In Praise of Boredom
A lecture at the “Idle Hours” exhibition
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 5 February 2010
I am grateful to the National Portrait Gallery for inviting me to give this talk and particularly to
Sarah Engledow for curating this subtle and arresting exhibition.
It occurred to me too late that with my choice of title, “In praise of boredom”, I’m on a hiding to
nothing. If you leave bored you’ll ask your companion “What’s to praise?”; if you are
entertained you will accuse me of hypocrisy.
Here in Canberra—where long working hours are obligatory, where dutiful public servants are
dragged from their beds by self-important ministers, where the Prime Minister’s office has more
burn-outs than Summer Nats—an exhibition that celebrates idleness is surely subversive.
Perhaps it would not have been subversive 30 or 40 years ago when there was some substance to
the national self-image of laid-back sociability. But in a society now characterised by overwork,
over-consumption and American competitiveness, that self-image has become a myth, one we
cling to more firmly because of its emptiness.
Idleness in all manifestations has come under sustained attack from economists, business
commentators and governments in the thrall of the cult of productivity. Only recently we have
had another round of scare-mongering about the aging of the population. By conjuring images of
a society buckling under the weight of a bloated cohort of infirm octogenarians, any dreams we
may have of idleness, well-earned or otherwise, are swept away. Even retirement is being loaded
up with guilt.
Mr Rudd and Mr Swan, like their predecessors, believe their job is to crack the whip to get us to
work longer and harder. When they play around with the tax, welfare and superannuation
systems it is always with an eye to discouraging idleness.
A few years ago, Treasurer Costello brought down a budget that cut the top tax rate, explaining
that giving extra money to the rich would encourage them to work more, while simultaneously
reducing social security, explaining that taking money away from the poor would make them
So idling is the enemy of economic rationalism. There is an entire derogatory vocabulary for it—
slacking, sponging, shirking, skiving, loafing, bumming, and a dozen more. A few years ago I
wrote a paper about the phenomenon of downshifting, whereby people decided to earn less and
spend less in order to have a more fulfilling life. I soon received a letter from one of Australia’s
most prominent free market economists, chiding me for glorifying bludgers. If naming this
exhibition had been left to her it would be called “Hours of Bludging”.
These attitudes are recent to our history. Not so long ago, the foremost indicator of social
progress was the century-long decline in working hours; the 45-hour week and the 40-hour week
were welcomed as giant leaps forward. In the 1970s no-one doubted that the trend would
continue and we saw a proliferation of books and magazine articles speculating on how we
would occupy our leisure time when we had to work only 20 or 25 hours a week, a nirvana
expected around about now.
John Maynard Keynes had offered an answer in the 1930s. In an essay titled “Economic
Possibilities for our Grandchildren” he foresaw a society with incomes several-fold higher, a
level of wealth that characterises Australia today, a society in which
… for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent
problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy [his]
leisure … to live wisely and agreeably and well.
With so much prosperity and leisure at our disposal, Keynes believed we would be free to
nurture what he called the “art of life”, the practice of which would create a more cultivated
Were he alive today, Keynes would be dismayed to see that we have rejected the opportunities
that flow from our freedom from economic cares. Instead of being liberated from material concerns we fetishise growth and obsess over money more than ever, and none more so than the
The great historical trend of declining working hours stopped in the 1980s and turned around. It
was not caused solely by employers using labour market deregulation to extract more hours from
reluctant workers. For many, even most, long hours were the price willingly paid to meet their
aspirations, the desire for that hard-to-define thing the real estate agents call “lifestyle”.
This exhibition, “Idle Hours”, thumbs its nose at official expectations. It celebrates the pensive,
the dreamy, the solitary; its mood is not one of action, usefulness and striving but of stillness,
reverie and inwardness. In today’s productivist society such an exhibition is un-Australian—in
fact, it’s un-Australian to the point of genius.
Perhaps the explanation of the modern work obsession runs deeper. I sometimes wonder whether
the willingness to work longer hours has been driven not only by the dream of bigger houses and
more consumer goods but also by a fear of the very freedom that Keynes believed humans would
relish. Did shorter hours threaten to give us a form of freedom we could not cope with, the
freedom to turn from the outside world to the inner one, to come face to face with who we are?
