On dilettantism

Photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

Over the course of this project I will dig into the details of dilettantism and how useful it is for artists. Much like the word amateur, there’s a certain pejorative quality to the word dilettante. Dilettantism is often dismissed as the mere dabbling of someone not economically dependent on their creative work, or someone who is not that serious about it. I would argue that a breezy or playful quality is, in itself, a useful approach for anyone tackling creative arts. Creative types can be far too serious for their own good, and most of this is just due to an overactive ego. It was Jim Harrison who once said that “writers as a type tend to suffer greatly, but then so do miners.”

So enter dilettantism, an antidote to the cliche of the suffering artist. Let’s take a look at the definition and then break it down into three key elements:

dil-e-ttant-ism

The act of behaving like a dilettante, of being an amateur or “dabbler”, sometimes in the arts. Also the act of enjoying the arts, being a connoisseur.

1. Fun

Certain words from this definition jump out at me: dabbler, enjoying, connoisseur. These are all good things. These are all things you would do for reasons other than money. They are playful. They’re fun.

And I would argue that the creative process should be playful. It should be enjoyable. Otherwise, why in the hell do it? You may daydream of being a professional writer or artist who derives a fabulous income…or at least enough money to eke out a living…from your creative work. We all do at times, but the economics of the artistic pursuits are absolutely brutal. I’ll dig into articles and surveys like this one soon enough when I start talking more about the money. But the upshot is that the odds are against your making much money from your creative work, and much of this is due not to your talent or work ethic, but due to factors that are largely out of your control.

So if you take the money out of the equation, why do it? Why pursue something that’s as incredibly difficult as crafting an intricate story out of 100,000 painstakingly typed words that you rearrange in draft after draft or spending hours brushing pigments onto a canvas in an attempt to manufacture a pleasing or challenging image when it’s so much simpler to make a photo with your phone and slap a filter on it?

Any creative person will tell you that you make stuff because you have to. You don’t have a choice. It’s a faucet you can’t turn off. I know any number of writer-types who’ve worked for decades without publishing anything, hacking away at some project while swearing the whole time that they’re going to quit, and soon. I’ve done it myself.

But we don’t quit, do we?

Why is that? It’s because it’s fun. We may pretend to be serious. We may treat our writing or art as therapy that deals with massive, important or painful subjects. But in the end it is fun. It is endlessly satisfying to fill a blank page with words arranged in an order as they’ve never been before because they have our own personal stamp on them. The sound of dragging a pencil across vellum is like music. Music is, well, like music. Sitting alone in your room with a guitar and stumbling upon a new combination of notes that grabs you by the collar and shakes you is tremendously satisfying.

Creativity is fun. that’s why kids do it. But somewhere along the way we grow up and begin to believe that only things that have a price tag on them are worth anything. We forget that making art is fun. And that’s something that the dilettante, the dabbler freed from economic necessity, understands well.

2. Promiscuity

In the definition of dilettantism the word arts is plural for a reason. And that is a key to unlocking creative potential. We tend to categorize ourselves into groups. There are filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, writers, and each of these categorize can be broken down into smaller groups: documentarians, narrative filmmakers, poets, novelists, painters, printmakers and so on.

But too much specialization can a bad thing. Eric Barker lays this out nicely in a recent blog post about the perils of too much specialization in young children. Here he quotes from the book Range:

“Scientists and members of the general public are about equally likely to have artistic hobbies, but scientists inducted into the highest national academies are much more likely to have avocations outside of their vocation.”

David Epstein, Range

While this applies to scientists, I think it can also impact artists who focus their creative pursuits too narrowly. Having avocations makes you better at everything you do.

Sure you want to focus on your chosen craft. But I believe in arts in the plural. Historically we didn’t have this problem of hyper specialization. Many of the early botanists or explorers were exquisite painters, sketchers, writers or all of the above. Alexander Von Humboldt, that brilliant proto-scientist and famous dilettante who discovered the concept of climate change in the 1700s was also a bestselling author of his day. And his work was meticulously illustrated. His fans read him as breathlessly as Dickens.

One skill can feed another. Elizabeth Gilbert, in Big Magic, her treatise on creativity, tells the story of how her dabbling in gardening led to the plot of her sweeping novel The Signature of All Things. Had she considered herself too serious of an artist to waste time on a pursuit for which she had little predisposition or talent…namely gardening…the book would not have happened.

Werner Herzog famously says (ad nauseam) that filmmakers should, and I quote, “read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read…if you don’t read you’ll never be filmmaker.” Notice, he doesn’t say anything about cameras.

Specialization is dangerous. It leads to things like repetitive motion stress injuries and just making you a narrow person who’s not so fun to talk to.

Dabbling in other disciplines, especially those for which you’ve developed less talent, can also increase your capacity for awe at the talent of others who are masters of that craft. Which leads me to the next area of interest when it comes to dilettantism:

3. Appreciation

I’d like to highlight one more word in the definition of dilettantism: connoisseur. I think all too many of us who consider ourselves writers, filmmakers and artists get so wrapped up in our own work and projects that we forget to love the medium itself. A true dilettante spends as much (or more) time enjoying the arts as she does in creating them. I’ve gone years without reading more than a few books and all the while I was working my day gig to pay the bills and hacking away at novels that I hoped would change the world (or at least guild my paltry checking account).

I once stumbled across President Obama’s annual reading list on social media and I thought that if the busiest person in the world could find time for books, then I should be able to as well. That was, of course, back when we lived in an alternate universe where we liked presidents who were busy, who read things and who thought deeply. I’ve always had trouble taking people who don’t read seriously, and then in my hypocrisy I realized that I had all but stopped reading seriously myself.

So I set an annual book target and upped my daily page count, and suddenly I found that I was not only able to keep up with my creative work, but I was also becoming a more productive and better at it. I now try to read the classics I’ve missed, pick up new page-turners and beach reads or dig into voices that are different from my own: anything I can get my hands on, basically. Reading aggressively and enjoying the process is making me better at what I do, both in my creative work and on my day job.

Ego and money can become barriers to the joy and excitement that we felt when we first started to pursue or art.

And the same goes for dabbling in the other arts. I try to watch films as a fan, not just as a critic or someone eyeing the competition. Whenever I can I stop in art galleries and museums. I sketch landscapes (albeit poorly) and all around work at being a fan of other people’s work. If you’re not a connoisseur of your chosen creative discipline (and the other creative pursuits that circle around it like satellites), you’ll lose your edge.

The unencumbered bliss of merely being a fan is something we can lose if we become too serious about our work. Ego and money can become barriers to the joy and excitement that we felt when we first started to pursue or art. And embracing dilettantism is a perfect antidote to those narrowing forces.


Thanks for reading. You can help out the blog by signing up for my free email list to receive a note every month (or so) with summaries of the latest posts, links and other helpful stuff for dilettantes.

More stuff:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is a breezy, spiritual homage to creativity that is filled with advice you already know (but is worth hearing again) plus a few enjoyably eccentric notions on how creativity works.

Max Joseph’s fun short doc about bookstores offers some advice on increasing your page count and generally celebrates falling in love with books again.

If you’re interested reading more on the dilettantism vs specialization debate, Eric Barker read David Epstein’s book Range so that you don’t have to, and sums it up nicely in this post.

4 thoughts on “On dilettantism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.