Who Cares?

The other day I had an utterly fascinating—to me, anyway—conversation with one of my co-workers. A group of us were talking about our childhood music lessons, and how basically all of us quit relatively quickly. I mentioned how I really wish I'd stuck with it, and that if I had more time I'd love to take piano lessons. I found it interesting that I was the only one who had those regrets to any degree, but I was particularly struck by one guy's attitude. "Who cares?" he said. "I mean, whatever—music, art, who really gives a shit? All that stuff just seems like a way to kill time." Later in the same conversation he said he'd like to learn a new language but it turned out that it was mainly due to how that could expand his career possibilities. Indeed, everything that he expressed interest in had to do with new ways to make money or otherwise materially improve his lifestyle, and being presented with a viewpoint so totally different from mine was, if nothing else, something that made me pause. Intellectually, I've known that there are people out there who think like this guy, but most of the people I know personally are like me in that they take it for granted that at least some aspects of culture and the arts have value—it's a little jarring to see the opposite opinion up close.

Now, at this point it would be easy for me to go on a tirade about how awful it is that people think art is a waste of time, or how our societal values or educational system are out of whack, or bemoan the direction in which we're headed as a civilization. But I think that it would be a mistake to draw too large a conclusion from one oddball co-worker, aside from which, I'm sure that people like this have always existed.

And, you know, I can't even really fault this guy too much for valuing things he can get paid for. After all, he enjoys what he does for a living, and thinks that it's important. I believe in hard work and being part of a team, and so I give my best effort to be good at what I do and to get the job done, but when you come right down to it, the only thing I get out of my career is money. So, really, who's the more mercenary between the two of us?

No, the thing that I keep coming back to as I think about this conversation is that I can't really disagree fundamentally that it's all just a way to kill time.

Don't get me wrong, I love art. I love creating it and I love being part of the audience. There aren't many things I value more highly or would rather spend my life doing. But when you come down to it, isn't everything we do just a way of passing the time, distracting ourselves from the fact that we're going to die some day? Perhaps we like to think we are creating a legacy, or doing some great work, but consider Shelley's Ozymandias: "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" the king proclaimed, intending his statue to last forever. And yet, "Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away."

We talk about art in terms of expression and communication, of evoked emotions and shared experience. But what is any of that if not a way of making the time we have here a little more bearable? And, in the end, isn't that really the value of things like art and culture and entertainment? We have only a short time in the world, and for so many of us that time is full of injustice and hardship, loneliness, sadness, toil, or, if nothing else, at least inanity. If by making something and putting it out there for people to see, we can help someone feel a little less alone, make their time seem a little more fulfilling or even just fun, it's hard to for me to see what else could be a better use of your time.