The messy side of artistic genius
It’s just as well Margaret Olley didn’t work for BHP Billiton.
Apart from the fact that her artistic skills wouldn’t have been much use in the whole global mining caper, there’s the small – and extremely messy – matter of her work station.
Since Olley’s death late last month, much has been made of the cluttered and chaotic Sydney terrace in which she lived and painted.
Posthumous photos of her beloved bower show a delightful dishevelment of rotting pomegranates, mummified flowers, overflowing ashtrays, decanting turps, snarls of pink wrapping ribbon and something that may or may not be a boar wearing an embroidered saddle.
The “sublime jungle” (as one Australian curator put it) of Olley’s home radiates personality and is regarded as so significant, there is talk of preserving it as a living museum.
Mess, it seems, was the old Bohemian’s muse. But it would have landed her in Big Trouble if she’d ever had to earn a crust at BHP.
The mining giant – which has just reported a record-breaking $22.5 billion profit – has instituted an “Office Environment Standard” which bans workers from outrageous activities such as:
* sticking post-it notes on their monitors and keyboards;
* hanging jackets on the backs of their chairs;
* consuming food at their desks (rather than in designated toaster- and microwave-free clubrooms); and
* consuming food anywhere if it “emits strong odours”.
Cleaners have been ordered to inspect desks each night and ruthlessly neutralise anything that isn’t a computer monitor, docking station, keyboard, mouse or phone.
Employees are permitted to display a single framed photograph – though they’d probably be pushing their luck if these depicted a steaming prawn curry or rakishly un-coathangered skivvy.
BHP is defending its ultra-sanitised, über-depersonalised strategy as a straightforward and effective plan to ensure people can “work happily and co-operatively in a clean space”.
But the policy has been widely pilloried, with one commentator suggesting that the pongs associated with some of BHP’s mining operations are far more offensive than the fragrant aroma of lunchtime vindaloo.
It’s also worth noting that – contrary to popular mythology – neat offices aren’t necessarily efficient ones.
The US book A Perfect Mess – The Hidden Benefits of Disorder by management professor Eric Abrahamson and technology columnist David H Freeman reveals that innovation and productivity actually thrive in disorder and chaos, rather than in tidiness and organisation.
Consider the stupendous disarray of Albert Einstein’s desk and Alexander Fleming’s bacteriological lab (the slovenliness of the latter being credited as one of the reasons Fleming was able to accidentally invent penicillin).
“A messy desk can be a highly effective prioritizing and accessing system,” the book reads. “According to our survey, people who said they keep a ‘very neat’ desk spend an average of 36 percent more time looking for things at work than people who said they keep a ‘fairly messy’ desk.
“And that figure doesn’t take into account how much additional time those with neat desks spend sorting and filing, or processing low priority documents, in order to keep their desks so neat.”
The mise-en-mèss of Olley’s deliciously disordered domicile certainly provides strong evidence that mayhem can also be an integral element of the creative vision in many aspects of the arts.
“[A] certain amount of apparent disorder is healthy in the early stages of writing,” says Australian author Kate Grenville in The Writing Book. “Why? Because being orderly is a process of eliminating things… You need to have a great untidy overflow of characters, events, images and moods…”
In addition to crushing the chaos so conducive to creative thinking, BHP’s policy is likely to be counter productive because of its Draconian nature.
University of Queensland management professor Neal Ashkanasy argues that heavy-handed rules enforced from above tend to result in staff rebellion rather than acquiescence. This could help explain why the BHP policy – which was billed as a security measure – ended up being leaked.
The corporation’s deska nullius approach is also on the nose because it suggests an unhealthy distaste for the fact that its industrial plants and equipment include debris-producing, odour-causing, clothes-wearing, food-eating humans.
A tendency toward depersonalisation is also evident in the company’s admission that its office minimalism is designed to facilitate “hot-desking” in which employees are moved about like wheeled filing cabinets rather than being permitted to settle in one spot (where they might start producing pungent evidence of their individuated existences).
In addition to all of this, banning employees from personalising their office environments seems just plain mean. Calling it Orwellian would be over-the-top, but at the very least it’s Saundersian.
For the uninitiated, George Saunders is an American author whose tragicomic exposés of the dehumanising absurdities of corporate culture and management-speak are second to none.
Pastoralia is his dystopian tale of a man and woman whose poorly-paid, round-the-clock jobs involve impersonating grunting cave folk in a bizarre theme park exhibit. The park’s tyrannical management are constantly threatening a Staff Remix (i.e. a mass sacking) and insist their brutal workplace rules are entirely in the interests of employees.
One brusque memo demands that live-in staff: a) stop complaining about having to pay a sewerage-related Disposal Debit; and b) cease referring to the latter as the Shit Fee.
“[W]hy do you expect us to pay to throw away your poop when after all you made it?” the communiqué reads. “Do you think your poop is a legitimate business expense? Does it provide benefit to us when you defecate? No, on the contrary, it would provide benefit if you didn’t, because then you would be working more…”
Pastoralia’s fictional powers-that-be are quick to add that they are not about to introduce some sort of biological plug or chemical constipator because – apart from being wrong and unhealthy – their ungrateful staff would undoubtedly expect these items to be provided gratis.
“And so help us help you, by not whining about your Disposal Debit, and if you don’t like how much it costs, try eating less. And by the way, we are going to be helping you in this, by henceforth sending less food. We’re not joking, this is austerity. We think you will see a substantial savings in terms of your Disposal Debits, as you eat less and your Human Refuse bags get smaller and smaller.”
Obviously BHP’s is not anally retentive enough to institute strictly timed toilet breaks or bowel stopples in the interests of increasing productivity.
But its obvious aversion for the untidy business of being human does suggest some docking (or strict standardisation) system for unbusinesslike body odours such as flatulence could well be on the cards in future.
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