In response to my call for requests, my cousin Ann suggested that I discuss the importance of art in the workplace or classroom. While not directly related to technical communication, this does fall under the heading of life in the workplace, so I’ll run with it. (Thanks for reading, Ann!)
Adorning your workspace
I only worked in one area that I can think of where “personalization” of cubicles was frowned upon, and the edict against decoration was soon rescinded. That situation is so fascinating, looking back on it, that it warrants further comment.
Why would a manager (or group of managers) demand that little bits of art–from knickknacks to pictures of our family to toys, postcards, or actual pieces of aesthetic contemplation? From a utilitarian perspective, cubicles–those banes and only partial boons of corporate existence–are often bare, gray, and utterly interchangeable. Some managers don’t like clutter. Sometimes a department uses a lot of temporary workers. Some don’t like people getting “territorial” or too comfortable in one place. I can recall one three-year stretch where I changed cubicle locations twelve times. If frequent relocations are a fact of a company’s life, management might not want to spend a lot of money moving someone’s “props” or repainting walls that have had posters or other artwork removed.
And then again, there might be a less charitable, more sinister message they want to send: Don’t get too comfortable here, you could be replaced at any time.
Yet employees inevitably push back, and management usually relents. Why?
My amateur philosopher’s answer runs something like this: art is how we enrich and adorn our lives and make them beautiful. Painting is how we adorn bare surfaces, from caves to condos. Sculpture is how we use objects to adorn public or private spaces. Dance is how we stylize and adorn movement. Music is how we adorn sound. Theater and film are how we adorn life. Fashion is how we adorn our bodies. And so forth. This adornment (or decoration, if you prefer) is part of how we express our individuality. Remove too much of it, and we become cranky, unhappy, and restive. We want to express ourselves, we want to be appreciated, and yes, our particular way of decorating things also helps us claim a space that we can feel comfortably is our own.
Even corporation managers are not immune to the need to fill blank spaces with art, even if it’s vapid “inspirational” posters in hallways and meeting rooms. If it’s not “corporate” artwork, businesses will sometimes make or commission their own to give a workplace some personality. One of my favorite workplaces, Zero Point Frontiers, populates its walls with fictional tourism posters for planets in the solar system. NASA office buildings are adorned with space or rocketry or spacecraft images. Disney’s “backstage” areas often incorporate the company’s cartoon characters. And so forth.
And yes, I’m going to say it: art posted in a business environment can serve a political purpose, mainly to reinforce the attitudes the leadership wants the employees to aspire to or emulate. Thus, for NASA the imagery is about science and technological progress; for Disney, the art is a mix of whimsy and familiar company brands; for Zero Point Frontiers, it’s probably somewhere in between.
Organizations can go with a sterile aesthetic, which is a statement unto itself: this office/factory is merely a place, and your job is to focus on your work.
Does a technical communicator really need art?
As I indicated previously, art is how we adorn our lives. It conveys who we are or who we would like to be, in any number of ways. My cubicle “art” has varied over the years, from space/science fiction images, books, and toys to Disney gewgaws, vacation postcards, photos of family members, and bottles of bubble fluid. The art I surround myself with keeps me grounded in who I am and who I’d like to be. And yes, after 10-20 years in corporate America, I’d learned how to keep my little bits of junk minimized and portable in preparation for the next move. But I keep it.
My home office includes a poster from a space mission I attended the launch of and a roadmap showing an integrated plan for settling the solar system. I also have a lava lamp, plasma sphere, and some other stuff lurking around on the overstuffed bookshelves–a different, but equally necessary form of art: beautiful words to fill my mind with inspiration.
This is me, though: do you keep some form of art around you? What does it consist of? What does it say about you? If you don’t have any artwork adorning your workspace, assuming you have one you can call your own? Your art might or might not reflect your work content; it could be images to remind you of what you’re working for outside of the place that pays your bills. The important thing is, does it reflect you? If you don’t include any art around you, why not?
As for me, I could always tell when I was unhappy at a job because my desk art would disappear. Call it a not-so-subtle message to my leaders: don’t get too comfortable having me around, I might not be here long!
Postscript on this: I have written this, again, from an American point of view. If you’re a regular reader of this site and are doing technical communication in a much different culture, how does art function in your workplace? I’d love to hear from you!
you fill my heart.