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Avatars of the Work Ethic: The Figure of the Classical Musician in Discourses of Work


In The New Spirit of Capitalism (2005), Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello argue that critiques of capitalism have historically taken two forms: the “social” and the “artistic.” The artistic critique, which values individual autonomy and authenticity, takes special aim at the institution of work, against which it “counterposes the freedom of artists.” The artistic critique’s massive countercultural uprising in the 1960s had been matched, however, by an overwhelming response from the bourgeois establishment. As a result, ideologies of work at the turn of the twenty-first century have become inscribed in the figure of the artist, who is “highly specialized, creative and personalized.”

How did the artistic critique come to be “artistic”? How did the values of freedom and authenticity that Boltanski and Chiapello assigned to the artistic critique come to be associated with artists, and, more importantly, how do they continue to be seen as values held by artists? Through the figure of the classical musician, this dissertation explores how this association between artists and the work ethic has been, and continues to be, reproduced in American discourses of work. It examines the figure of the classical musician as it has been used to communicate the work ethic in three empirical domains: English-language business management scholarly journal articles, entrepreneurship education discourse in American higher education, and popular American television comedy as represented by the Amazon Original series, Mozart in the Jungle. In addition, this dissertation traces the more general emergence of the Bohemian artist as a work-related figure in the popular American imagination. In doing so, it conceptualizes the human face that capitalism gives to its “ideal type” of the work ethic as the avatar of the work ethic. The avatar of the work ethic is a discursive sign, either concretely or symbolically embodied in a human figure, that is imbricated within the web of signs that point to the discipline of the work ethic.

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