“CLASS CONFLICT,” to me, means that I can’t fit in another Learning Experience because I already have one scheduled for that time slot. I am a relentless student: toiling at the ballet barre, pounding through a Bach fugue on the piano, attempting to draw a naked body in an overheated studio. I don’t do any of these things like a “real” dancer, musician, or artist. I am a dabbler. A dilettante. A hobbyist. A rank amateur (is there any other kind?). I write professionally, but in other arts I am a permanent beginner. I improve, but I do not master.
Although amateur is etymologically romantic, even passionate—the word, dating back to the eighteenth century, comes from a French root meaning “lover of”—today it is used almost exclusively as a pejorative term. An amateur is defined negatively, as a person who does something without being paid, thus proving that he or she is rich enough to pursue an uncompensated activity (and perhaps bored enough to need the stimulation of a pastime). There’s a quality issue implied, too: You are not sufficiently skilled or gifted to sell tickets—or canvases.
Maybe the less-than-positive image of amateurism is a form of popular revenge: a means of ridiculing silly aristocrats (or rich people in general) who go in for ill-fated artistic endeavors. Think of the scene in Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane when the mogul’s poor untalented wife is screeching away in the opera house he has built for her; the camera pans up to two stagehands in the flies; one holds his nose. These days the class element may not be so pronounced, but amateurish is still understood to mean clumsy, foolish, self-indulgent.
A more accurate definition might emphasize the prodigious discipline and self-motivation that amateur pursuits require—quite unlike ordinary work, which always has the wage carrot behind it, or work for public display, which at the very least has the reward of an audience’s approbation. Are women, because they are more identified with private spaces, more active amateurs than men? Probably yes—my classmates are mostly female—but not just because males are conditioned to fear failure and “beat” competitors; more fundamentally, because they often identify their self-development exclusively with public, remunerative activities. I think, too, that women are less afraid of looking ridiculous. To succeed at amateurism, you can’t be too attached to your dignity.
AS CHILDREN we are allowed (and sometimes pushed) to take lessons of all sorts. We are also permitted to follow our imagination when we play. It’s assumed that both of these will make us more sensitive, enlightened, cultured grown-ups, regardless of whether we wind up in a “creative” profession. It’s when we get older, and our talents emerge (or not) in a more decisive fashion, that we are encouraged to specialize, to give up this varied program. My childhood abounded in dance lessons (ballet, tap, acrobatic), obligatory musical studies (my mother was a pianist), and informal drawing and writing (my father was a teacher and author). High art was the religion.
I turned apostate once I approached adulthood. There had been earlier signs of rebellion—an unorthodox fondness for Wonder Woman and Katy Keene comic books (my father burned them) and ’50s rock ‘n’ roll—but the main thing was that I’d long ago put most of my eggs in the literary basket, and other activities fell away. Editing and writing were my destiny, and that was that.
Then, in my early thirties, I read an article about taking ballet as an adult, and that was the beginning of my dance “career.” A few years later I met a man who owned a lovely piano (reader, I married him). Later still, I embarked on art classes. Suddenly my life was filled with all the same stuff I’d done as a child. I was grateful to have something to go back to—some vague memory of the five positions of the feet, or how many sharps are in G major (one), or that yellow and blue make green—but, more than that, it was like a return to a state of grace wherein pleasure matters more than achievement.
I must confess that the fear-of-success syndrome that plagues so many women may be operating here. If I am always a student, an eager beginner, then the stakes are low and the pressure less intense. I will get credit for an honest attempt; I can stop short of real striving. It is the darker side of remaining in a childlike state. Nothing much is expected of me.
On the other hand, some teachers have observed that amateurs project a joy and purity of intention that professionals or would-be professionals lack. Perhaps when the first thing on your mind is success in a chosen field, the cultivation of your particular talent, you are so occupied with measuring yourself against other artists that you lose a bit of the thing itself.
