If Art and Leisure are for College Kids, Elites, and Academia, How Will Culture Endure?
“This is one of the worst symptoms of our disease: that we have made Art the province of a specially cultured few and have made the common workman responsible only for doing and not all for making.”
– Jacques Maritain
I was researching and writing a few articles about the vital importance of art and leisure, with the intention of publishing them here on Humane Pursuits, when suddenly I stopped.
I had come across Liz Horst’s pointed article, “How to Live in a World in Which the Good Life is Never Really Possible.”
If you haven’t read it, do. She makes some good points, and her question about whether living the intellectual ideals is possible, raises another and bigger question.
Think about it.
How many young fathers and mothers, or anyone post-college and either working or looking for work, have the interest or the energy to read Josef Pieper, or Wendell Berry, or T.S. Eliot in their spare time? How many of your friends care to discuss and analyze movies on the weekends, or to gather around an Arthur Miller play for a reading night?
Or worse, how many of us think spending our time this way is irrelevant to parent-teacher meetings, suburban food shopping, and interview prep?
When your child is roaring from exhaustion, you can’t listen to a concerto by Mozart – there is a more important and more urgent need right there, whimpering against your knees.
And when, finally, we arrive home after a day at the office, or after a day of interviews and job hunting, or when we flop on the couch after tucking our babes in bed, what happens next?
It’s much easier to sink our free time into a “routine malaise” of re-runs, ESPN commentaries, social media, and “mindless” entertainment, than it is to build a cabinet, paint a canvas, or read poetry. But this is where the frog boils alive.
The Culture “War” is in Your Living Room
Liz ends her article on a hopeful note, reminding her readers that realizing the ideals through the mundane is actually possible, and more important than ever.
I would (humbly) like to sustain her note a few measures longer.
By pointing out that “culture-questioning blogs like Humane Pursuits and Front Porch Republic inflict great distress on people like me,” she recognizes that there is often a tangible gap between intellectual pursuits and real life, between the perspectives of college students and post-college worker ants.
And, again, from experience and observation, I, too, believe this gap exists.
It’s easy to discuss culture, art and politics when a grade depends on discussing them well.
It’s easy to discuss and criticize our media-saturated culture, observing it from a distance as though it were someone else’s house.
But the truth is, we are the culture, the art, and the politics, regardless of our roles or occupations.
Life will always be full. We may always feel exhausted, particularly during those early years of parenting. We may want nothing more than to mindlessly empathize with the drama kings and queens.
But the way we live now will influence the lives we encounter tomorrow, and tonight, and during lunch. If we allow exhaustion to dictate our habits and inform our leisure, we will always be tired, the cycle will only rinse the same load over and over again, and our minds will always remember those evenings of Kafka and wine like the freedoms we once cherished when we shouldered no burdens.
We will stagnate, and so will those who come after us.
It Only Takes Fifteen Minutes
I probably sound grandiose.
Josef Pieper, however, has a much heavier log to throw on this fire than I do.
In Only the Lover Sings, he writes, “We must understand that a total and final disintegration of the concept of ‘leisure’…will have a clear historical consequence; namely, the totalitarian work state.”
In his essay “Learning How to See Again,” he notes that “man’s ability to see is in decline.” Obviously, Pieper isn’t referring to some epidemic of optic atrophy, but to a greater degradation of the receptive and contemplative attitudes toward nature, art, and culture.
That was 60 years ago. You need only skim the cultural emphasis on mass entertainment and messaging to wonder whether most men and women still have the ability to see at all.
To those of us muddling through the “real world” (myself included): let’s give them back their eyes, beginning with a minimum 15 minutes of reading, crafting, leisure, and prayer that we practice ourselves on a daily, mundane basis. Let’s make the time and effort for leisure. Let’s make, rather than do, in whatever humble way we find possible, and which brings us to life.
To those of us who actively pursue the intellectual life: let’s not imagine that leisure requires a bachelor or master’s degree. Instead, in every conversation and analysis, we should ground our abstract thoughts in real life, and not allow some kind of gap between the two. Let’s share our intellectual interests, and the beauties and mysteries of art, with those we know and those who read our columns, in a way that not only intrigues the worker, but gifts them to him or her.
Beware the trap of “unwinding” in front of a screen.
Our own enrichment as persons, as well as the endurance of culture for future generations, depend on it.
Joseph is a featured Humane Pursuits columnist. He works as a marketer in West Chester, PA, and writes music, articles, and the occasional short story.