Photo by Vincenzo Malagoli

Artistic Attention

In my seemingly ever-present quest to maintain autonomy over my own mind, I was excited to read “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell. What I expected was an exploration and critique of how the attention economy and the addictive algorithms that dominate it affect our minds. To my surprise, the book was more about art than it was about technology.


This came as a surprise to me because, admittedly, I didn’t do my research beforehand to know that Odell is an artist and art professor at Stanford University. But as I read her book and contemplated my own relationship with social media and the digital age, I started to recognize the role art plays in influencing our attention and, therefore, who we are.


“Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience,” William James says in “The Principles of Psychology, Volume 1.” “Why? Because they have no interest to me. My experience is what I agree to attend to.”


Art has the capacity to train and change our attention, and therefore our experience, by altering the context through which we see the world. Odell argues that this context is a necessary component of understanding, which is why social media feels so draining—you’re overloaded with information that lacks spatial and/or temporal context. Everything happens all at once, everywhere.


“I imagine different parts of my brain lighting up in a pattern that doesn’t make sense [while I’m scrolling on social media] that forecloses any possible understanding,” she writes. “Many things in there seem important, but the sum total is nonsense, and it produces not understanding but a dull and stupefying dread.”


Art, on the other hand, necessitates context — the space and materials the piece is made of, the lived experience of the artist, when it was created (both within the larger scale of history and the smaller scale of the artist’s life and career), etc. — and that context naturally lends itself to an expansion of our understanding. When discussing social media algorithms that are designed to encourage healthy behaviors, Odell writes, “To me, the only habit worth ‘designing for’ is the habit of questioning one’s habitual ways of seeing, and that is what artists, writers, and musicians help us do.”


One such piece Odell references as enforcing this habit is “Pearblossom Highway, 11th–18th April 1986,” a collection of hundreds photographs by David Hockney all taken of the same subject, a highway scene, from different angles and on different days, as the title suggests. The photos were arranged to create a kaleidoscopic perspective on an everyday sight — and the intended impact was effective.


“Some museum goers who had seen the piece came back to tell [the docents] that afterward everything outside had looked different from what they were used to,” Odell writes. “… [T]hose who visited [the San Francisco Botanical Garden near the museum] directly afterward found that Hockney’s piece had trained them to look a certain way — a notably slow, broken-up luxuriating in textures.”


This fragmented attention differs from the shattered inattention of social media Odell describes; the former necessitates a careful consideration of each part. A park becomes the grass, and then the bugs in the grass, and then the breeze, and then the sounds of birds, each element its own and yet dependent on the others, a simultaneous part and whole.


What I love about art, both creating and consuming it, is this slowness: meandering through a museum, lingering on that which makes your heart catch for reasons that might be unbeknownst even to you. Reading a book and underlining the lines that will fill your mind for days on end, painting everything you see in a new light. Writing only a few lines of a poem at a time, trusting the next lines will come when they come. It feels revitalizing and connective where social media feels dull and impersonal, and the older I get (and the seemingly more chaotic the world becomes), the clearer it becomes to me that that revitalization is not just a pleasure; it’s a necessity to survival.