Why Shoot J.R.?

From Midas to Shylock to J.R., artists and writers have portrayed businessmen as bad guys. A Hollywood screenwriter asks why this picture is appealing.


Near the beginning of this century a young man from a poverty-stricken family left his home in the mountains of Tennessee and traveled to New York City to make his fortune. Year after year as he worked, taking whatever jobs he could find, he sent money home to his elderly mother—more and more money, because he was increasingly successful in the world of finance.

After some years, he found himself finally the very wealthy president of a large New York bank. He married a fine young woman and took her back to Tennessee to meet mother, his first visit home in the years since he'd left.

"By the way," he said to his new wife as they approached the old homestead, "don't mention anything to mother about the bank."

"Why not?" his wife asked.

"Because she would be awfully disappointed and quite embarrassed to learn how I've made all this money."

"What does she think you do?" asked his wife.

"She thinks," the banker said, "that I've finally made a success at my music. She thinks I still play piano in a bawdy house."

This story, told to me by an actual New York banker, illustrates something important about the relative esteem in which economic and artistic endeavor are held in some parts of our culture. All through my study of literature I have been intrigued by literary views of business and money. My interest has expanded with my recent practical experience as a screenwriter in Hollywood—a world in which artistic and economic endeavors are intimately connected, though whether in loving embrace or in hand-to-hand-combat it is not always easy to know.


It is natural for human beings' economic concerns to be portrayed in art. Artistic works express and evoke the meaning, the spiritual significance, the values, of the ways we live; and economic endeavor is central to human experience. How that endeavor is viewed in a culture influences and is influenced by its artistic renditions. Stories, whether heard orally or read or seen presented dramatically, express and transmit attitudes and assumptions about what life is or should be like, what human beings are or can be.

Life, as most of us have no doubt noticed, requires action to sustain it and the overcoming of certain obstacles within ourselves, among other people, and in the inanimate world. Artists, too, have noticed this, and their stories are portrayals of the dramatic conflicts that arise from the actions we take to fulfill our needs, meet our desires, reach our goals. What about human beings leads them into the economic arena? How do human beings pursue economic goals? What conflicts arise in the process, what factors lead to success or defeat, and what consequences do success or defeat entail?

What leads human beings into economic endeavor seems simple enough: we need to eat—many kinds of food; our resources are limited—and do not fall automatically into our mouths. The art of economically primitive cultures has much to do with this economic preoccupation; the hunter is a central figure, his ordeals of much interest. The qualities of character required of the good hunter—skill, strength, cleverness, courage, perseverance, wisdom, and, not incidentally, spiritual goodness—make the hunter an archetype of a successful human being and the hero of many stories.

In a culture that no longer depends on hunting but has evolved a complex economic system in which money takes the place of game, the analogous archetypal figure is someone who makes money. For us, economic man (economic person) is embodied in the businessperson.

We might think, then, that this figure so central to the maintenance of our existence would be a major figure in our art and that the exploration of such a character would include much attention to the personal qualities that lead to success or defeat in the overcoming of obstacles to material success. Such is not the case, however, and this is the puzzle. The trader, the businessperson, is a relatively rare character in literary art, particularly as a protagonist. And when he—or, still more rarely, she—does appear, it is generally not as an embodiment of positive human values but as an embodiment of human evil and human weakness.


There are two dominant images of the businessperson in our culture and in our literary art. One is a creature who exploits labor and uses polluting methods and materials to produce shoddy products sold at outrageously exorbitant prices to customers deceived and conditioned by false advertising in order to obtain inordinately huge profits that will allow continued indulgence in tasteless consumption, superior social status, and the expansion of power over numerous helpless victims. This is the image most often portrayed on television and in the movies.

A while back, for example, I picked up a TV Guide in search of programs about business figures and found three, described as follows:

Revenge-bent executive Dana Andrews uses ruthless methods to build a big dairy account.

