Gotham Diary:
Approach to Leisure
26 December 2013

The other day, I began thinking about leisure. Not for the first time: back in college, I spent a lot of time with Josef Pieper’s then-important book, Leisure: the Basis of Culture. I’ve got a copy somewhere, but I haven’t dealt with that part of the library yet, and even if I could find it I should have to re-read it to say anything more than what I can say off the top of my head, which is that Pieper rooted everything that’s valuable about culture in leisure, specifically and originally the leisure of monks. His book — an impassioned pamphlet, really — was motivated by the horror of what he could already see, a “popular culture” that was not rooted in leisure.

What is leisure? Short answer: time to think. That may sound too “leisurely.” Thinking — the act of arranging thoughts — requires leisure.

More important: leisure is not the opposite of “work.”

Leisure is a concept that comes down to us from classical antiquity, during which slave labor enabled property owners to cultivate their minds instead of their fields. The OED reminds us that the origin of the word is akin to that of “license” — the man of leisure has permission to use his time as he sees fit, without regard to material necessity. The dictionary also suggests that to do something at one’s leisure is to do it with deliberation. A happy quotation from Dr Johnson (1780) makes a very important distinction:

I am not grown, I am afraid, less idle; and of idleness I am now paying the fine by having no leisure.

Some people — writers and professors as well as artists come to mind — are able to devote their professional lives to the pursuit of leisure because their cultivation produces marketable goods. This is not to suggest that there is anything leisurely about what professionals do. But the skill with which they do it is the fruit of leisure. To grasp the implications of anything as fully as possible, it is necessary, if only for a time, to cut free of particular objectives and agendas.

I am going to assume that some people are wired to resist the idea of leisure, to regard it as little more than an occasion of goofing off. I am not going to attempt to persuade them otherwise. Instead, I address this to people who understand the importance of vacations, breaks, intermissions, even distractions. For many such people, the refreshment of leisure occurs unconsciously. I vividly remember coming back to class at the beginning of a fall semester and immediately grasping the function of the subjunctive in French, a language to which I hadn’t given a thought all summer. Similarly, as an old man, I’ve had to learn that to recapture an elusive memory (usually the name of something), it’s essential to think about something else; for a reason that we don’t yet understand, memory is often frustrated by consciousness. I don’t intend to explain these foibles of the mind (I’ve just said that they can’t be explained — not yet), but if they are familiar to you, if you have accepted the current situation, one in which our minds, if only because we really don’t know how they work, or why they work in different ways for different people, are notably inefficient, then what I have to say about leisure might be of interest.


The other day, I mentioned an essay by Boris Groys about Clement Greenberg. (It appears in The Books That Shaped Art History.) I want to begin this discussion of leisure by quoting a chunky passage from it. The bit of Greenberg at the end comes from “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Greenberg’s seminal essay of 1939.

Greenberg does not expect from the start that the half-educated masses could be consumers of avant-garde artistic revolutions. Rather, he finds it reasonable to expect that the cultivated bourgeoisie will support the new art. However, the historical reality of the 1930s brings Greenberg to the conclusion that the bourgeoisie is no longer able to fulfil the role of the economic and political supporter of high art. Time and again he states that the secured domination of high art can only be guaranteed by the secured domination of the ruling class. At the moment at which a ruling class begins to feel itself insecure, weakened and endangered by the rising power of the masses, the first thing that it sacrifices to these masses is art. To keep its real political and economic power the ruling class tries to erase any distinction of taste and to create an illusion of aesthetic solidarity with the masses — a solidarity that conceals real power structures and economic inequalities: ‘the encouragement of kitsch is merely another of the inexpensive ways in which the totalitarian regimes seek to ingratiate themselves with their subjects (p 19).

As a Trotskyite (as he then was), Greenberg understandably talks as though immutable social laws were at work here, but we can overlook these mechanical pretensions and agree that Greenberg (through Groys) is describing what really did happen between the wars. The ruling classes of the West, anxious to avoid further revolutions from below, cast off a great deal of pomp and circumstance. Fine art, with its Western origins in royal and aristocratic courts, was disparaged for the ostentation that had been an important component of its original appeal. Modern art — that of the avant-garde — was taken up by some members of the elite because it didn’t look anything like the art that adorned the old palaces (and new museums). But it was ignored, along with the rest of art, together with the cultivation required to appreciate it, by most elites. The culmination of today’s illusion of aesthetic solidarity has nothing to do with art at all; it is the skybox.

Greenberg believes, namely, that the connoisseurship that makes the spectator attentive to the purely formal, technical, material aspects of the work of art is accessibly only to those who ‘could command leisure and comfort that always goes hand in hand with cultivation of some sort’ (p 9). For Greenberg this means that avant-garde art can hope to get its financial and social support only from the same ‘rich and cultivated’ people who historically supported traditional art. Thus the avant-garde remains attached to the bourgeois ruling class ‘by an umbilical cord of gold’ (p 8).

But, as Greenberg goes on to argue, that “umbilical cord” has been cut by anxious elites. Greenberg and Groys believe that the health of the art world depends on the support of a ruling class, and perhaps it used to do so. Looking forward, however, I believe that the health of tomorrow’s ruling class — ideally comprising everyone — will depend on fine art, and on many other things in life that require thought. Ultimately, it will depend on the “cultivation of some sort” that can be produced only by leisure — leisure seen not as “free time” but as a skilled activity that requires training and exercise.

What distinguishes leisure from work isn’t effort. The man of leisure may be just as industrious as the man who works the fields, but his industry, unlike the farmer’s, is personally refreshing. It wouldn’t be cultivation if it weren’t.