Isn’t such a fear behind the unremitting search for new forms of stimulation, for novel
entertainments, a need the market has rushed to satisfy with amusements too numerous to list.
silence, repose, solitary, contented and at peace. I particular like the observation that all of the
subjects are “taking a break from self-consciousness, angst, performance and restlessness”.
In their lack of engagement with the external world, the sitters in these works have taken
possession of their attention and are doing nothing much with it. It seems like an ordinary act but
it’s one that is more and more contested, because when we are engaged in contemplation, daydreaming
or self-reflection, our attention is not available for others who want to profit from it.
For some years, the advertisers and marketers have understood that crafting persuasive messages
is pointless unless they can first capture our attention. We’ve reached the point where human
attention has become a scarce commodity. Building on this fact, a new sub-discipline has emerged known as “attention economics”. Attention is scarce because the amount we can give is
limited. When we visit a teeming Asian city, merely attending to the street scenes is exhausting.
Instead of allowing us naturally to divide our time between activities that require attention and
those that allow us to drift, outside forces hungry for our attention devise ways of seizing more
of it, leaving less for our own purposes.
Every day, truckloads of money are spent trying to secure our attention using devices such as
billboards, junk mail, spam, product placement, logo-festooned sporting events, and commercial
announcements over the PA in supermarkets. The last I find especially irritating. There we are in
surroundings completely saturated with visual messages, but it’s still not enough. They must
assail another of our senses.
So there is an unspoken war going on, in which we must resist with ever more resolve the
relentless campaign to arrest our attention. New modes of communication keep appearing to
prevent us from defending ourselves by sand-bagging our attention. The most absurd must be
Twitter, which spreads like a virus for one reason only; our waning capacity to be alone with
ourselves. Our brains have been rewired so we crave external stimulation to avoid succumbing to
The art world has not been immune to these trends. Pop art panders to the modern commitment
to superficiality; after all, isn’t a work by Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin no more than cheap
attention-getting? Warhol himself declared there is nothing beneath the surface of his works, so
everything they have to say must strike us in the first instant. When Marcel Duchamp submitted
a urinal to an exhibition in 1917 it was intended as a parody. But the art world he set out to
ridicule came to lionise those of Duchamp’s successors who didn’t get the joke. The object of
derision appropriated the derider, just as in more recent times Ali G and Dame Edna have been
embraced by those they set out to ridicule.
parent, the child’s cry of “I’m bored” is experienced as a rebuke, avoided only by making
available endless entertainments. So they put televisions sets in their bedrooms—which surely should be regarded as a form of child abuse—and even in their cars. I saw a mother, father and
two children dining at a restaurant. Both kids were absorbed in their video screens. I wanted to
ask the adults why they have children if they have nothing to say to them over dinner.
Apart from conversing at the dinner table, one of the kindest acts of parents is allow their
children to be bored for extended periods. For only when they are freed of artificial distractions
do children have the opportunity to develop inner modes of stimulation, including day-dreaming.
In a world of electronic amusements, what does it mean to deprive a generation of the
opportunity to fantasise? In the 1950s psychologists warned parents that children who day-dream
risk becoming trapped in a fantasy world and losing touch with reality. Today, parents have the
electronic tools to prevent their children from living in their own fantasy world; instead, they live
in the packaged and moulded fantasy world created by American film and television producers.
So let us concur with the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who wrote: “… whoever at
an early age is on friendly or even affectionate terms with solitude, has gained a gold-mine”. In
an assertion that would bewilder today’s child, or indeed today’s parent, he contended that “a
principal study for youth should be learning how to put up with loneliness, since it is a source of
happiness and peace of mind”.
I am told there are any number of yachts sitting off the coast of Perth occupied by multimillionaires
who, having achieved their dream of early retirement, are slowly disintegrating
psychologically. If only their parents had taught them the pleasures of solitude.
I think that, at heart, the fear of solitude and boredom, and the need for constant distraction, is a
fear of just being. We are terrified that if we strip away everything to reveal the essence we will
find there is nothing there. So the conundrum of being is everywhere resolved by more frenetic
pursuit of solitude, a mission that, although at times seemingly accomplished, must be neverending.
