Nature’s vital circles

Work dominates our lives, yet its places and processes are ignored by artists. Now, more than ever,

If a Martian came to earth and tried to understand what human beings do from just reading most literature published today, he would come away with the extraordinary impression that what we mostly spend our time doing is falling in love and, occasionally, murdering one another. But what we really do is go to work – and yet this work is unseen, it is literally invisible and it is so in part because it is not represented in art. If it does appear in consciousness, it does so through the business pages of newspapers, as an economic, rather than a broader human, phenomenon.

Two centuries ago, our forebears would have known the precise history and source of almost every one of the limited number of things they ate and owned. They would have been familiar with the pig, the carpenter, the weaver, the loom and the dairymaid. The range of items available for purchase may have grown exponentially since then, but our understanding of their genesis has grown ever more obscure. We are now as disconnected imaginatively from the pro­duction and distribution of our goods as we are practically in reach of them, a process of alienation that has stripped us of opportunities for wonder, gratitude and guilt.

The world is covered in factories and warehouses, but it is impossible for the layperson to go into them or even approach them. Despite their importance, they have no desire to advertise themselves to the public. In business parks, they are spread out across sites of determined blandness marked by gentle gradients, ornamental trees and expanses of preternaturally green grass.

When we think of tourist destinations, we don’t think of the places of work. Why, endowed as they are with both practical importance and emotional resonance, do cargo ships, port facilities, airport warehouses, storage tanks, refineries and assembly plants go unnoticed, except by those immediately involved in their operations?

It is not just because they are hard to locate and forbiddingly signposted. Some of Venice’s churches are similarly secreted away but none­theless prodigally visited. What renders them invisible is an unwarranted prejudice that deems it peculiar to express overly powerful feelings of admiration towards a gas tanker or a paper mill – or, indeed, towards almost any aspect of the labouring world.

As a result, a sympathetic response to, say, an electricity pylon is, for most of us, a haphazard and unsupported impulse, an epiphany which might last for a minute on a drive along a motorway or on a walk along a moor, but to which no prestige could be attached and from which little of merit could emerge.

In an essay entitled “The Poet”, published in 1844, the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented the narrow definition of beauty subscribed to by his peers, who tended to reserve the term exclusively for the bucolic landscapes and unspoilt pastoral scenes celebrated in the works of well-known artists and poets of the past. Emerson himself, however, writing as he was at the dawn of the industrial age, observing with interest the proliferation of railways, warehouses, canals and factories, wished to make room for the possibility of alternative forms of beauty.

He contrasted the nostalgic devotees of old-fashioned poetry with those whom he judged to be true contemporary poetic spirits, deserving of the title less by virtue of anything they had actually written than for their willingness to approach the world without prejudice or partiality. The former camp, he averred, “see the factory-village and the railway, and fancy that the poetry of the landscape is broken up by these, for these works of art are not yet consecrated in their reading. But the poet sees them fall within the great Order not less than the beehive or the spider’s geometrical web. Nature adopts them very fast into her vital circles, and the gliding train of cars she loves like her own.”

It was Emerson’s strategy to lead his readers by example, to encourage their evolving sense of what might be attractive by demonstrating that he himself, a trustworthy guardian of high culture, was capable of recognising the appeal of a signal box and a chimney stack, and that a range of hitherto unlikely objects could therefore be safe for all to love.

There is, of course, one particular kind of person who breaks the normal rules: I am thinking of spotters, of ships, lorries, planes and trains, the kind who give up weekends to admire the giant moving parts of our mechanised world. Whatever their inarticulacies, the spotters are appropriately alive to some of the most astonishing aspects of our time. They know what it is about our world that would detain a Martian or a child. They take pleasure in sensing their smallness and ignorance next to the expansive intelligence of the modern collective mind.

Standing beside a docked ship, their heads thrown back to gaze at its steel turrets disappearing into the sky, they enter into a state of silent, satisfied wonder, like pilgrims before the towers of Chartres. Their concentration recalls that of a small child who comes to a halt in the centre of a crowded shopping street and, while passers-by swerve to avoid her, bends down to examine, with the care of a biblical scholar poring over the pages of a vellum-bound book, a piece of chewing gum impressed on the pavement, or the closing mechanism of her coat pocket.

They are like children, too, in their upending of conventional ideas of what might constitute a good job, always valuing a profession’s intrinsic interest over its relative material benefit, judging with particular favour the post of crane operator at a container terminal because of the vantage point it offers over ships and quaysides, just as a child might aspire to drive a train because of the seductive hiss of the carriage’s hydraulic doors, or to run a post office based on the satisfaction of adhering airmail labels on to puffy envelopes.

The spotter’s pastime harks back to the habits of premodern travellers who, upon arriving in a new country, were apt to express particular curiosity about its granaries, aqueducts, harbours and workshops, feeling that the observation of work could be as stimulating as anything on a stage or chapel wall – a relief from a contemporary view that tightly associates tourism with play and, therefore, steers us away from an interest in aluminium foundries and sewage treatment plants in favour of the trumpeted pleasures of musicals and waxwork museums.

How ignorant most of us are by contrast, surrounded by machines and processes of which we have only the loosest grasp; we who know nothing about gantry cranes and iron-ore bulk carriers, who register the economy only as a set of numbers, who think – even now – that it is only about money, who have avoided close study of switch gears and wheat storage and spare ourselves closer acquaintance with the manufacturing protocols for tensile steel cable. How much we might learn from the spotters at the ends of piers and runways.

At a time when recession is reminding us how badly we need work, it should be artists who teach us to discern the virtues of the furniture of contemporary technology. One can hope for a day when photographs of electricity conductors might hang over dining tables and when someone might write a libretto for an opera set in the sales office of a packaging firm.

We need art that could function for our times a little like those 18th-century cityscapes that show us people at work from the quayside to the temple, the parliament to the counting house, panoramas like those of Canaletto in which, within a single giant frame, one can witness dockers unloading crates, merchants bargaining in the main square, bakers before their ovens, women sewing at their windows and councils of ministers assembled in a palace – inclusive scenes which serve to remind us of the place that work accords each of us within the human hive.

We need an art that can proclaim the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, despite the current economic mayhem, with the principal source of life’s meaning.

Alain de Botton’s “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) is published on 2 April