The world's turmoil is down to boredom. Art can fight this
In a culture that swings between tedium and hysteria, art is a democratic necessity
Einstein: the length of time is relative when looking at art. If we become absorbed in a play or a piece of music, if we stand before a great painting, if we get lost in a book, we feel our sense of time shifting
In crazy political times, it is easy to think of art as a sideshow. But it matters – and not just for what it says. It matters for what it does and especially what it does to our sense of time.
In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, after the two tramps have concocted another bit of business to keep themselves going, Vladimir exclaims: “That passed the time.” The gloomier Estragon counters: “It would have passed in any case.”
“Yes,” rejoins Vladimir, “but not so rapidly.”
The exchange is typically laconic but it captures something about the nature of art. It passes the time – but it also changes our experience of time itself. Estragon is an old Newtonian – he imagines time as something outside human experience, an absolute that does its own thing regardless of our perceptions. Vladimir is an Einsteinian relativist: he knows that time can speed up or slow down depending on our point of view.
In a sense, art always told us that the world is as Einstein described it. If we become absorbed in a play or a piece of music, if we stand before a great painting, if we get lost in a book, we feel our sense of time shifting. Time can seem to speed up or stand still. A moment can be imbued with the sense of eternity. Conversely, with bad art – an awful play, for example – time can seem to slow down to an excruciating crawl. We all know the experience of checking our watches and being horrified that only five minutes have passed in what seemed like five hours. Even bad art plays tricks with time.
And there’s something about this that matters in a particular way in contemporary culture. It has to do with boredom. When it comes down to it, art exists to counteract boredom. Or perhaps we should say it exists to counteract our other reactions to boredom.
Humans are animals and like all animals we evolved to be able to meet our basic biological needs. But we evolved to have more psychic energy than we need for those basic purposes. So we get bored and boredom can be dangerous. It makes us do crazy things just to pierce the pall of tedium. Art exists to solve this problem, to give us a way of being still and calm and deeply fulfilled even when, ostensibly, we are doing nothing but listening to some words or some noises or watching some colours or movements.
Right now, boredom is a fundamental problem of western culture. There used to be a natural coupling: “Safe and boring.” We used it about jobs, about people, about societies. It implied a trade-off: dullness being compensated by security. But “safe and boring” doesn’t really make sense any more. Boredom is a source of deep insecurity.
Consider a question that looms for us all in this age of robotisation: is my job safe from automation? Nobody can be quite sure of the answer but a good rule of thumb is this: if your job is boring, it is not safe. The boring jobs are characterised by repetition, predictability, the adherence to obvious patterns. These are the very things that machines like best. So being bored at work is now a very good reason for economic anxiety – it is a portent of redundancy. If work makes you feel like a machine, a machine will take your work from you.
Consider, too, the political shocks that have shaken the western world. They have many different sources, of course, but one of them is boredom. The boredom of provincial towns where the shopping mall is the centre of life meets the boredom of technocratic consensual politics and the impact is explosive.
Brexit is far more exciting than the European Union. Trump is vastly more entertaining than Hillary Clinton, for the reasons that a pile-up on the motorway is much more thrilling than the monotonous flow of traffic. Burning witches is much more fun than hoeing the fields; hating immigrants is much more enlivening than fussing over the details of health policy.
Rigour and ecstasy
In a world where boredom is a source of economic anxiety and political disturbance, art is a necessity. Contemporary culture offers false choices: immense ennui or hyped-up hysteria; ecstatic highs followed by unbearable lows; mania or depression. Art doesn’t ask us to ride on this pendulum. Instead of a swinging between extremes, it offers the fusion of opposites. We can get lost in a work even while we concentrate all our attention on it. We can feel intensely ourselves even while we are entering someone else’s field of vision. We can experience rigour and ecstasy, great discipline and great freedom at the same moment. We can be simultaneously devastated and yet, somehow, fortified. We can even find that the things that usually make us bored – patterns, repetitions – are sources of delight and wonder.
Passing the time will be an ever greater problem for cultures in which more and more people do not have meaningful jobs yet do not have to struggle for the basics of existence either. In such cultures, the combination of boredom and anxiety will make for an increasingly lethal cocktail. The democratic necessity of art lies in its unique capacity to free us from the mere passage of time and to allow us the freedom to make it pass in different ways.