Leisure and Privilege

As Apple prepares to release the iWatch, which promises to blend aspects of conspicuous glamour-tech consumption and the metrics of the “quantified self” movement in daring new ways (I don’t know all the details, but it will make it possible to track things like steps and heart rate continuously and fashionably for the first time…), I have heard more discussion than usual lately about the virtues of slowness, such as this lifestyle piece in NPR’s On Being.

And of course this issue has been near to my heart for a long time… but the question always arises, whether with art or with slow food: isn’t slowness really a privilege, only available to those with sufficient resources to, you know, take a break? It’s all fine and good for an art student or a corporate spouse, but aren’t there whole swathes of the population who don’t have the luxury of slowing down, taking their time, who must be productive from dawn to dusk just to survive?

This often serves to short circuit the conversation, in my own mind at least – it is definitely true that my circumstances give me the opportunity to appreciate slowness in a way that is not available to some people. Anecdotally, I have heard the stories of single mothers working three jobs and sleeping only a few hours a night in order to provide food and shelter for their children.

And, of course, it’s par for the course in the art world to brag about how busy you are all the time. Being busy means being productive and being in demand – a lot of people want me to make a lot of art, so I must be successful, so I must be good, right? A slightly different version of this is the martyrdom of day job + making art = too busy. I care so much about this work that I’m willing to sacrifice my own well-being to do it. A convenient vantage point from which to look down upon the more affluent, comfortable, and lazy.

But Leisure and Free Time are two different things – Leisure is an activity (perhaps counterintuitively) – it’s what you do, how you “spend” your “free” time. I would call golf an example of leisure, and taking a walk an example of free time. Golf is supposed to be pleasant and relaxing, but it’s still very structured, accessorized, expensive. A walk is, thankfully, free and unstructured. When I walk around my neighborhood, nobody earns a dime.

In the post-WWII consumer economy, the free time of prosperous workers, coupled with disposable income, represented a vast resource to be exploited, like an untapped oil well or a virgin forest. Why leave it sitting there undisturbed when, with the right tools, it can be acquired, monetized, converted into liquid capital? Just as it takes chainsaws to turn a forest into lumber, I suppose it takes more abstract tools to turn free time into leisure – primarily advertising, persuasion, manipulation. Why take a (dumb) walk when you could be (fancy) golfing?

If you think of art making as a leisure activity – structured, accessorized, expensive – then yes, having the time and resources to make art is an activity only accessible to the privileged.

But I think art can also be an unstructured use of free time, like writing in a journal or staring out a window. I have an artist friend who creates massive drawings in graphite, roughly five feet by three feet. The cost of materials is negligible – the paper is maybe 50 bucks and a bunch of pencils is another 10 – but each drawing takes hundreds of hours. When he talks with gallery owners they invariably say that he needs to churn out a lot more of these drawings to actually make a career of it. If he’s serious, he should be busier.

Perhaps it’s a privilege to have any free time at all, and to choose to use that time to make art. Certainly there are people who don’t have a choice about being busy – due to their circumstances in life, debt levels, responsibilities to family, and I suppose temperament.

But when free time arises, whether it’s a holiday break from work or 90 seconds waiting at a stoplight, we do all have choice about how we behave. We can daydream, we can look around, we can worry about the future, we can plan a project – and of course, we can look at our iWatch and see how many steps we’ve taken today.

Nobody can take those moments of choice away – except perhaps a fussy baby in the backseat – but we are certainly susceptible to persuasion about how we choose to use them. Since there aren’t a lot of untapped oil wells and virgin forests left, there is a lot of competition for our remaining free time. Our attention may seem cheap – 99 cents for an iPhone app seems like a bargain – but it’s only as cheap as we’re willing to sell it.

Even if we find that we can only earn ten bucks an hour to pay the rent and utilities, we do get to determine the value of every minute beyond what we need to sell to survive. Our time, and our art, can be truly priceless – but only if we’re not willing to leave its valuation up to market forces, which are inevitably always going to try to push it ever-downward, in order to extract it from us cheaply as possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *