Art at the Crossroads, Part One

Art at the Crossroads, Part One June 22, 2012

Have leisure and know that I am God. —Psalm 65:11


For a long time now I have tried to argue that the maintenance of my various social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.) should be considered work. After all, maintaining a social media presence—a phrase that makes the bile rise in my throat—is an easy and free way artists can gain a wide readership/viewership for their work.

But aside from the ill feeling I get after spending a whole morning liking, sharing, blogging, and re-blogging, I also feel a strange sense of disconnectedness from the work itself—the actual art that I’m making; in my case a book manuscript of a couple hundred pages.

I think the way I feel is what Marx calls alienation and estrangement from labor. Because my job is to be the producer, the marketing department, and salesman of the work, my time and attention are constantly divided. I would even go so far as to say my very habitus seems divided by the shifting of aesthetic gears it takes in order to be able to make my work sound relevant and interesting to others.

Josef Pieper in his important work Leisure—The Basis of Culture moves past the alienation and estrangement and worries that the laborer is increasingly “fettered to one’s work,” which leads to a kind of “inner impoverishment,” a spiritual poverty.

“His life has shrunk inwardly, and contracted, with the result that he can no longer act significantly outside his work, and perhaps can no longer even conceive of such a thing.”

I know this might sound melodramatic—I mean it’s just posting to Facebook, not working in a textile factory—but anyone who makes art for a living these days finds himself at this crossroads.

Art is my livelihood, the business by which I earn money, but it is also where I draw much spiritual sustenance and promoting it on the same platform that specializes in cute pet photos and political tirades seems to cheapen it. I just can’t help it. I grew up in the late 1980s and early ‘90s when the deep-seated fear for artists was not going hungry but selling-out.

And so for years I believed that becoming an artist would magically resolve any conflict between the two, but as I’ve gotten older and taken on more financial responsibilities, the tension has increased. I now tell my wife on a regular basis: “I’m ready to sell-out.”

To reconcile this tension I feel that I have to work harder, put in longer hours. In order to make up for the time I spend updating my Tumblr or Facebook page, I have to stay longer in the office writing. Either that, or after a long day of writing—which, given the amount of administrative work I have, rarely happens—I find myself standing at the kitchen counter minutes after arriving home trying to keep up the appearance (on social media, at least) that I am an interesting and productive writer.

This drives my wife crazy. She calls it an illness. She wonders aloud when I’m going to take a break. “When is it going to be summer?” she says. My reply is always that this, too, is part of being a writer these days.

But is it necessary? Is it actually a productive use of my time? I keep thinking to myself that if I could drop the social media aspect of my job I would have more leisure time; time to chill, as I might have said in high school.

Josef Pieper theorized that it is through entering into the sphere of leisure that we can begin to see rightly. Leisure “presupposes silence, a contemplative attention to things, in which man begins to see how worthy of veneration they are.”

In his definition, leisure is not meant as a restorative so that one has more energy for work, or so that one can perform faultlessly, but so that one has the time to contemplate and, as Pieper says:

Grasp the world as a whole and realize his full potentialities as an entity meant to reach wholeness…. The power to know leisure is the power to overstep the boundaries of the workaday world and reach out to super-human life-giving existential forces that refresh and renew us before we turn back to our daily work. Only in genuine leisure does the “gate to freedom” open.

One can escape the anxiety-inducing binary of work and unemployment, where, he writes, “work and unemployment are the two inescapable poles of existence.”

As I said before, in the beginning of my career, being an artist seemed to me a way out of that binary. I believed as Pieper does that the work of artists somehow “overstep the boundaries of the workaday.”

I want to believe this. I want very badly to not feel divided, to not feel that I am constantly at this crossroads, but to do that I need to find a way to treat art making more like work and less like some sort of shamanistic calling. To think of it this way is to make it precious: a rarified act that requires incense, green tea, ambient music, and meditation, rather than the sweat equity earned by putting your butt in the chair, turning off the Wi-Fi, and not getting up until you have a draft.

—Continued on Monday

David Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull). He teaches creative writing at Sweet Briar College in Virginia where he lives with his wife Jessica Mesman Griffith and children, Charlotte and Alexander. His essays and reviews have appeared in Image, Utne Reader, The Normal School and online He blogs at Pyramid Scheme.

