…A musical composition does the same for listening. Art is a summoning of attention. To create it requires the highest directed focus, as does experiencing it.
So writes Sven Birkerts in his essay ‘Attending the dragonfly’, one of the essays gathered in his recent book “Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age.
Since COVID, more and more of us are living, working and even socialising online. This digitally connected environment pulls our attention laterally in multiple directions, our screens enmeshed in an endless web of information. Even when we do manage to focus on something we are still aware of everything else that’s just one click away, stacked in another open tab, or behind those click-through links you have skimmed past, all the while wondering if you’re missing something better, something that holds the answer.
Do you ever feel that this experience of data-glut creates a dull anxiety that there’s just not quite enough of your attention to go round? That you’re always missing something, or skimming to get to the next thing, word-spotting, hurry-reading? That, after a while, dealing with all this information coming in from outside feels like it starts to drown out our own imagination, creativity and inwardness? It’s an experience of breadth at the expense of depth.
More and more I am coming to think that art is an antidote or counterpoint to the shallow and distracted quality of attention I can feel creeping up on me when I spend too long online.
Taking some time out over the holiday period to just lie on the sofa and read, read, read, reminded me that I’ve been missing this deep absorption recently. To pick up a great novel and read for several hours, or to become immersed in the visual world of a painting, to play a piece of music, to take up a notebook and pen to write or draw, these are experiences of our own inwardness and depth.
I recognise that this will not be the same for everyone, and that neurodivergent minds will ride waves of focus differently. But I love Birkerts’ idea that art summons our attention, holds and guides it, and so deepens it.
Welcome, then, the slow pace of a long book, or a poem full of line breaks and white space, where the printed letters do not scroll away as soon as you read them but remain on the page, curled in your lap like a cat, while you look up for a moment to mull over what you’ve read, perhaps scribble some notes in the margins, fold the corner of a page for later, try to work out a connection or take another’s perspective, or read again, more deeply, as a new idea forms within you in response.
Because that is when we begin to leave the author’s wisdom behind and discover our own, venturing beyond the comfort of silos and words that only confirm what we think we know already. It’s an experience of our own inwardness and depth, our sufficiency.
The art critic Robert Hughes once said, in an address to the Royal Academy, What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water.
I love this idea that art can hold time. Writing too, gathers time up, as each revision the author makes folds time over and over itself, lets its meanings and resonances deepen. Sven Birkerts again:
Art is an act of concentrated attention, and engaging with it asks us to match that level of attention. Our involvement with a genuine work of art…asks from us some of the same attention that first triggered that artist’s creative impulse.
Art contains the enormous compacted energy of its making and makes it available to others. It asks us to rise to its pitch, lifts us to its level, but also gifts us with a kind of energy in return, in the form of attention. It recalibrates us, offers a balance to the dissipating pull of information glut and electronic distractions.
But it doesn’t have to be a marathon. Oliver Burkeman points out that research shows we can only really manage 3-4 hours of serious mental focus per day, and that we are doing well if we can arrange our working day to give ourselves this much undisturbed time. Expecting more is counterproductive. This chimes with what others have observed about the slow multitasking habits of very creative people that I write about here, moving between different tasks that require different levels of focus, but with a quiet persistence maintained throughout.
In his most recent book “Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use it” Burkeman observes that yes, we may be distracted by a digital environment explicitly designed to corral and monetise our attention but we are not suckered in against our will. We don’t put up much of a fight. In fact we surrender our attention willingly to scrolling for an hour on social media. This is because we are using it to escape from the mild discomfort of doing something that might be challenging us, that we might be finding a bit difficult, emotionally or intellectually.
I absolutely recognise that feeling of relief that comes when, instead of tackling a complicated edit or writing a tricky email I ‘quickly’ check my newsfeed and the next time I look up I find an hour has gone. Burkeman admonishes us to:
Just stop expecting hard, important, meaningful things to feel constantly comfortable and pleasant. Consider the possibility that mild discomfort – butterflies in the stomach, a sense of difficulty, a moment of boredom – might simply be the price of doing things you care about.
He describes this decision to persist with a challenging task and resist the urge to hurry to finish it, as a bracing act of choice. It’s one that cultivates in us what has become the least fashionable but perhaps most consequential of superpowers: patience. He goes on:
There is nothing passive or resigned about the kind of patience that arises from this effort to resist the urge to hurry. On the contrary, it’s an active, almost muscular state of alert presence.
And so giving a challenging task the time it demands becomes a source of relish. It’s a puzzlingly counterintuitive truth that to hurry less and to bring our full attention to each task we undertake actually makes us feel like we have more time, not less.
Four thousand weeks is the average human lifespan. Life is short. Time is precious. Our attention most precious of all. Use it wisely.