Still, I can’t help but think that my drawing teacher gets tired of seeing me make the hands too small and the head too wide, and that my ballet teachers despair (and wince inwardly) at my unpointed feet, my unsucked-in stomach, my eyes fastened on the floor. As for the way I apologize for wrong notes at the piano… my teacher has threatened to fine me for every sorry.
STUDYING AN ART as an adult amateur is not easy; it comes as a shock to a relatively mature, complacent system that has learned to do certain things well, throwing it back into a helpless, confused, almost infantile state, and promising none of the usual rewards of progress. A lot of people seem to yearn for this fresh start, at least in the abstract; when I mention that I went back to studying piano at the age of forty, the response is usually, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do that!” However, when it comes to the sheer, sludgelike difficulty of practicing and my natural impatience with fingers that feel as though I am wearing mittens, it is tempting to give up. And when I compare my lack of grace to my fellow dance students, I want to put a bag over my head (that’s why I’m usually staring at the floor—so I needn’t look at myself). Yet I continue.
Why? That’s the obvious question. If you’re not going to be that good at it, why do it at all? To value “process, not product,” to savor “the journey” rather than the destination—these have become modern clichés, but that doesn’t mean they are invalid. Or, to put it another way, practicing an art at any level affects the way you hear, see, move, and think. When she started to take photographs, a friend told me, her perceptions changed; she began composing pictures in her head even when she had no camera with her. Certainly drawing and painting have altered my eye, and ballet the way I hold my body and walk down the street.
I believe, too, that there are myriad parallels among the arts. The phrase, the gesture, dynamics, contrast, texture, sensibility are equally important in dance or art, music or writing. In this culture, specialization is taken to mean that you are a grown-up, while an eclectic approach is judged to be immature. And yet these disciplines, braided together rather than clipped apart, deepen one another. My writing is richer and more complex because I draw, I dance, I attempt to make music.
A HOBBY is also a way to take a break from your ordinary profession and persona. An amateur pursuit is almost like having a secret life. A friend told me that her father, a businessman in Milwaukee, went to after-hours jazz clubs to play piano. That same friend parlayed her gift for knitting into a new profession. My husband, who teaches and writes philosophy, also takes damned good photographs, displaying the visual imagination he had always possessed but never fully exercised. There are industrialists who conduct orchestras, yoga teachers who sing (I had one)…and think of Winston Churchill.
In his book Painting as a Pastime, the celebrated British Prime Minister makes the case for hobbies as a way to revivify the psyche. “A man [sic] can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it, just in the same way as he can wear out the elbows of his coat,” he writes. But it is no good simply to will yourself to rest; a different field of interest must be illuminated: “It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new stars become the lords of the ascendant, that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded.”
Churchill was modest—almost too modest, in my view—about his own pictures. “We cannot aspire to masterpieces,” he wrote. “We may content ourselves with a joy-ride in a paintbox.” I am all for joy-rides, but I believe that amateurs must not be patronized, nor set their sights too low, as if their efforts didn’t matter. Although my abilities may be in their infancy, I am not a child anymore. The teachers I like best are realistic but tough; they push me and stretch me and urge me on to ever-higher standards. They take me seriously.
A GOOD THING, too, because a few months ago, when I lost my paying job as a writer, my amateur pursuits suddenly loomed larger. It is no exaggeration to say that they give aid and comfort, shape and meaning to my unemployed life. More, they make me ponder what qualifies as work and what doesn’t. Is writing this essay work even though it is unremunerated? Is it work when I practice a Mozart sonata or attempt to dance on pointe for the first time or make a drawing that is hung at a student art show? And (this is an old controversy) shouldn’t there be greater respect—indeed, awe—for the wearying, repetitive, and absolutely vital labor of keeping house and raising a family?
The distinctions seem arbitrary. Clearly, the default definition of work (a paying job or career) is far too narrow. We need a more precise vocabulary. And we need to rescue amateurism from the devaluing it receives in a culture that is driven by money, fame, and tangible results.
2011 resolution: I will never again say, “It’s only a hobby.” I will stop disparaging and apologizing. I will be grateful that I have another life, an amateur life, a place where I labor for love.