Over the last week, several people in my social media circles have been wondering out loud if we should reconsider how we spend our attention especially when horrific violence is perpetrated specifically to generate a mass spectacle.
We got to ask ourselves where the line is between empathy and voyeurism is, and how we pick the targets of our concern.
— Quinn Norton (@quinnnorton) July 15, 2016
For myself, I know that when I’m online at the same time something horrific is happening I feel terrible but I’m not sure that my following along accomplishes anything other than the sick feeling in my stomach as the images, speculative details, and the immediate hot-takes unfold and scroll before me.
Knowing that I can’t continue this way, I thought I would divert some of my attention from the news of the world and cast it towards the formal visual arts. I’m doing so not because I’m looking for answers but I’m looking for a better understanding… of what? I don’t even know. If I had to rationalize why I’ve decided to spend more time looking at art, I can tell you this story: there was a passage in At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails* that described a particular philosopher’s definition of art as ‘anti-technology’ in that art is not meant to “do anything” and this definition pleased me.
*I don’t have the exact wording of this passage because I lent the book to a friend who has taken it on vacation
It was recently my birthday and to celebrate I took the day off of work before exactly knowing how I wanted to spend the day other than not-at-work. I was debating between several options for short day trips but once I learned that The Cranbrook Art Museum was featuring a special exhibition called Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, it was as if the decision was made for me.
I was delighted to discover that the exhibition covered more than the work of traditional visual artists. It also considered the work of architects, radical social and political movements as well as graphic designers who were particularly attuned to the intersection of information and mass media.
As I did the museum shuffle through the rooms, I recognized some of the creators whose work was present (Stewart Brand, Archigram, The Diggers) but there were many who were new to me. There was so much to see, experience and absorb and rather than work through the art slowly, I bought the exhibition’s catalog for future study.
To be honest, I don’t know what makes one particular exhibition more exceptional than another once you you’ve set aside one’s personal taste for the art within. Or perhaps I should say, that because I enjoyed the art so much, I can’t objectively judge whether the collection of art made up a particular strong exhibition.
This happens as much in our feelings about art is in our feelings toward people. If you develop a “love” for, say, science fiction films, you no longer see them as you do other films; it becomes difficult to consider them outside your own love for the larger genre. A friend ask, “Should I see this sci-fi film?” You say, “Well, if you like science fiction films you will like it, otherwise…” When our love is too great, our taste blinds us. The designer Jason Kottke once described this on his popular Web site a new viral video as “so perfectly in the kottke.org wheelhouse that I can’t even tell if it’s any good or not.”
The above passage is from Tom Vanderbilt’s You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice.
GAH! What to pick? pic.twitter.com/1y4jUB2JGR
— Mita Williams (@copystar) June 28, 2016
I picked up the book… why, well, because of the book I have no confidence in my ability to explain my choices relating to taste because what I have learned is that taste is complicated and there is a lot of scientific evidence that suggests that our rationales are largely rationalizations and not reasons:
Our ability to express an affective judgement about something happens in the range of milliseconds. This is a great skill for a complex world, a filtering mechanism for effectively navigating the crowded marketplace of life. But shortcuts come at a price: We may miss what we might really prefer, we may discount something we will later come to love, we may be misattributing the source of our liking.
(Although if I had to rationalize my choice after the fact, I would tell you that I became recently interested in taste after seeing the tapestry series The Vanity of Small Differences by Grayson Perry at the AROS in Aarhus, Denmark last month).
I agree with much that was written about the book in this review from The New Yorker and found the book was somewhat disappointing because, disappointingly, it is very difficult to say anything definitive about taste. I did particularly enjoy the chapter on “The ecstasies and anxieties of art” where so many of the variables relating to taste come into play and conflict: the expert versus the beginner, context versus content, the emotional response versus a more intellectual approach, observing versus judging, and being fashionable versus being timeless.
One thing that is known is that they do not look at paintings very long. When Jeffery Smith, who for many years headed the Office of Research and Evaluation at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, analyzed the viewing times of Met visitors across a variety of paintings — including Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer and Lautze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware — he found the median viewing time for a painting was seventeen seconds.
From Vanderbilt I have learned that we pay more attention to the things that we like and we like the things we pay more attention to. And so with that message primed in my short term memory, I somehow I come across this video from Amy Herman who dropped by the offices of Google to discuss her book “Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life” and decided to watch it because I had decided that I was going to learn more about the visual arts. And I’m so glad I did, but it was for reasons that surprised me.
Amy Herman was once Head of Education of The Frick Collection in New York City. In that position, she developed a special class for medical students to help them get past the various forms of myopia that doctors can develop that can make it difficult to see symptoms that they don’t expect. That class was based on the work of the Yale Center for British Art but what Amy Herman did after was her own – she developed a similar class for law enforcement and then eventually, for many of various security and military bodies of the United States.
What I particularly responded to in her talk was Herman’s premise that every professional must be accountable for their observations and how those observations are put into words.
And this is my opportunity to tell my sessions there are very, very few things that are 100% in your control. Choice of words is one of them. Both in speaking and in writing, choice of words is up to you. And I’m implore my classes, don’t make poor word choices.
At the end of the talk, she again stresses the importance of words after giving a couple of examples of how essential that our words match our observations and not what we expect to see, including one that brings race into play.
In this course, you think about your observations and perceptions, you keep your inferences, biases and assumptions in check, you’re careful about your choice of words. You ask what you know, what you don’t know and what do need to know. If you think about all those concepts, I think it makes you a sharper professional.
Herman suggests that if you are to be a professional that serves the public, it is both in your best interest and in the public’s best interest to adopt a practice that takes the time, care and effort towards the act of observation before jumping to conclusions and actions that may prove, with time and reflection, completely unwarranted.
To me, this can be read as a demand for accountability in a deeply human way.
And it can start by all of us taking the time to observe and be aware of the ways of seeing art.