Barry Sullivan portrays Mark Burdette, a greedy opportunist who kills antelope on Indian hunting grounds and sells the meat at a large profit.

Arthur Hill stars as a Wall Street tycoon whose supposed illness causes suspicions of a stock market swindle.

In film we recently had the image of Marlon Brando, the oil tycoon of The Formula, who withholds a new energy source from a desperate world and resorts to the most evil machinations, including murder, to sustain his profits and power. The all-powerful, greedy, evil opportunist has a long history in our literature, from the harsh factory owners of Dickens to the meat packers of Upton Sinclair to the financiers of Theodore Dreiser's novels, like Frank Cowperwood, who build their fortunes on the suffering and financial ruin of other people.

There is, however, another image of the businessperson that in serious literature is quite as dominant: the businessperson who himself is seen as the victim of a culture dominated by economic concerns. There is, for instance, Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, portrayed in Death of a Salesman as a desperate, dishonest-out-of-necessity, hopeless loser. There is Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, who "made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but…was nimble in the art of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay"; who lived a life of utter conformity so unremarkable that even his immoralities were disappointingly petty; a ridiculous and pathetic creature bored and, as generations of literature students will affirm, consummately boring. More recently there was the clothing manufacturer in Steve Shagan's Save the Tiger, a man so desperate to save his failing business that he pimps for his clients and ultimately hires an arsonist to destroy a factory in order to defraud his insurance company out of enough money to stay afloat.

The greedy tycoon and the desperate, petty villain-victim of a commercial culture—why is it that these are the dominant literary images of economic man? They are not the only images in our literature. In the 1950s there appeared a number of popular novels, such as Shepherd Mead's The Admen, Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, John P. Marquand's Point of No Return, Cameron Hawley's Executive Suite and Cash McCall, which portrayed the corporate executive sometimes as an ambitious and creative person in conflict with a corporate system in which the primary values were security and conformity. And there is Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, perhaps the most extensive and polemical exploration of economic behavior in our fiction and one offering some of its moneymakers as towering protagonists.

These are a few and minor exceptions, though. By and large, the person motivated by economic concerns is portrayed as inevitably dishonest; coldly indifferent to the sufferings of others; clever but not deep; uncreative and unproductive; and devoid of any moral, spiritual, or aesthetic values or sensitivities except those that serve the achievement of his own comfort, social status, and power.


What are the sources of the artist's antipathy to moneymakers? We may think first of the Marxist critique of the capitalist, which has certainly given literary artists much of the language and conceptual framework of their portrayals of businesspersons. Or we may recall the critical portrayals in 19th-century literature of industrial capitalism and commerce—Dickens's cruel factory masters or his heartless miser Scrooge.

But the artist's antipathy to the businessperson is much deeper and more ancient than these. As Miriam Beard points out in A History of Business, the earliest written literature left to us in Western civilization, Homer's Odyssey, portrays the trader as a creature to be despised. When Odysseus comes as a stranger to the court of a neighboring king, he is goaded into joining their athletic contests by this worst of all possible insults:

…I would not say you were like a man skilled

In contests of the many sorts that exist among men,

But are like one who is used to a ship with many oarlocks,

A leader of sailors who are also merchantmen

With his mind on a load, an overseer of cargoes

And of gain got by greed.

The furious Odysseus leaps up to hurl a huge weight farther than anyone else, proving himself a hero, a warrior, and an athlete and ensuring that he would never again be mistaken for a trader.

It is worth remembering too that the Greek god of commerce was Hermes, the messenger of the other gods and the deity of wealth, trade, and travelers; of manual skill; of oratory and eloquence (the god of salespitches and advertisements?); and also of thieves, of craftiness and duplicity.

Plato, in what literary scholars refer to as his utopian fiction, refused the trader citizenship in his Republic. For Plato, business was "despicable cattle-barter."

