The Wall Street Journal describes them as “boredom enthusiasts.” Recently, they met in London to listen to William Barrett read a list of the 415 colors in a paint catalogue. He entitled his reading: “Like Listening to Paint Dry.” Link here.
To those of us who have spent too much time hobnobbing with artists, the exercise sounds like performance art. If your, like my, aesthetic refinement is of no use in judging whether Barrett’s performance is good or bad performance art, let’s take a guess and say that it sounds pretty good.
Those of us who have a more literary sensibility can regale ourselves with the idea that there is a list in listening.
Had Barrett’s performance taken place at the MOMA it would be high performance art, and Barrett would have been feted by the Tout New York.
In principle, watching paint dry means that you are gazing intently on a scene in which nothing is happening. Or better, whatever is happening is happening so slowly that you cannot really see it happening.
If that is the standard, then the list of 415 colors does not quite qualify as soul-deadening boredom.
If Barrett had pronounced the name of a single color… magenta or fuscia or blue… over and over again for several minutes, he might have been more boring and less artful.
But, then again, those of us who have not immersed ourselves in performance art are ill suited to pass judgment.
If you’re looking for real boredom, the kind that feels just like watching paint dry, you might want to screen a couple of Andy Warhol films.
As it happens, Warhol mastered the art of metaphorically watching paint dry in his films Sleep and Empire. Both are in real time. The first chronicles the movements of a man who is sleeping for a little over five hours. The second shows eight hours of slow motion footage of the Empire State Building.
I assume that Sleep is trying subliminally to get us to take more Unisom and that Empire deconstructs American imperialism… or some such thing.
Whatever it is, boredom seems to occur when nothing happens. It seems to afflict those who suffer from the sin of sloth, who are so thoroughly lacking in initiative that they do nothing but stare vacantly at their television screens.
If they have gotten beyond the television principle, to the point where they interact with their friends on Facebook or play video games, they will, as I see it, be less bored with their lives, less disengaged, less inattentive.
Which might be the reason why people like Facebook and video games.
Of the human emotions, boredom has never taken up too much space in psychological theorizing. Certainly, psychologists think that it is bad to be bored. They see it as a failure to engage, a failure to keep focused, and an inattention to one’s surroundings or activities.
In other words, psychologists see boredom as part of the complex of feelings that comprise depression. Since there are no pills or treatment programs that specifically address boredom, they prefer to talk about depression.
Apparently, people who are bored with everything, or who have made disengagement a way of life are more depressed and less healthy than those who are interested, attentive, engaged, involved.
But, you probably knew that already.
If boredom is a symptom, if it counts among the negative emotions, then we would be well within our rights to avoid it at all costs.
One way to do so is to be overstimulated. But if we live in a world where our sensations are constantly being bombarded with stimuli, where we do not even have the right to step back and take a deep breath, to clear our minds by thinking of nothing, then boredom might not be such a bad thing.
Stop the world; I want to get off. Perhaps just for a few minutes. If that is your goal, perhaps it is not such a bad thing to listen to a man read a list of 415 colors. It might be somewhat akin to meditation.
I didn’t attend the London meeting of boredom enthusiasts. I only know what I read in the paper. So, for all I know, the meeting might even have been a step toward mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the a Buddhist-inspired state of mind where you put yourself totally in the moment by focusing on the constituent parts of an action or an object.
Under certain circumstances it might not be such a bad thing to stop time. If your life is laden with drama, then perhaps it is good to be able to step back from it all, to clear your mind, and to focus on a list of 415 colors.
If everyday life is full of insolence and insults, of rudeness and drama, of anxiety and despair, why not try to find a moment of peace and calm by involving yourself in an activity that is perfectly empty of meaning, that does not induce any interpretation and does not provide an emotional fix.
The culture seems to tell us that life should be full of surprises. Creativity should rule. We are suffering under the tyranny of the new, or at least, what we think is new.
If we follow the culture’s dictates, we will avoid routines and refuse to get bogged town by eating the same breakfast everyday and taking the same route to work.
In truth, loving spontaneity for the sake of spontaneity is one of our worst habits. It makes life chaotic, disorganized, and far more stressful than it need be. Because we have too much spontaneity, we need a moment to unwind, to compose our thoughts, to register and process what is happening. Some of us do it in a religious service; some of us go to museums; the rest of us get together with like-minded souls and listen to someone read off a list of colors.
A life filled with psychodrama is never boring. But it is never really engaging either. It’s a whirl of actions and emotions, leading to nothing very consequential, distracting us from the work at hand.
If boredom is the enemy of work, psychodrama is an even greater enemy.
Boredom is a kissing cousin of apathy. Like boredom apathy has gotten something of a bad reputation, since it has come to be identified with an I-don’t-care-about-anything attitude. People who are apathetic seem to be so self-involved that they lack empathy. We all know how bad that is.
But apathy used to have a better reputation… before, that is, it started getting involved in casual encounters with theologians and psycholgists.
Stoic philosophers glorified apathy and made it a positive goal. They believed that we needed to overcome the sodden weight of passion (pathos) and emotion, the better to think more rationally about problems.
The stoics, bless their cold hearts, believed that if you had overcome emotion, you would think more clearly and make better decisions.
Maybe the boredom enthusiasts are on to something.