“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” G.K. Chesterton, master of the aphorism, wrote those words in 1910 in “What’s Wrong With the World.”
Some readers interpret Chesterton’s adage as encouraging shoddy work or mediocre performance, but this analysis misses the mark by a long shot. In the chapter in which this sentence appears, Chesterton is defending the amateur against the professional, advocating specifically for the rearing of children by amateurs—in this case, mothers—as opposed to professionals like our modern day care workers.
“Amateur” derives from the Latin word “amare,” to love, and an amateur is anyone who does something—plays the guitar, picks up a brush and puts paint on a canvas, and yes, raises a child—for love rather than for money.
Ours is a culture of experts and professionals. Such people tell us how to defeat a virus, how to save our marriages, how to educate our children, and how, in fact, to do nearly everything under the sun.
In a culture so heavily reliant on experts, is there any room left for amateurs? Do we still have a reason to do worthwhile things “badly”?
Let’s take a look.
Amateur Versus Professional
You wake one morning cold and clammy, and with pressure in the left side of your chest. Would you 1) walk to your friend’s house next door—she works for the city’s planning department—have her take your pulse and temperature, and ask for her medical opinion, or 2) walk to your friend’s house and ask her to drive you the Urgent Care Center?
Most of us would surely opt for choice No. 2. Professionals of all kinds are vital for our health and even our survival. None of us wants Alex the taxidermist to remove our appendix or Barbara the accountant to say “Open wide” and yank out an aching molar with a pair of pliers.
On the other hand, we often leave to the “professionals” tasks we might better do ourselves. Our founders, for example, designed our country to be run by its citizens, not by professional politicians or bureaucrats. The pandemic that forced the closure of schools has made teachers out of many parents, and a number of them have discovered that they enjoy instructing their children at home. A 30-something woman of my acquaintance had the money to hire an interior decorator to remake her former house into an Airbnb, but decided to tackle the job herself and did a fantastic job of selecting paints and furniture for her enterprise.
When we amateurs act out of love and commitment, we can deliver amazing results.
The Arts and the Amateur
All too often, we live as spectators rather than as participants in the game of life. At concerts we listen to professional singers or musicians, and on television we watch athletes playing sports, experts repairing old houses, or chefs creating fabulous dishes.
Taken in moderation, such entertainments are harmless. They can whisk us away from the stress of our daily lives, furnish some excitement, and occasionally even stir our passions.
But are we missing something?
Let’s pay a brief visit to the small, fictitious town of Liberty Hill, North Carolina. It’s a Saturday afternoon in July of 1893, and your neighbor, Sam Moxley, a barber by trade, is suited up in his uniform and whistling his way down the street for a game at the local baseball diamond. Next door you can hear Dorothy Gillet playing ragtime on the piano for her ladies’ club. Across the way “Big Mike” Cox, who works as a blacksmith, is entertaining his children with stories and jokes. Two houses away farther down the street, Emmaline Johnson has set up her easel on her porch and is painting a watercolor of her friend Jincy while Emmaline’s husband, Patrick, is carving a basswood statue of a soldier for his grandson’s upcoming birthday. As you rock in your chair on your front porch, you can smell the perfume of the baking apple pies of culinary artist extraordinaire Elsa Dyson.
An overly idyllic portrait perhaps? Maybe. But the point is that before we created mass entertainment, amateurs largely amused themselves, blending joy with satisfaction while doing the things they loved and sharing their talents with others.
Lagniappe (That Extra Something)
These same bonuses and benefits can accrue to today’s amateur artists.
Painting a landscape, acting in a community theater, singing Bach’s “Messiah” with a chorale, just as it did for our ancestors, an engagement with one of the arts can make us healthier, happier, and even more intelligent.
Many amateurs find immersion in creative activities rejuvenating, like taking a vacation, but while at home. Painting seascapes, for example, can sweep us away, however momentarily, from the budget crisis in the office or the stresses of daily life. Winston Churchill, who found relief from his political duties in his watercolors, might serve as a grand example of this phenomenon.
Art also provides swing sets and sliding boards for adults. Where I live in Virginia, I see many people riding motorcycles, fishing, hiking, and canoeing, all for pleasure, but I also know men and women who find their fun in writing and playing music, directing plays, and teaching youngsters everything from dance to drawing. The arts return to the playground, where we can let our imagination and talent run wild.
And just as playing games like chess help keep our minds sharp, so too do the arts. The banker who plays Mozart on her piano for half an hour in the evenings, the carpenter who sits on his porch at dusk picking his guitar, even the shy woman who in the privacy of her home reads and acts out the part of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” all are exercising their mental faculties.
In 2004, I required the students in my Advanced Placement English Literature class to write a sonnet. To assuage the pained moans that greeted my announcement, I promised to write a sonnet as well.
And I fell in love.
For several years after writing that sonnet, I found immense—and intense—gratification in composing poetry. Here every word counted, here were rules of meter, rhyme, and length, and I loved that I could carry phrases and lines in my head for days at a time, always tinkering away to make them clearer or to flow better. Though my verse eventually gave way to other writing, I fondly remember the relief and happiness poetry brought me in those days.
Another example: When I was 11, my father, a physician, gave me a “Visible Man” for Christmas, a plastic model displaying our organs and vessels. These pieces needed painting, and I well remember sitting with my dad at a card table in the living room with the parts spread before us. Dad did much of the painting, and found there such enjoyment that he began painting on canvases, watercolors first and then moving into oils. What began at that card table became for him a lifelong avocation.
Passion is a watchword for the amateur.
Come On in, the Water’s Fine!
Long ago in an interview, writer Ray Bradbury was asked whether writing was painful for him. I had long heard of writers who told how they bled through their fingers, or how tough writing was, and I was surprised when Bradbury replied to the effect, “It should be fun. If it’s not fun, why do it?”
G.K. Chesterton appears to reinforce Bradbury with this well-known quip: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
Taking ourselves lightly, having fun—these should serve as part of the credo of amateur artists. As stated above, our creations, the hobbies we pursue, should bring us joy, release us from stress, toward a deeper understanding of the self, and a sense of play and creation.
When I was a boy, a neighbor used to sing Italian opera at the top of his lungs while riding his lawn mower, and my brother and I would snicker at him.
But that man had it right.
For the amateur, cultivation of the arts, even atop a mower, grows a garden in the soul.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.