The Roman poet Ovid likewise scorned "seafaring merchants," who, he said, can "make their millions/till they and their lies are shipwrecked at last." And it was Ovid who gave us the myth of Midas, who had occasion to regret the fulfillment of his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold.

Midas has remained one of the best-known stereotypes of the pursuer of wealth, Scrooge's ancestor, the first in a long line of literary misers. The miser—foolish, fearful, and incompetent—was a stock character of Roman drama. The complaint against the miser is not simply that he values money above all else but that he is utterly unproductive. He hides his money, he counts it, but he makes no use of it. And, stupidly, he believes that the money is an end in itself.

With the domination of Western culture by Christianity came other images—Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the temple, St. Paul's "the love of money is the root of all evil." These were supported by an institutionalized philosophy that linked the abandonment of one's material self-interest and the achievement of spiritual values.

With the rebirth and growth of trade during the Renaissance, the true ancestors of the greedy tycoon and the despised small-time businessperson began to flourish on the literary scene. The former is most dramatic, of course: a financier, like Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Dante's Florentine bankers (his usurers in hell), Marlowe's Jew of Malta. These are Machiavellis, evil Italian villains of the first order, and many of them Jews to boot—another sign, in a predominantly Christian culture, of their evil.

At the other extreme is the small-time operator, clever enough to trick others out of their money but subject to being victimized himself by someone shrewder still. Or there is the stock comic figure of 16th-century Italian drama, a small-time merchant called Pantalone, a silly old fellow successful in finance but not in love, whose dull dress is the symbol of his unromantic nature: he has no style, no imagination, no culture.


Pantalone is the forerunner of the character who became in the 17th and 18th centuries the "bourgeois gentleman"—a comic name, of course, since (in that time, at least) it was obviously self-contradictory. Moliere's play of this name tells the story of an up-and-coming businessman who wants—desperately—to acquire the culture that will give him the social status of those of noble blood and inherited wealth. But the bourgeois gentleman is often gulled, is hopelessly literal-minded, and is a ridiculous flop.

It is not irrelevant that the literary artist of this time existed through the patronage of those historically declining noble classes who felt threatened by the new merchants' increasing wealth and status. Part of the writer's job was to help maintain the gulf between those who had spent their lives with money and so had had time for cultural pursuits, and those who had spent their lives making money and were only now attempting to acquire culture.

In time, however, the upper classes came to identify their own interests with the interests of the traders in increasingly commercial societies, and literary endeavors came to rely less on patronage and found a market. With this evolution, economic characters began to be portrayed as serious and even admirable specimens of humankind. Addison and Steele's Spectator papers, for instance, give us the good and successful merchant Sir Andrew Freeport, who demonstrates the faith of the freetraders that a man moderately pursuing his own financial interests is an asset and benefit to his society.

Some of this enthusiasm lasted well into the 19th century. Some American writers, dedicated to the rise of the common man and to the expansion of material progress, delighted in a new kind of economic man—the inventor-industrialist—unleashed by the new economic system. Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee includes such figures when he lists "the creators of this world—after God": "Gutenberg, Watt, Arkwright, Whitney, Morse, Stephenson, Bell."

Still, in the popular imagination Twain's creator was easily overpowered by Dickens's powerfully drawn industrial slavemasters or Balzac's greedy, grasping, middle-class creatures who sold their souls for material acquisitions. And it is these characters who still today represent in art, both high-brow and popular, the consequences to the human spirit of the quest for economic values, the pursuit of money.


Artists will say that they draw from life, that the reason these characters are featured in literature is that they do exist. What is puzzling is that they are, with few exceptions, the only images that exist. It is difficult to deny that enormous advances in and benefits to human life have occurred wherever trade has flourished and economic motivation been encouraged. Why have artists not been moved to explore the economic characters and actions responsible for this increased prosperity?

