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 work more.
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 society.
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 rich.
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.
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 boredom.
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.
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 doing.
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 questions:
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”.
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 us.