The Tyranny of Fun by Ed Friedman

I am about to commit a blasphemy. Here goes: MAKING ART IS NOT FUN.

While I am loathe to encourage the either/or ethos that seemingly pervades every aspect of our lives, there seems to be a disconnect between those who strive to make art, and those for whom it’s of little or only passing interest. This lack of understanding crops up in conversations like this:

Person with little or only passing interest in the arts: What have you been doing?

Striving art maker: I’ve been (fill in the blank) ___________

(Learning stand-up comedy/taking a painting class/writing poetry)

Person with little or only passing interest in the arts: As long as you’re having fun!

Once you get past the age where you’re forced to learn something to pass an exam, any desire to learn a new skill or manifest some creative expression is solely dependent on your own motivation to do so. Because the learning/creative process is a series of challenges and therefore inevitable resistance, it takes a degree of determination and yes, work, to move forward to your goal of mastery or creating a piece of art. 

“Fun” is usually associated with something that has no particular goal. We don’t look critically at the result of a fun experience. Zip lining is fun (unless of course the zip line breaks, then, not so much). The now ubiquitous “paint and sip” events are fun: a roomful of people drinking wine and getting paint everywhere, occasionally on the canvas; no one is looking critically at what they’ve painted, even those who can see straight after three hours of daubing and drinking. Going to a movie or a concert is “fun” as long as you’ve been entertained.

For those who are learning or creating, it’s not so much fun as it is satisfying. And the process of creating the work is perhaps even more satisfying than the end result or finished product.

Someone I know recently had his play produced. (Okay, it’s me). The play had a lot of meaning for me but it had been percolating for many years, only being tinkered with occasionally during that time. When I was finally offered a production it came with a dramaturg/director who would help me “shape” the piece. As difficult as it was to write, it was so much harder to revise. Parsing critique is not easy. Each time I was asked for a change I had to dig down and navigate what was important to me, and what will make a compelling piece of theatre (not always the same thing). Five revisions and a number of polite disagreements later the play was produced.  I was fairly pleased and in fact I saw some things I will change if the play ever gets done again.

I’m glad I went through the process, but it wasn’t remotely “fun”. It was the epitome of Dorothy Parker’s quote: “I hate writing. I love having written”. 

I know we talk about how Creative Aging programs make it possible to learn in a socially supportive atmosphere while nurturing relationships. And yes, participants report that they have a good time in these classes. However, they also tell us how learning and creating can also be challenging and invigorating, and at times — really hard. As one participant put it: “We don’t need condescending “thumb-twiddling” pastimes. We need community, respect, rigor, and real interaction on sophisticated levels with imaginative, involved people who expect us to be the same…”

Before you ask, it wasn’t fun to write this — but it was very satisfying.

Ed Friedman

Ed Friedman

Ed is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Lifetime Arts. He has spent over 30 years in parallel careers serving the arts community, and older adults and their families.

Artwork by Lisa Curran
Ed Friedman

Latest posts by Ed Friedman (see all)