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One thing I’ve learned from the pandemic: My friends are incredibly talented people.
Alone in my room, I’ve spent hours scrolling through their social media accounts, which display indisputable proof of their artistic skill. One friend runs an Instagram account that features everything from amazingly detailed, lifelike paintings, to emotionally raw animated shorts. Another has gone viral again and again on TikTok for their funny skits and sketches. A third posts captivating travel vlogs and lifestyle content on YouTube.
And another thing the pandemic so far has taught me: The hobby as we know it is about to die out. And hustle culture is to blame.
For the uninitiated, hustle culture is loosely defined by the philosophy that every minute of our lives can be spent being more “productive.” We should be waking up earlier. We should be hacking our passive “dead time” to be actively improving ourselves. We should be pushing ourselves at our jobs — and hey, why just stop at one? With the internet and the rise of informal business models and selling platforms, it’s now possible — and even encouraged — to have one, two, or three side gigs.
This attitude isn’t new — it’s a lifestyle craze that’s consistently waxed and waned over the years. As the Covid-19 hellscape continued, it seemed for a while that one possible benefit of the pandemic was a quiet, but definite, pushback against hustle culture. With spiking rates of burnout and poor mental health during the pandemic, the anti-work movement popped its welcome head over the horizon, and relaxation, meditation, and hobbies took center stage.
While it’s had — and continues to have — horrific consequences for public health and global wellbeing, the pandemic appeared to present a small silver lining: the renaissance of art in our daily lives. We consumed art more than ever before, but we produced it, too. In small, personal ways, many of us blossomed as artists — whether that meant finally starting that screenplay, learning how to make sourdough, or building a backyard vegetable garden.
But as more and more people turned to art for comfort, hustle culture sank its teeth into a new target. And we’re now seeing the ugly results: art becoming content, creativity becoming production, and the slow extinction of the simple, creative hobby.
As an uncertain future collides with the gig economy and a sudden work-from-home culture that may be here to stay, the temptation to “hustle” our hobbies is more present than ever before. There are more and more help guides, both in print and online, promising to teach you how to sell your art. Baking, sewing, and craft content racks up millions of monetizable views on TikTok and YouTube. Thousands of successful art accounts on Instagram direct followers to Etsy shops and merch websites.
One thing to be clear on: I’m not saying all of this to condemn the artists in question. In fact, there is nothing at all objectively wrong with wanting to make a bit of extra income, especially in times like these.
The real problem lies in the fact that, on a more fundamental level, the “hustle” mentality isn’t rooted in monetary return. Instead, it’s a craving for a specifically curated social media presence, which is ultimately about one thing, and one thing only: external validation. All of a sudden, it’s not enough to sketch privately in your notebook, or try out a new recipe; it just doesn’t seem worthwhile unless you’re posting about it online, and getting your followers to see you in a specific way.
Of course, wanting attention on social media is not new. Bragging, certainly, is not new. But the danger of marrying artistic hobbies with hustle culture is not about narcissism at all. It’s about the fact that the locus of our quotidian creative expression has become twisted away from ourselves: the artists. Ironically, in a period of unprecedented isolation, the significance behind our artistic creation has become external, rather than internal.
You might stop me at this point and argue: Hasn’t art kind of always been about external validation? What’s the good of a film that no one will watch, or a book that no one will read? Actually, there’s a lot of good. Producing art in the form of the thoroughly unproductive hobby is the core of what makes us human. Our creative leisure activities, through which we process our emotions and express ourselves — aren’t they the essence of the human experience?
Whether in the form of sketches, short stories, or cupcakes, if we stop viewing our art as ours, the activity of creative expression starts to lose meaning. If we’re chasing followers, views, or purchases in return for our art, we’re not remembering to be imaginative, reflective, or innovative.
If we try to productize every minute of our time, there comes a point where we’re being obedient, not creative.
So as we face an ongoing pandemic, a turbulent professional landscape, and a bleak economic reality, let’s try to take a second before we snap that picture of our newest project and mine for likes. Because if we don’t, the humble hobby as we know it will draw its last breath.
Lina H. R. Cho ’23 is a Comparative Literature concentrator in Dunster House. Her column “Bad Art” appears on alternate Mondays.
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