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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Art and Attentiveness in the Age of MTV
Professor Arden Reed’s slow encounter with Manet’s “Lady” leads to reflections on modernity and the nature of attention.

That we are addicted to speed nobody disputes. The evidence is written across things so mundane as our household appliances, as the novelist Don DeLillo observed—not long ago, but in a passage whose examples already look dated. “The microwave, the VCR remote, the telephone redial button and other time-collapsing devices reflect something that flows through the deep mind of the culture, an impatient craving for time itself to move faster.” This craving is no accident, since speed fuels the engine of capitalism and keeps us spending.

But I wonder about the impact of acceleration on the world of art, both its making and its viewing or understanding. According to a recent study, the average museum-goer looks at a painting for between six and 10 seconds. My question, then, is how do you look at Matisse if you’ve been raised on MTV?

By fluke, I bucked this trend in what must set some kind of perverse record. On spring break one year, I happened on Edouard Manet’s “Young Lady in 1866” (commonly known as “Woman with a Parrot”) in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. And for the next six or seven years, I kept returning to the same painting. At first glance it seemed an unlikely candidate, so simple and straightforward: a gray parrot perched beside a young woman in a pink robe, posed against a flat, gray background. But something about the picture intrigued me, something beyond the beautifully rendered peignoir, the color of strawberries folded into heavy cream. Was Manet’s woman lost in reverie or looking at us? Why did he jimmy a parrot into the picture, as if the pairing required no more explanation than an altarpiece depicting the Virgin with a dove? And who sent her that bouquet of violets? The questions started to multiply.

Back at Pomona, I kept wondering about this painting, and also began to wonder how long I could sustain my attention and keep looking. This was not exactly an act of will power; rather, I felt as if, across an ocean, a continent, and a century, Manet’s “Lady” had chosen me. Whenever I returned to the Met I was struck by aspects I had missed, and over time I got to know the witty, sophisticated games this painting plays with us. I learned to see how, for instance, the picture offers up and withholds simultaneously, in a rhythm of concealing and revealing that runs up and down the canvas: the woman’s robe is half buttoned, the fruit is partly peeled and the parrot shows only one eye.

Trying to comprehend Manet’s picture led me many places, literally and intellectually: sleuthing the history of pet keeping, visiting obscure collections of eyewear at the Smithsonian, or pouring over French art reviews and fashion journals from the 1860s, and led me also to stories by Gustave Flaubert. Thus an accident became an obsession I was free to indulge in the name of scholarship. My work eventually shaped itself into a book about the beginnings of Modernism.

My interest in Manet’s painting also led me to teach a course on 19th-century French painting, which I always begin by proposing the following: understanding art entails less a knowledge of technical vocabulary or of periods and styles than a willingness to be patient and discover what your eyes will show you if you simply keep gazing. The way I taught myself to look at Manet, I believe, requires no special talent. Anybody can do this.

I have since discovered a range of contemporary artists who experiment with ways the visual arts can alter our sense of time—so many artists, in fact, that we can begin to define a school of slowness. Take, for instance, Stephen Prina’s “Vinyl II.” The 18-minute film works by disciplining the viewer’s perspective. Opening on a close-up of an unclothed male torso, Prina then spends eight minutes in a glacially slow pullback to reveal the rest of the painting, a 17th-century “Christ Crowned with Thorns.” A similar strategy informs Bill Viola’s “Quintet of Remem¬brance,” which the Metropolitan Museum purchased as its first video. Viola arranged five actors in the composition of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, each person expressing a different emotion—joy, rapture, anger, fear, sorrow—and filmed his ensemble for 60 seconds in high-speed 35 mm. Then he stretched out their performance in a slow-motion video over 16 minutes—as if, like Prina, to station us before a painting, inviting us to patiently take in its details.