It’s the age-old dilemma; one must come down from the mountain to live as a householder, because we are obliged to give back. As the Zen proverb has it: “Before
enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
Yet the introvert’s heart always yearns for the mountain top. Even after enlightenment, chopping
wood and carrying water can be trial when it must be done in company. Schopenhauer believed
that, for the man of intellectual disposition, solitude confers a two-fold advantage, “first that of
being by himself and secondly that of not being with others.” Lord Byron, in an early poem titled
“Hours of Idleness”, expressed the benefits of not being with others by posing four rhetorical
Yet why should I mingle in Fashion’s full herd?
Why crouch to her leaders, or cringe to her rules?
Why bend to the proud, or applaud the absurd?
Why search for delight in the friendship of fools?
Perhaps not many of the sitters in this exhibition’s paintings were reflecting on fashion’s full
herd and the friendship of fools, but I’ll wager some of the artists were.
Even so, “Idle Hours” is more concerned with the first advantage of solitude mentioned by
Schopenhauer, that of being alone. In the 1850s, Schopenhauer, then living in Frankfurt, wrote a
delightful short essay titled “On Din and Noise”. Confessing that “knocking, hammering, and
banging has been through my life a daily torment”, he went on to observe that some seem
impervious to the effects of noise. Of them he wrote:
… they are the very people who are also not sensitive to arguments, ideas, poetry, and
works of art, in short, to mental impressions of every kind; for this is due to the toughness
and solid texture of their brain substance.
When the doof-doof music from a passing hoon causes the air to tremble, who here has not had
that very thought? Schopenhauer was especially vexed by the needless cracking of whips by
those driving animals beneath his window, suggesting that “a fellow who rides through the
narrow streets of a populous town … and keeps on cracking with all his might a whip several
yards long, deserves to be taken down at once and given five really good cuts with a stick”.
Amen to that. The whip-crackers of today are those who bellow into their mobile phones in
public places. I’d like to see Schopenhauer’s stick taken to them.
The life of social animals requires an awkward compromise. Schopenhauer illustrates the point
with a parable.
One cold winter’s day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order
through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt
the effects of their quills on each other, which made them again move apart.
They repeated this process until they settled on the optimal distance. Wrote Schopenhauer:
Thus the need for society which springs from the emptiness and monotony of men’s
lives, drives them together; but their many unpleasant and repulsive qualities and
insufferable drawbacks once more drive them apart.
Some humans find the repulsive qualities of their species too much, and isolate themselves. It is
true that withdrawal can go too far. Those who exclude themselves wholly from society are
known in Japan as hikikomori. Characterised by extreme seclusion and confinement, the
syndrome is said to be rife among young men from middle-class families who refuse to leave the
house or even the bedroom. Some interpret it as a state of acute anomie in response to the
overwhelming intensity and pressure of social expectations in modern Japan. The bureaucrats
from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare have felt the need to provide a definition of
hikikomori, viz. those “who refuse to leave the house and isolate themselves from society in their
homes for a period exceeding six months”.
of solitude and resignation that is characteristic of Edward Hopper’s works, although, as Sarah
remarked to me, these Australian scenes don’t radiate the same melancholy. Hopper’s wife, Jo,
once remarked: “Sometimes talking to Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well, except that it
doesn’t thump when it hits bottom.” And that’s the thing about humans—our activities may be
empty but our being is fathomless.
In a society like ours that celebrates the superficial—where, as Schopenhauer wrote, “we have
little more than a choice between solitude and vulgarity”—it comes as a relief to be reminded of
the fathomless depths of the human being. And for me, that is what this exhibition does. “Idle
Hours” is about stillness and repose, but at bottom it is about the depths of being.
So as a meditation on tranquility and self-possession, “Idle Hours” reminds us that idleness is not
wasteful and unproductive, but is the way we nourish ourselves and recall who we are.
Parliament resumed this week, with its manufactured tumult spilling into the government offices
around us. Yet here in the National Portrait Gallery, in sight of the Parliament and the
departments of state, we find an oasis of stillness, a refuge for reflection, and even a haven for
sanity. We should be grateful to the Gallery and the curatorial staff for creating such a place for