Too much free time?

Erik Hoversten

One of the toughest questions facing anthropologists today is why humans made the switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture. There must have been some reason for the switch, as agriculture requires a whole heck of a lot more work than hunting and gathering. Anthropologists estimate that your average prehistoric fellow could kill enough animals, collect enough berries or dig up enough escargot in two to three hours to take care of themselves for the whole day. On the other hand, once you’ve planted, tended and harvested your crops, you’ve already blown eight hours of the day.

It only gets worse from there. It seems that today we are always on the run, be it sitting in class all day and spending hours on homework every night or sitting in an office for eight hours only to return home to run kids between piano lessons and soccer. Every night in the fleeting moments before sleep, I wonder where the day went.

I decided to find out how we’re missing out. Nearly all of the archeological evidence of what the hunters and gatherers did for the other 21 hours of the day is in the form of art. This led me on a field study at the Walker, a modern art gallery in Minneapolis.

Apparently, one of the things that some ancient humans spent a great deal of their time on was carving wooden statuettes of women with impossibly large butts. I had barely entered the first gallery of the Walker before I was greeted by three plaster casts of arms above the elbow giving the one finger salute. Later on, I ran into a boat built completely with paperback books, some of which I had read. I also found a dress made entirely out of steaks. Seeing as I haven’t seen any steak dresses at department stores and I doubt that the boat would actually float, I figured that it must be a pretty good indicator that people still have plenty of time on their hands.

Spelunkers have discovered ancient cave paintings in Europe at the end of tunnels nearly a mile long. Some speculate that these were made during rituals, perhaps under the influence of mind-altering chemicals. Thanks to modern technology, artists no longer have to crawl through tunnel systems to paint. Now they can take drugs and use video cameras.

The Walker had several examples of this new phenomenon. One video featured a guy in an old fashioned bathtub on a city sidewalk scrubbing behind the ears and singing a song about him being King John for passersby. Another video featured a guy wearing a gorilla suit in an empty apartment jumping up and down on a bunch of crumpled up newspapers. This seemed a bit more ordinary until his stomping pattern led him to turn around to reveal that the back of the gorilla suit was open and he was wearing no clothes underneath.

My personal favorite involved this white room with intense fluorescent lighting with three televisions hanging from the ceiling. All three of them featured movies with these half-man, half-goat guys with ram horns. One of them involved three goat guys in the back of a limousine wrestling each other to get out the sunroof as the limo drove around a large city.

After this experience, I concluded that altered states of consciousness were still alive and well in art, and it seemed people have as much time as ever for such pursuits.

The Walker did yield some evidence for the contrary. Some of the works seemed like they had potential, but it was as if the artists lacked the time to develop them. One exhibit consisted of a desk with an ashtray and a desk chair. The twist was that they were attached upside down to the ceiling. I was intrigued, but I wanted something more.

As I walked up the steps into the next gallery, I found a toppled paint can with paint running out of it and down the stairs. I was about to tell a museum worker when I noticed an exhibit tag crediting the artist and explaining how the work was acquired. One can only assume that the painter had a deadline to meet, but ran out of time working 9 to 5 and only had time to kick a paint can down the stairs in anguish. Lucky for him, he was able to sell it to an art museum.

Perhaps the strongest manifestation of less free time can be found in bigger art. A regular Joe in an entry level management job in 1998 just doesn’t have the time to contribute to the construction of effigy mounds.

Despite the counter examples, the overall feel of the Walker pointed towards as much free time as ever, even though it seems as if people are pushing themselves to the limits. As far as I see, there are only a few explanations for this phenomenon. Perhaps over the rise of civilization people have become far more industrious, learning to squeeze each possible moment out the day. Maybe ancient humans were just plain lazy. Most likely though, I bet there are few people out there who have some sort of monopoly on time while the rest of us live for Labor Day. Point in case, the author of the book “Why Cats Paint.”

Art or no art, I wouldn’t mind a 25th hour in the day for mandatory Nintendo. In fact, I might even pass up the miracles of modern medicine and cable TV to be able to kick back and enjoy the three hour work day.

Erik Hoversten is a junior in math from Eagan, Minn.