Entertainment in a Hurry: On art, impatience and middle age
By Andie Fox
Middle age can make you a more savvy audience for art … but also a lazier one, as it must be squeezed into an ever-more time-poor life. Andie Fox realises that she’s become so risk averse when it comes to books and films that she’s missing out on the unexpected pleasures and new ideas art can offer.
Last year there were at least a dozen books I started reading and did not finish. When I grew tired of the way a book was unfolding or the style of its writing, I didn’t persist, I simply put the book down regretfully and moved on to the next novel in my pile. Actually, in all honesty, I began to find myself gleefully discarding them. After the first few times you give up you discover a certain reckless abandon in subsequent disappointments.
Partly, I wasn’t picking the best novels and partly, I wasn’t in a generous frame of mind. The rejections were like a new freedom for me. Each one emphasized the importance of my own time. There’s so little of it, you see, that isn’t now claimed by work and family responsibilities. I never used to be like this - to be such a scanning, flicking, rejecting kind of consumer of the arts. It is not that my taste is particularly niche or peculiar now, it’s that through necessity I have attained ruthless efficiency in assessing the things I love. I have never surrendered so many loves at once as during my thirties.
Some of the things lost were smashed and chipped and pulled apart, but others were neglected so badly they stopped calling, or interrupted so many times I forgot how to do them or even, to want to do them. The sacrifices began to highlight the trade-offs. This book or more sleep, or this book or that film, or this book or seeing a friend, or this book or reading to my child (who will only be little for a couple more years). Occasionally, all the weighing up is paralysing and I simply can’t choose and so instead I miss out on everything.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently in The Atlantic that at this stage of his life he no longer prioritises ‘difficult books’. Instead, he wants to read books that make him work, not so much as a reader, but as a thinker. My refusal to finish certain books last year was less about the difficulty of those books and more about an intolerance for frustrations of all varieties. But I relate to this sentiment of Coates. I’m tired and rushed, as I imagine him to also be, but I’m still hungry for thoughts. More than ever now. I am skipping breakfast, racing to catch a train, rewriting drafts, reading reminder notices on unpaid bills and arguing with my children about cleaning their teeth - so, I’m dying for big thoughts that will weave their way through my head for weeks or months to come.
In fact, if I had to pick a difference between me in my twenties and me in my thirties I would say that this is it. When I was young I looked to the arts for ideas about everything and anything. In a way, I asked a lot of what I viewed while bringing very little myself. In my thirties, I look to everything with particular puzzles in mind, hoping to find something to excite new ways of resolving them. This is what I think Coates referred to when he said he wants to work as a thinker. And when I find these insights in someone’s creation I am awestruck, because not only do I understand the hard work involved in its realisation, but through the artist’s astute observations I am released from some of my own struggle. Frankly, I am a better audience at this age than I was in my twenties. But there’s a catch.
Like Coates, I want the big, interesting thoughts but I don’t want to run a gauntlet for them. As I’ve described, I’ve become impatient. And it is not just books, I’m impatient with film, too. My current short-cut to an evening of thoughts comes via a diet of HBO and Showtime television series, that I watch for minimal cost in my lounge room, with a glass of cheap wine. In comparison, the cost of an evening at the cinema involves not only my painful awareness of the opportunity cost of other longings denied, but the ticket price must now include $80 worth of babysitting too. At this price, one does not need to try very hard to be cranky enough to find a film disappointing.
On the other hand, an evening watching Walking Dead or Mad Men is as cheap and reliable as a franchise restaurant menu. And for someone like me, struggling to keep up with much of anything at the moment, there is undeniable pleasure in seeing something current enough to have me re-join the dinner party conversation.
But like fast food, these television shows never quite deliver the complexity and spectacle that truly amazing films will when seen on enormous cinema screens. My consumption decisions have become so risk-averse that not only am I avoiding the so-so events and the tedious flops, I am also missing the chance happenings - those nights out when you are unexpectedly transformed by the art you see. And short-cuts can become ruts. I lack the conservatism to believe all the great books and music have already been made and I’ve seen them, but I worry I’m losing my skills to appreciate experimentation.
For instance, I have long adored surrealism but for those years when I had a toddler, my appetite for the surprise juxtaposition was significantly reduced. Toddlers are the original Dada practitioners - leaving utterly random items in your handbag and spilling out phrases of charming nonsense incessantly. They will exhaust you with the abstract, and in this state I found myself bored by any art trying to change its parameters. Possibly this problem is not exclusive to mothers.
Some of my childless friends work twelve-hour days, chewing through endless piles of 30 second email interactions, and say they now struggle with the attention span required for a one-hour episode of HBO television, let alone a languid three-hour film. Another friend of mine, a playwright and the father of a young child, says he finds it tough to summon the energy for seeing live performance now that he realises he is not also there to get laid or loaded. You can see how we become the kind of dreary consumers the art world hates, only able to cope with linear plots in bite-size format and wanting it all to be finished in time for an early night. One way or another my friends and I, like Coates, are all doing the equivalent of avoiding difficult books. It seems that we are being changed by the years entering middle-age.
Except, some out there make different decisions. Some art-lovers continue to prioritise the difficult books and choose the path less travelled into middle age. (I assume it is a path also involving less time with toddlers). And I’m grateful these people exist, because this year I made the resolution to prioritise similarly and I need their advice. I won’t see and read and listen to everything, as I used to – for I love my new life, too – but I will allow myself more of a chance to try the difficult things.
Because the problem with risk aversion in my art consumption is that I’d accepted a bargain with certainty, rather than possibility. After a time, I stopped questioning my sacrifices.
So, for a year I will read difficult books again, and see new art, and turn off the television sometimes to watch films on big screens. I have new puzzles to solve and I want very big, new thoughts.