Tuesday, November 18, 2003

The blues and your muse

Freedom News Service

Ever since I got wind of American music, I have been a blues fan. Like many others, I eased up to the blues via big band, jazz, ragtime and, later, rock 'n' roll. But from the start the blues gave me instant goose bumps. (My childhood music loves, before I came west, were Hungarian gypsy tunes and Viennese Waltzes.) I am very eclectic in my musical preferences, but if I must choose just one venue, I chose the blues — on radio, in music stores or at concerts.
No, I am no expert on either the history or the artistry of the blues. So when I listen to or watch various programs about the blues, I am always being educated. But my main purpose is never to learn the history or cultural background of the music but to experience it being played and sung. The stuff really sends me — I get very passionate about it, with perhaps Fred Astair’s dancing and Erroll Garner’s piano playing being the only other forms of entertainment coming close to thrilling me as do the blues.
OK, so that’s a personal statement, but what might it have to do with something that we should all find important? It is the way so many blues artists have absolutely no hesitation about admitting that they love doing their work, that indeed they nearly live just to do it. What has struck me about many of them who are interviewed about this — for example, on the recent three part PBS special — is how unapologetically self-absorbed they are as they declare their commitment to what they do. Indeed, one of the constant themes emerging from these interviews is just how little interest many of these performers have in pleasing their audiences or anyone else. And that is remarkable.
As someone who teaches ethics at the college level and someone who has done so for more than three decades, I am familiar with the various schools of morality that address the issue of what principles should guide human beings as they live their lives. "How should I live and act?" is the question to which the discipline of ethics or morality is addressed.
More recently I have taught business ethics, the field that to many people, sadly, seems to be nothing but an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms — as if the very idea of doing business ethically were impossible. Why is this the common opinion about business?
Because people in business, as most of us in ordinary commerce, aim for improving the bottom line. We all go shopping, and all business professionals carry on, so as to strike a good deal. However much as people may profess to be altruists — devoted to serving others first — when it comes to their buying and selling, they mostly prefer that they come out benefitting from it all.
But for this very fact, business — and commerce (as in "commercialism") — gets the back of the hand from a lot of indignant people in politics, the ministry, the arts and so on. How dare you look out for yourself? How dare business think mainly of the bottom line?
In most business ethics courses and text books it is made plain that for thinking about the bottom line, business must be chided, denounced. The ideal role of business, the line goes, is to help others, to be socially responsible. That’s the line that has made Ralph Nader famous, as well as hundreds of pundits and other verbalists in this culture and many others.
Yet, think about these blues artists, who unabashedly proclaim that they want to please themselves; that they are devoted to doing their own thing, learning how to do their craft just the way they see it should be done, not as others might want them to do it. Their gigs are done reluctantly, just to earn a buck; what really turns them on is jam sessions, where they do it for themselves. Then, of course, if others turn out to like the jamming part — the composition, the sound and the rest — that’s a nice bonus. But the first thing is to do right by their craft, the blues (or whatever other art happens to be their preference).
That this same dedication is denounced when people embark upon business is a tragedy, given, especially, how important business is for nearly everyone — including those who constantly bash it. Of course, there are charlatans in business, as there are in the performing arts, but that shouldn’t make any difference about the basic worth of the bona fide, honest work involved.
What I’d like to propose here is just that all those who are ambitious about doing business, who want to succeed at the thing, should feel exactly as those blues artists do -- completely self-satisfied that they are doing something wonderful, valuable, with no need to apologize for being devoted to it.

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "The Passion for Liberty" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu

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