From Willy Loman to The Real Housewives

The new Broadway production of Death of a Salesman is an emotionally lethal combination. I defy anyone to sit through nearly three hours of Arthur Miller’s words, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Willy, Andrew Garfield’s Biff and Mike Nichols’ direction, and not emerge suffering a full-blown existential crisis. Though more than 60 years old, the play, like all great tragedy, remains dazzlingly contemporary and cathartic.

Miller used the salesman as an American archetype, a victim of capitalism, self-aggrandizing and self-deluding, devoted to appearance over substance. The triviality of his ambitions destroy every one of his relationships, with his sons, his wife and his best friends and neighbor. The traveling salesman was for Miller the perfect symbol of the psychological struggles inflicted by capitalism.

John Lahr writes in his New Yorker review:

“Willy, for all his fervent dreams of the future and his fierce argument with the past, never, ever, occupies his present. Even as he fights, fumes, and flounders, he is sensationally absent from his life, a kind of living ghost. It is existence, not success, that eludes him. He inhabits a vast, restless, awful, and awesome isolation, which is both his folly and his tragedy. Willy is defined by the spirit of competition and by its corollary, invidious comparison. Envy is the gasoline on which American capitalism runs; it also runs Willy, driving him crazy. His “powerful strivings,” as Miller calls them, are his way of battling a corrosive sense of inadequacy.”

This is what makes this such a resonant play today. Our culture keeps returning to this theme, in the ambitions, betrayals and social dysfunction of The Social Network – Garfield, who played the Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin is the thread here – and the bickering, venal, emotionally abusive tragicomedy of The Real Housewives and Jersey Shore.


Greg Smith: kill shot or loop?

It’s a bad day at Goldman Sachs, when one of its own resigns complaining that he found greater fulfillment coming third in a table tennis tournament than he did selling bad products to the firm’s “muppet” clients.

But Greg Smith has done a bold thing – the fantasy of everyone leaving a grim employer. Punish them as you walk out of the door. Goldman’s formal response was exactly as one might expect: disappointment and denial.

Smith will now undergo a full and public trashing. They’ll say he was too junior to know the truth; bitter at not advancing beyond his relatively lowly rank after 12 years at the company; soon to be fired anyway; an attention seeker and traitor who has let down the many people he worked with for years; a liar. It will all be done through intermediaries and unnamed sources. (Tabletennisnation reports players at a Chinatown club saying Smith wasn’t all that great a player: “capable of keeping up in matches, but way below any seriously competitive ability.”)

So, for Smith’s criticism to really mean something, it must be followed up with specifics: which deals sold to which clients caused him so much pain? In what instances did Goldman do what he accuses them of ? Was the sales culture he describes anything other than normal Wall Street practice? Does Smith have records and logs of his activities? Of the meetings he describes? Goldman’s clients are grown-ups. They know the company’s reputation.

At this point, he’s a PR problem – but a surmountable one. He’s broken ranks but he hasn’t really blown the whistle. He’s just said what people have been saying both inside and outside the company since Goldman went public in 1999. That its spirit of client service has been broken. That it puts its own profits over the interests of its clients – and lied about it.

In 2007, they sold mortgage products to clients and promptly bet against them. As Senator Carl Levin said after a full Senate investigation: “Why would Goldman deny what was so obvious, that they were engaged in a huge short in the year 2007? Because they gained at the expense of their clients and they used abusive practices to do it.”

Smith has come from inside to say what the likes of Matt Taibi have been saying for years. Goldman sucks. What’s new?

It’ll be interesting to see if Warren Buffett, Goldman’s fairy godfather and Blankfein’s no.1 fan, has anything to say.

Selling books to the “silver” market – the future of book stores?

The brilliant Japanese chain Tsutaya recently opened this gorgeous looking book store in Tokyo, Daikanyama T-Site. Analog, digital, a third space targeted at the “silver” or “premium age” market of over-50s, coffee shop, cocktail bar, travel agency, “concierges” the same age as the intended customers. When will someone start building these in the US?

Salesman who makes culture happen

The British art dealer Jay Jopling had Lunch with the FT on March 2nd, and had plenty to say on his role as a salesman for artists. Jopling and his White Cube galleries are most closely associated with the Young British Artists, Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, the Chapman brothers, Tracy Emin and his ex-wife Sam Taylor Wood. He is a salesman who makes culture happen.

He described himself as a leveler, bulldozing the barriers between class and artistic classification: “I always liked to collide the establishment with the avant-garde.”

An enthusiast: “The relationship with artists is what drives me… I love going to artists’ studios. The thrill of walking in, seeing something no one has seen – it’s the best thrill.”

He had an early job selling something other than art, fire extinguishers: “He would set his sleeve alight to demonstrate their effectiveness… “If you can’t sell, you lose your artists.””

He gives luck, fun and hard work their proper due:  “I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I really enjoyed the artists’ company, we had a lot of fun…That generation came out of art school kicking and screaming and I happened to be in London at the time…What was so exciting then was a guiltlessness to those artists – we were happy not to work within a conventional framework. With Damien, there was very strong personal chemistry, shared ambition, an overriding desire to get things done yesterday. When we met, we left each other at 4am, and at 9am there he was at my house in Brixton. He showed me his plans for sculptures, fish cabinets, the shark, the first spot paintings, and we said, ‘Let’s make them!’ Within three months the fish piece was in a show at Manchester’s Cornerhouse.”Image

He makes the work of artists comprehensible and valuable to buyers and to create an environment for artists to succeed: “Every artist is different, there’s no recipe for how you represent them. Some enjoy engaging with broader audiences, most are interested in their market performance, others just want to be left alone. Our job is to create the boundaries in which the artist can best make his work – from facilitating to archiving.”

He is constantly navigating the line between art and commerce: “As a dealer, the greatest thing you can have is an appreciation of art, lack of preconceptions – and extraordinary stamina. You’re nurturing artists’ careers, strategizing at a business level, you have to be a showman, and you’ve got to travel exhaustively…The immortality an artist can attain is an immortality unlike any other. It’s important to look forward, to when something can transcend its time, but it’s also a business.”