and academic has heard the lecture from some red-faced guy at a fundraising dinner: "In the business world," he says, shaking his head -- and everybody knows what he means: in the real world -- "I mean if you people ran this like a business, then you'd make some real progress." He could be talking about a new research institute or an opera house or a homeless shelter. The brilliance of business is applicable to every situation. If we just got our heads out of our asses and thought like business people, who are generally more practical and more efficient, we would have more success in our every endeavour.
After all, we are constantly reminded, it's business that provides for art and thought in the first place: Without the prosperity that business provides, without the tax base, without the jobs that give people purchasing power, not to mention the direct sponsorships and partnerships that corporations provide, there would be no universities, no literary quarterlies, no film centre. A British government committee reported on Covent Garden in 1997: "We would prefer to see the House run by a Philistine with the requisite financial acumen than by the succession of opera and ballet lovers who have brought a great and valuable institution to its knees."
Even Winston Churchill, who was not an uncultured man, said, "Cultured people are merely the glittering scum which floats upon the deep river of production." (Interestingly, he was moved to such bitterness by his gadabout son, Randolph, who had criticized Calgary oil barons for being uncultured.) Although I'm a bit taken aback by the idea of culture as scum, I concede that the basic economics of his assertion are accurate.
And so I submit, at every artistic fundraiser or ceremony, to the numbing speech by the corporate guy, the one who represents the bank or telcom or oil company that has donated money, the speech that efficiently sedates, then paralyzes and ultimately kills any sense of pleasure or entertainment that anyone was expecting to have from a social evening, the speech that makes a few vague and token references to the importance of culture to society and then goes on to the favoured poetic phrases of the moment: "commitment to excellence," "synergy," "quality-driven," "client-based" and "proactive."
Nobody stands up gleefully waving his bingo card and yelling, "Bull!" Instead, we just momentarily put our brains in neutral and wonder whether the youthful publicists at the next table would mind if we sat with them for the next course and whether that will be chicken or salmon.
We know that we have to listen to this, that we have to give these guys the opportunity to participate and be recognized and pretend they're just as intellectual as all the journalists or academics who people the room. I don't mind one of these speeches per evening if it makes them happy, as long as it's short.
But meaningless speeches do rather underline one thing that niggles and nags at me: Maybe the corporate guys whom we venerate and lionize and write magazine profiles about are not really as good at everything as they say they are. They're certainly not good at gauging the intelligence of audiences. Not a particularly important trait, one might say, if your business is manufacturing pharmaceuticals or leveraging service charges into capital. Fair enough. But what else are they not good at? This doesn't seem very efficient or proactive or client-based.
Well, as it turns out, one thing businesspeople are also not very good at is running businesses. Their businesses fail spectacularly. Canada 3000, Nortel, Chapters: These are not small companies; they are not run by beginners; they are not run by people who are underpaid.
They are run by massively remunerated experts, the same people who lecture university administrators and artists about following the shining exemplar of business. And they can't seem to make these companies make enough money. Now this, unlike the ability to make a speech, is a genuine failing in a capitalist: It is the one thing they are really supposed to be good at.
I'm not saying I could do any better. But it is odd that society at large generally respects platitudes about the corporate model for human activity being the ultimately efficient and profitable one. Businesses have always failed: Executives and entrepreneurs have no special formula for success. And yet we still want them to tell us what to do.
Conrad Black, for example, is still seen as a role model to business, a brilliant entrepreneur whose opinions on how to run everything from companies to governments to wars are deemed important. It doesn't matter that his investment in the National Post was, for him personally, in purely commercial terms, a failure.
I doubt that his role as sage will change, now that he has had to sell his share in a newspaper that was supposed to be his greatest triumph, and fled the country.
The next time I am lectured on how to run my life like a business, I will say, "Oh, a business like Canada 3000? A business like the great Eaton's chain? No thanks."
A blind faith in the efficiency of commerce goes hand in hand with a faith in technology -- whose failings I will discuss next week.