Hiroshi Sugimoto holds our gaze differently. He photographs the interiors of old movie palaces by exposing a single negative over the projection of an entire film. The succession of cinematic images eventually produces a luminous white rectangle on the screen, whose light casts eerie shadows over chair backs and theatre moldings. Sugimoto simultaneously stretches out and collapses time, since in a glance we take in what moviegoers see over hours. By contrast, his photographs of waxworks or of dioramas depict moments of stasis, a freezing of what is already immobile, moments that span vast historical periods.
James Turrell ’65 produces the unhurried gaze itself in his “Aperture” series. You enter a room of total blackness, or so it seems, until after about 10 minutes a large rectangular outline begins to appear across the darkened room, gradually comes into focus and resolves into light emanating from behind a partition. With Turrell we perceive not just the object but ourselves in the slowly unfolding act of perception. In a different vein, his Roden Crater functions as a kind of tableau vivant performed by spectators occupying its theatrical spaces, oriented to celestial rhythms, where sky or stars framed by occuli enact the tableau.

But while these artists effectively slow us down in varying fashions, maybe there are other approaches to the problem of looking. The curious thing about attention is how short a shelf life it has, how it cannot be sustained for long at any one sitting. Or standing. Trying to concentrate on a painting without interruption is a sure-fire recipe for wandering—something like repeating a word until its sense drains away.

Surprisingly, then, the unrelieved gaze may not be the best way to appreciate art. In my case I was able to sustain a relationship with Manet’s painting exactly because I didn’t glue myself to the floor in front of it. Living far away helped, because I was able to come and go, engage and disengage, each visit offering a different perspective. Instead of marrying this “Lady,” I flirted with her.

Perhaps attention and distraction are not simply opposed, as I had assumed; perhaps they are intertwined. Further, if sustained attention leads necessarily to distraction, then the converse may also hold. Under the right conditions, distraction may actually contribute to paying attention. And in the same way, maybe an injection of speed can lead to our slowing down, by renewing spectators’ interest that would fall off if the tempo never changed.

My hunch about kinship between attention and distraction is confirmed, in spectacular fashion, by developments in Las Vegas. Four years ago a branch of the Guggenheim Museum, designed by architect of the hour Rem Koolhaas, opened in the hotel Venetian. You might suppose that Las Vegas would be the last place you would go to slow down and look lovingly, since it is the world’s most stimulus-jammed city, where forests of dueling neon and endless attractions compete for tourists’ attention.

So why did savvy business people decide to mix disparate activities and historical periods by housing 19th-century style galleries of oil paintings in a casino? (“The lightly textured industrial metal is intended to evoke the traditional velvet walls of the Hermitage Museum while providing a stark modern contrast to the ornate architecture of The Venetian.”) In fact, Vegas and the Guggenheim fit each other all too well. The Venetian, besides expanding its entertainment options, borrows the prestige of high culture (exactly as did the economically-depressed Spanish town of Bilbao, with undreamed of success), and the Guggenheim acquires both a captive audience and the patina of popularity, for the hidden dream of high culture is to go mainstream. It’s no accident that while Koolhaas was turning commercial space in the Venetian into a museum he was also reversing the process and refitting the Guggenheim’s Soho branch in New York into a Prada store, which displays its goods as objets d’art.

You could argue that parking masterpieces in the desert simply replays the logic of capitalism, demonstrating anew how art is bound to the rules of the market. But you would have to add that this case forms a partial exception to the rule of ever quickening consuming and discarding of new commodities.

Las Vegas demonstrates how extremes meet, how pushing far enough in one direction issues in the opposite, in this case a desire for difference, maybe for stillness. The Venetian Guggenheim was the other shoe waiting to drop, as speed and slowness each called up the other. In Las Vegas, stimulus overload creates a workable backdrop for old-fashioned contemplation, and also sharpens our senses by calling on new forms of attentiveness to register the floods of glitzy data. So if distraction contributes to attentive viewing, then maybe Las Vegas is a good enough place to look at Rembrandt or Rodin; maybe Matisse and MTV actually speak to each other. In this way speed and distraction themselves can constitute new forms of attention and contemplation.

Of course, distraction and speed per se cannot guarantee attentiveness. The challenge lies in learning to dance with distraction in a way that enlivens rather than deadens our perception. If we are not simply to drown in white noise—which we already do, all the time—we need to find those islands of quiet that, ironically, white noise itself helps to form.

Arden Reed is the Dole Professor of English at Pomona. This article, originally published in Newsday in 2002, was revised for
PCM. Reed helped organize the three-day See Here: A Colloquium on Attention and the Arts held at Pomona in 2003.
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