Leisure and Art: A Start

Below is an email I sent to a friend. Quickly, to bring up to speed: this friend had been engaged in a discussion with some friends about whether leisure is the basis of culture, and thus is, I imagine, a necessary prerequisite for art. My two cents certainly do not constitute a complete response, but I thought them worth sharing here. (N.B., the friend is a Reformed theologian, thus the mention of Reformed theology near the end).


Thanks for your time and insights yesterday. Very helpful.

Here is JPII’s letter to artists.

Note the third and fourth paragraph (I was off a little in my memory of it, but I think it is still relevant.)

…The opening page of the Bible presents God as a kind of exemplar of everyone who produces a work: the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator. This relationship is particularly clear in the Polish language because of the lexical link between the words stwórca (creator) and twórca (craftsman).

What is the difference between “creator” and “craftsman”? The one who creates bestows being itself, he brings something out of nothing—ex nihilo sui et subiecti, as the Latin puts it—and this, in the strict sense, is a mode of operation which belongs to the Almighty alone. The craftsman, by contrast, uses something that already exists, to which he gives form and meaning. This is the mode of operation peculiar to man as made in the image of God. In fact, after saying that God created man and woman “in his image” (cf. Gn 1:27), the Bible adds that he entrusted to them the task of dominating the earth (cf. Gn 1:28). This was the last day of creation (cf. Gn1:28-31). On the previous days, marking as it were the rhythm of the birth of the cosmos, Yahweh had created the universe. Finally he created the human being, the noblest fruit of his design, to whom he subjected the visible world as a vast field in which human inventiveness might assert itself.

I think it may be noted to your friends that God rested (in the sense that the term can be equated with ‘leisure’) only after the creating was done.

It is also worth noting how closely JPII’s descriptions of the artist parallels his description of workers/entrepreneurs/etc. in other writings. [NOTE: here and here in particular] They follow from the same understanding that man transforms the world (and in doing so, himself) as he gets his hands dirty with the stuff of the world, enacts his creative will upon it, whether it be for a utilitarian end (work) or some gratuitous end (art).

Gratuitous work does not require leisure. In point of fact, as I think every artist worth his salt would agree, making art is rather laborious. Leisure doesn’t enter the picture until one lights a pipe, pours a beer, and sits back to admire the work.

I understand that your interlocutors would counter that it isn’t until the ‘real work’ has been done (hunting, gathering, etc.) that the artist has the ‘leisure’ to do his thing. However, if worship is as essential as hunting and gathering (and I think the case could be made), one has the beginnings of the argument that art is not only work, but as much ‘real work’ as ‘real work’. One must not only engage the material world to feed the body — engaging the material world is essential (as I think the Incarnation affirms) to feeding the soul as well (I am curious, in my ignorance, if this last idea is something that Reformed theology could/would/does support). So at the very least, sacred art is something that doesn’t depend upon leisure.

I’ll close by saying that the larger issue — whether leisure is the basis of culture — depends greatly upon the definition of culture. I’ve not read Pieper’s book upon which my friend’s interlocutors’ comments are based, but I suspect from its title, its definition of culture is rather limited.

And for those of you in GR land, I will be lecturing on this topic in a couple of weeks. Come, and bring a friend.


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