Thursday, March 19, 2015

In the absence of leisure, where is art?

In the second installment of its series on the shrinking middle class (The Devalued American Worker, December 15, 2014), the Washington Post tells the story of Ed Green of Winston-Salem, NC, who works more than 12 hours a day, 60 hours a week, to make ends meet and so that his kids might go to college.

I have met many people like Green in recent months, particularly young people who are working multiple jobs to pay off student loan debt or to eventually, or slowly, go to college. For example, a cashier at a big box hardware store last summer apologized for her slowness, telling me that me that she had been on her feet for eight hours already and she still had another job to go to. She looked to be 18 or 19, and said that she was working three jobs in order to afford college. Even then, she said she only had time and money to take one class at a time and didn't know when she was going to finish her degree.

What does this have to do with "writing and creativity"—the stated intent of this blog?

Without at least some leisure, people are less likely to engage in creative activities or to enjoy the arts. That should concern any writer at this point—the potential audience is shrinking.

Perhaps working class folks have never really been big subscribers of The New Yorker or the symphony, but the chance of that becomes less likely if their free time is only used for sleep. And why would they spend their money on magazines or concerts if any remaining salary can be targeted for their children's tuition?

Why do I care? I was one of the poorest students at the California colleges I went to, there with the help of VA and SS benefits, in addition to summer jobs and a small amount of financial aid. I didn't go skiing or to arena rock concerts or on European adventures, as other students did. Yet I still had time (and money) to go to poetry readings, art museums, and concerts in small venues and to take long bike rides and walks along the beach. I would never have thought that I was privileged by doing any of these things, nor did I feel any guilt at having free time while carrying a full load of classes.

A student rushing to class from work and back to work again is less likely to enjoy the cultural activities offered by her university, or even to go to the library. I am sad if such moments are going to be a luxury except for the rich.

I once went to hear Robert Duncan read his poetry at UC-Santa Cruz. It was a warm enough night, so afterwards my companion and I walked the long path down to the bottom of campus, through the redwoods and the bay laurel trees, past the organic farm. We weren't rushing home to get on to the next thing, but just enjoyed the moment, walking to the rhythm of the poetry we had just heard and savored.

Without those moments of savoring, what chance is there for art?

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