Maria Popova recently assembled the thoughts of many luminaries on Brain Pickings, In Defense of Boredom.
Years before the internet, video games, cell phones and the like, people were already thinking about the value of boredom in shaping us as individuals.
Popova’s opening thoughts probably won’t be news to anyone.
Today, amid our cult of productivity, we’ve come to see boredom as utterly inexcusable — the secular equivalent of a mortal sin. We run from it as if to be caught in our own unproductive company were a profound personal failure. We are no longer able, let alone willing, to do nothing all alone with ourselves.
She quotes philosopher Bertrand Russell:
We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.
Perhaps most applicable to the arts are the words of Susan Sontag:
People say “it’s boring” — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us.
But most of the interesting art of our time is boring. Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.
Maybe art has to be boring, now. (Which obviously doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good — obviously.)
We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least, not high art.
Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye— but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented). Possibly after repetition of the same single phrase or level of language or image for a long while — in a given written text or piece of music or film, if we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).
Sontag’s thoughts bring up a whole host of questions. Some are familiar like whether it is appropriate to have the expectation of art to be entertaining. The concept of being in the wrong mode or modes of attention is new to me. I have certainly been to performances and encountered works of visual art where I understood it was less about the meaning than the general sensory experience.
But I don’t recall consciously deciding I needed to make that shift. It leave me wondering if I should have asked myself if I was operating in the wrong mode when I was bored. I also wonder how you educate audiences about making this shift without sounding superior and condescending. (i.e. The reason you didn’t like it is because you didn’t realized you weren’t supposed to search for meaning and understanding, you were supposed to focus on the holistic sonic and visual experience.)
Writer and filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky echoed a sentiment made by Bertrand Russell about the need to learn to handle boredom. His last sentence is definitely worth some consideration.
I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to be spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.
This idea that it is important for children to learn to navigate boredom appears again in the words of psychoanalyst Adam Phillips who like Russell and Tarkovsky characterizes it as a crucial milestone in personal development.
How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him — as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.
I call attention to all this because one of the central challenges the arts face is this innate, growing fear that boredom means something is wrong with your life. Since this issue has been commented on for 200 years, to some extent this fear is a natural part of being human. The problem is that since stimulation comes at an ever increasing rate, the interval after which a person decides they are bored becomes increasingly shorter.
Since parents and general socialization continue to reinforce this concept of boredom, there is likely little the relatively “slow” format arts and culture organizations can do to combat it other than repeating a mantra of “it is okay to be bored.”
I am sure he is amused that I keep bringing this up, but I think one of the most effective efforts in Drew McManus’ “Take A Friend to the Orchestra” campaign was when he took a guy to a concert at Carnegie Hall and told him it was okay to get bored and Drew admitted that even he gets bored at concerts.
Introducing the possibility that parts of an experience might be boring by giving someone permission to be bored might bias them against the experience from the outset. It is highly likely they were already afraid they might be bored anyway, (along with every opportunity in life that presents itself, it ain’t just you), so being given license to dislike some aspects might be a relief.