Art and the Attention Economy in Real Space and Cyberspace

The fight against the background noise.

Michael H. Goldhaber

Not long ago, as I left an art exhibit, I suddenly realized that I was intensely scrutinizing the sidewalk I was walking on. Art does that; it succeeds by drawing forth our attention as strongly as possible. In fact you might define art that way; it's purpose is precisely to draw attention. That is all it has to do to be art. Beauty or moral lessons are not required; successful strategies for attention getting are.

I would add that the attention drawn to an artwork can be thought of as going "through" it back to the artist herself. We often think of the particular piece before us as "a Picasso," "a Richter," "a Sherman," or the like, and connect what we are looking at to the whole life of the artist, or all we happen to know. In examining the work, we are putting ourselves in the place of the artist, trying to fathom why she did what she did, how it looked from her viewpoint.

In my terminology that makes artists among the purest attention getters-stars. It makes an examination of the conditions in which art can thrive relevant to all of us as we try to make our way in the new economy. Art in the 20th century has had to vie with an increasingly intense background to get attention. Yet some artists seem to have succeeded quite well at that.

Not all artists adopt the same strategies, but every successful one has somehow fought against the background "noise" to gain visibility and induce intense looking. Also, of course, no artist succeeds in getting everyone's attention. Even under the best of circumstances, some people will walk right by without ever letting the art really enter their consciousness.

About 60 years ago, Walter Benjamin argued that "the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" could be everywhere, but, in that, he turned out to be mistaken. Most often, if an image is everywhere and we know it, we are not inclined ever to pause and look at it carefully. If an art work is unique, or practically so, and we know this, we know we can only look at it on the rare occasion when it's right in front of us. When that occasion arises we are more inclined to make the effort to see.

Artists have figured out a number of strategies that, intentionally or not, have kept their art from being successfully reproduced, so each work remains pretty much unique. If a painting were exactly two dimensional, that is lying perfectly in a flat plane, then it could be reproduced pretty well by purely photographic means. No coincidence then that many painters in this century pile up their paint thickly. Their work occupies "2 and 1/2 dimensions," in effect; photography is not at all faithful in this case. Uniqueness is preserved.

Something similar holds for sculptors. Castings can always be taken for ordinary stone-carvings- pure three-dimensional works-and then the castings or models can be used to make any number of copies out of plastic or bronze. Modern sculptors often evade that fate by the complicated ways they treat their surfaces, providing a high polish, letting them rust, sand blasting them with noticeable scratch marks, or even painting them. Sculptures thus are more surface than volume, again more like works in "2&1/2 dimensions." Mass production is again not possible.

Many more techniques insure the same non-reproducibility. Both paintings and sculptures can incorporate collage, complicated mixes of materials or media, unique "found objects," or perhaps enormous scale, all of which defeat reproduction or leave it wildly different from the real thing. Other art is "site" specific, like Christo's wrapped Reichstag, and often, as in that case, existing only for a limited time.

Singular art can't be everywhere. Most often it can only be seen on exhibit, in a museum or gallery. Today's museums, like the new Frank Gehry Guggenheim Museum in San Sebastian, Spain, are themselves amazing, unusual, attention-getting structures, entering which takes you into a special space, almost a cathedral where the art on the walls is to be venerated. Not everyone visiting a museum looks with care, but enough do to set a mood.

Older cathedrals had their recognizable saints and reliquaries. In the same way today, a modern art museum almost anywhere might have its recognizable Picasso, Mondrian, Rothko, Klee, Pollock, Warhol, Oldenburg and so on. In this semi-holy space, further dignified by the imposing architecture, you venerate by paying close attention to what you see. Each artist has one or a few personal styles, and the strangeness of each one, the first time you lay eyes on it, also tempts you to look more deeply. You ask "Why is it like this?" "In what way is this art?" "What is going on here?" Often enough, the work of art itself answers. It can hit you with the force of revelation, putting you seemingly in direct contact with the mind of the artist.

That all applies to art seen in the old space, not cyberspace. In this new space, successful art will require new strategies. There are no imposing museum rooms; no chance for large scale; no option of unusual materials, since everything is seen on the same screen; normally you are not aware of anyone else looking to sanction your own looking with care. And the temptation to pause to try to make sense of something difficult is offset by the chance to put that off, to surf on to a new site which takes less effort to comprehend, though it may reward you with less too.

One strategy, much tried, is so-called net radio; pieces that will be "broadcast" only at specific times. You either pay attention when that time comes or you don't get another chance. The difficulty is that everything that passes over the net is already digitized, already therefore, fully recordable, reproducible even if the artists don't intend that. "Time-specific" art cannot stay unique that way.

Another major attempt is hyperart, where how you respond to choices determines what you will next see. One difficulty is that you find yourself voyaging alone, with no reason to suspect that what you see was specifically planned by the artist, since there are too many contingencies to account for in advance. And there is no way-yet- to bring others along, or to feel yourself part of a group of viewers, as you might in a musuem.

The truth is cyberspace is great for having a crack at attention. But holding it, pulling it in deeply-how to do that is still in question.

I will return to this topic....

Michael H. Goldhaber: The Attention Economy and the Net (Michael H. Goldhaber)