The Power of Unproductivity
I’ll never forget the first time I took myself on an artist date. Okay, to be honest, I forget most of the details. But I’ll never forget how it felt. The clarity! The creative freedom! The subversive undertones. It was my first taste of anti-productivity.
What’s an artist date?
An artist date is an intentional, solo adventure to do something that delights you. Here are a few simple rules:
Firstly, it shouldn’t be useful or practical—it must be as fun and unproductive as humanly possible. Running an errand during a date is so uncool.
Secondly, keep it simple! It can be as easy as visiting a craft store to touch every available velvet (“do you have any more velvets in the back?”), or showing up to the park with a loaf of bread so the pigeons can worship you.
If possible, leave behind your devices, friends, and family—this mental space is all about you. Letting your people know ahead of time makes this step easier—and funnier. “So I…um…am going on an artist…date? By myself…”
In 2022, the concept of an artist date feels more urgent and revolutionary than ever. Setting aside time to unplug from your feeds, lists, channels, benchmarks, check-in’s, workflows, hacks, boosts, chats, and scrolls to just spend time. With yourself. For fun? Feels like an unsettling move, which says a lot about how productivity shapes our perceptions of the world, our work, and what it means to be human.
What even is productivity?
It depends. In professional settings, productivity is often about maximizing profit. Even in the non-profit sector, workers are expected to contribute to the organization’s image of efficiency and social value, and to keep the funding flowing in from foundations and donors. Across all sectors, workers face pressure to stay busy to prove their worth. As my first boss told me with a wide grin, “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”
How you fit in
Productivity is a shared value system. It can’t be traced back to a single person, but it’s also alive in each of us. I like this framing because it gives me permission to be bad at anti-productivity one day and a little better at it the next, since social change happens over time at an individual level and a systemic one.
In my own life, productivity culture looks like checking my email when I’m spending time with my partner. In seconds, I’ve catapulted us both back into work mode with this small, unspoken signal. A compulsive detour into Email Land has ripple effects on the people around me, because it reflects an entire value system. A value system that ranks people by their ability to perform labor, and measures our worthiness by our hourly output. Am I checking my email—or am I asking the whole room if they’ve worked enough today to deserve rest?
What does a productive artist look like?
As the daughter of two scientists, it took me a long time to accept that I was an artist and that making art is important. Scientists love measuring things, so I set out to find the measuring stick for artists.
Over the years, I found many measuring sticks. Each one looked a little different but they all had one thing in common: productivity. In school, it was grades. Next, I measured Facebook likes and Instagram comments. After that, website views. Now, it’s grant dollars. The game keeps changing, but there’s one rule that’s here to stay: prove your worth.
Art can move mountains. Not literal ones, but societal ones. When artists are provided with the space and time they need to breathe, they have the ability to create experiences that pull people out of the daily grind and broaden our collective horizons. When art is allowed to be inconvenient or disruptive or silly, it stands in opposition to the flow of the status quo. Every day, all over the world, artists are creating work that pushes our society forward.
It starts with you
What I love about an artist date is the ripple effects. It might seem like a small thing to treat yourself to a creative adventure, but your joy is no small thing. Enjoying life’s simple pleasures—even when you’ve been taught that it’s too indulgent or too impractical—gives oxygen to the parts of you that have ideas and questions and doubts and dreams for what the world could look like. There’s power in opening yourself up to unproductivity.
In the spirit of artist date confidentiality, I won’t tell you where my artist dates have taken me. I can’t reveal the treasures I’ve found or the hidden depths I’ve explored. I don’t even have evidence or proof that they ever happened. Because when I go on an artist date, I leave my measuring sticks behind.
About Vicky Blume
Vicky Blume is an arts worker based in New Haven, Connecticut. After moving to the city to study art and psychology at Yale, Blume lit up communications for a contemporary art gallery and a community art school. Most recently, she served as Creative-in-Residence at the New Haven Free Public Library's Tinker Lab. In her artistic practice, Blume builds interactive websites, animations, and installations that offer calming and consensual alternatives to the Attention Economy. At home, she is passionate about her houseplants but struggles to care for more sensitive plants. She aspires to create a home environment where every houseplant can thrive.