We know that since the beginning of Western civilization, business and trade have been regarded as dirty work, the pursuit of wealth as devotion to Mammon, the god of earth; those in a society who had to work for a living had little time for what were regarded as more ideal, heroic, or spiritual pursuits. Between the artist and the businessperson, then, there seems to be a gulf in values of long historical duration.

But is this gulf perceived or imagined? Are there fundamental conflicts of value between the pursuit of economic gain, of material values, and of spiritual or aesthetic pursuits? In the maintenance and advancement of human life, are material values inherently inferior? Is the pursuit of material wealth an inherently ignoble pursuit?

Further: Are the qualities of character required for the successful pursuit of money inherently unlovely? Are the considerations, the priorities, required in the pursuit of money inherently destructive of human character, or do they advance it? Are there in the very nature of economic behavior—in competition, in bargaining, in pursuing short- or long-range economic interests—inherent conflicts with the pursuit of other values and the fulfillment of other human needs?

It would seem that in some ways economic endeavor is not different from the pursuit of any other human value. Money, after all, is not an end in itself. There is an enormous range of motivations for making money: the enjoyment of material goods, of status, of satisfying mom and dad, of fulfilling a dream, of giving gifts, of leisure time, of confirmation that one's work is valued, and so on.

Of course, the making of money is often a fortuitous byproduct of some other desire, say to create or produce something that, lo and behold, turns out to be of value in the market. But what if the production or creation of something wonderful is instead a byproduct of the desire to get rich—is the endeavor then of less spiritual value or more damaging to character?

It is true that money, which is a means to other ends, has often become the measure or standard of success and achievement. Do we therefore suffer from a confusion of values? Is this the artist's complaint with economic motivation?

In fact, it is not only in the pursuit of money that human beings sacrifice other values, behave like scoundrels, and create for themselves utterly miserable lives. Certainly there are numerous stories of great artists who sacrificed their friends, their families, and their own characters in order to produce (or along with producing) their art. How is it that artists' stories—even these artists' stories—are so lovingly portrayed, while the businessperson remains a stereotypic villain and an object of ridicule? Several explanations occur to me.


Most people, including artists, tend to be ignorant of economics and of how economic advancement occurs. Most people, including artists, haven't the faintest idea what the businessperson actually does, and in particular what service the businessperson renders. What many people think the businessperson does is well exemplified in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's story The Little Prince. The prince's travels to various planets bring him once upon a businessman, who is preoccupied with counting the stars. When asked what he does with the stars, the businessman explains that he owns them (501, 622, 731 so far), which makes him rich, which makes it possible for him to buy more stars if any are discovered. He owns them, he says, because he was the first person to think of it:

"When you find a diamond that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you discover an island that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you get an idea before any one else, you take out a patent on it: it is yours. So with me: I own the stars, because nobody else before me ever thought of owning them."

"Yes, that is true," said the little prince. "And what do you do with them?"

"I administer them," replied the businessman. "I count them and recount them. It is difficult. But I am a man who is naturally interested in matters of consequence."

The little prince was still not satisfied.

"If I owned a silk scarf," he said, "I could put it around my neck and take it away with me. If I owned a flower, I could pluck that flower and take it away with me. But you cannot pluck the stars from heaven.…"

"No. But I can put them in the bank."

"Whatever does that mean?"

"That means that I write the number of my stars on a little paper. And then I put this paper in a drawer and lock it with a key."

. . . .

"It is entertaining," thought the little prince. "It is rather poetic. But is of no great consequence."

"I myself own a flower," he continued in his conversation with the businessman, "which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week.…It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars.…"

The businessman opened his mouth, but he found nothing to say in answer. And the little prince went away.

So long as the artist's understanding of economic motivation and behavior and consequence goes no farther than this, we are unlikely to see any more profound exploration of these aspects of human life in our literature.