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  • I know we’ll hear more on Monday, Dave, but meanwhile I’m sure you’re enjoying the irony that this post has been tweeted, shared, +1’d, etc.

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    Well I’m here tonight so here’s my two bits ;

    1) The more ‘ connected ‘ you think you are ….. the more disconnected you actually become , both from family , friends and ….. your work
    2) Time spent connected would of been better used writing thinking or daydreaming ( the essential ingredient of the creative mind )
    3) Want to appear relevant ? Create more and better material
    4) Selling out does not necessarily mean ‘ Selling Out ‘ . Letting the marketers do the marketing etc is just good business . Let the art be art and your business be business and ….. you’re simply an astute and wise artist making best use of your talents time etc
    5) When it comes to the % taken by managers etc remember this . 100% of nothing is …..0 . Whereas 70% of $200,000 is quite a hunk of change ( assuming the pros will do it better)

    I’ll see what else appears Monday and add to this with a reading list recommend etc depending on others responses

  • Terry

    Dave, are you familiar with an essay (or maybe it’s a book chapter) by Dorothy Sayers titled “Why Work?” It speaks to the topic you’re raising.

    • I’m not familiar with that essay, though I love Sayers. Thanks for the tip!

      • Terry

        Others will know the essay better, but there are a couple of ideas I remember that relate to your discussion. First, Sayers doesn’t have the same view of leisure as Peiper. I think she sees good work, done well as restorative, not depleting or compromising. Second, she sees a lack of opportunities for or value placed on good work, done well. Sayers was focused on what she saw (in post World War II Britain, I believe) as the manufacture of cheap, useless products and the experience of those involved in such work. There’s a parallel, I think, to your sense that participation in social media is a distraction from and depletion of the good work you do. I have no solution or advice, but I do believe that there’s good work to be done there as well and you’re probably doing it.

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    First , the recommended book list ;

    1) ” Art & Fear ” ;Bayles &Orland – One of the best and most down to Earth books on creativity etc
    2) ” Free Play ” ; Nachmanovitch – With a caveat as I have a Love/Hate relationship with this book . On one hand a good 30% of it is IMO New Age PsychoBabble , but on the other it contains some of the deepest insights to creativity , what blocks it etc . So If you’re of a discerning mind read it . Its insights as to self judgement etc are fantastic .
    3) ” Imagine ‘ ; Lehrer – Another with a caveat and again at least 40% of the book is filled with NewAge/Psychobabble as well as some very pretentious conclusions on behalf of the author but worth the read
    4) ” Against the Machine ” ; Siegel – This along with ” Silicon Snake Oil ‘ is probably one of the best and most balanced critiques of the whole ‘ Connected ‘ zeitgeist
    5) ” Vocation ” ; Schuurman – This is a Christian viewpoint on work , leisure , vocation/avocation . A must read IMHO
    6) ” Luther on Vocation ” ; Wingren – Hard as Hens Teeth to track down . Well worth the effort if you can

    Lastly let me just add ; A ) Many many many Artists Authors Musicians of all generations are choosing to ‘ Opt Out ‘ of being connected to be more productive in their profession . A young ( to me ) composer I know who’s spoken out many times against being ‘ connected ‘ recently tried it and paid a heavy price in his work/health etc . As for me I’m about as unconnected as one can get in this day and age ( ask Chad ) B) Dorothy Sayers essay has more to do with being in a Time of War when expediency is of the utmost , but speaks little to the creative process . Having said that I am a firm believer of daily work , be it creative , involving oneself in a related project or simply honing ones chops ( musicians speak ) The best antidote for Writers Block I’ve found is to keep the technique up , refine old material and keep whats done fresh

    • Terry

      Not to convince you otherwise, but for the sake of those not familiar with the piece (easy to track down on Google), I suggest that there’s plenty that applies outside of a Time of War and to all work including that of an artist. Sayers urges that we look at work “as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.”

  • I am at the same place but from maybe the opposite end — too much treating writing like a job, to the point there is no joy, only obligation to contracts, deadlines, readers, etc. (and yes, marketing, social nerworks, and the like). I need more of the old ritual and magic, the mystery and inspiration, and less of the teeth-gritting butt in chair. I think what we want overall is somewhere between, some balance of engagement and wonder with productivity and a paycheck…