But ignorance is only one difficulty. Practically speaking, the artist in a commercial society is in a difficult situation. To support himself or herself through years of artistic development, to do so in a way that leaves enough time, energy, and psychological wholeness to create, to find an audience, nay, a buyer, are difficult tasks and often ones for which the artist is ill-equipped.

In many respects our society has not yet developed institutions and organizations for the economic support of artistic endeavor. I once heard a very wise musician explain that in his profession only half of his time is spent playing his music and the other half is spent creating opportunities for himself to perform, and that this is the nature of being an artist today. But this is not a fact that most artists understand or accept with equanimity.

Furthermore, an artist is often faced with the dilemma of maintaining the integrity of his or her art while getting work, and the issues are not simple. The people who hold the pursestrings do hold the power, and writers, for instance, are constantly at odds with publishers and producers. Not that this is fundamentally different from the moral and practical conflicts anyone must face in a working life; but it is not a pleasant fact of human existence, and it is one that artists feel, and complain about, acutely.

Many artists long for the days of a few wealthy patrons, and many support the reinstitution of an equivalent system through government. They do not consider, however, that artists supported by patrons are restricted by the necessity not to offend their supporters—that the power that goes with money is a fact of existence and not of a capitalist system. Nor do they consider that in an economically free and growing society, artists have many more choices and options in the selling of their work than a patronage system could possibly offer. A society of free trade is full of difficulties, but on balance it appears to be the best alternative.

Though artists face the same advantages and disadvantages of any trader in a commercial society, there is one aspect of that society that artists tend to find particularly galling. We are haunted by the fact that value, economically, is determined by the market—that there is no inherent order of values that ordains that the expending of certain effort, or even the production of a great work of art, will be commensurately rewarded by appreciation or financial success. Since artists tend to regard their work as an inherently valuable pursuit, and their products as of more inherent value than, say, toasters, it seems unjust that an artist should starve while a toaster king munches caviar. The issue of how value is determined in economic interactions and the conflicts inherent in a society in which people are free to be governed by radically different systems of values creates considerable pain and confusion.

There is also the fact that the antipathy between the artist and commercial society runs both ways. The artist generally regards the business figure as uncreative and devoid of spiritual or aesthetic values. And very often, the businessperson similarly regards the artist as a self-indulgent dilettante, unproductive of anything practical or useful. The source of this view is in part in the Scottish Common Sense philosophy that was associated, particularly in this country, with the rise of capitalism. The "ideal realm" so treasured by the artist as superior to material pursuits has long been scorned by practical people devoted to material pursuits, to which they attribute the superiority of being real.

Finally, it is generally unrecognized by the artist that, despite the demonstrable value of art in human life, in fact art is a marginal endeavor. The pursuit of art is only possible when there is already food on the table. The existence of a market for art depends on the creation of wealth above and beyond what is needed for a modest existence. It would seem to follow that artists would appreciate the economic motivations of moneymakers. But the connection between an economically flourishing society and the enhanced support of artistic endeavor is little understood.

All of this makes understandable the dominant artistic antipathy to economic motivation. Yet the results are lamentable. While economic activity is central to human life, art fails to plumb the depths of that activity. People, through art, see how moneymaking can be done wrongly, but they are not led to explore the qualities of character required of the good businessperson. In an important area, art leaves us without a picture of what life should be like, what human beings can be.

What is required is that all of our culture, including our artists, learn the facts of economic life and the principles that govern human economic behavior. Art, after all, is a material activity. And in the days when writers require not only paper and ink, not even only correcting typewriters but also word processing computers—when they live through billion-dollar publishing and entertainment industries and themselves support an army of agents at 10 percent—they need to take a deeper look at the economic system in which they exist and at the dramatic possibilities for art in a society in which economic achievement has made so many other achievements possible.

Cheri Adrian is a lapsed literary scholar who has fled academe for the greater glamor of Hollywood, where she makes her living as a screenwriter. This article is adapted from her presentation at a recent conference on economics and values cosponsored by the Reason Foundation.