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<eyebeam><blast> Art and the attention economy
I would like to outline why the actual relationship among many themes of
the themes addressed in this conference, such as the nature of art, the
internet, intersubjectivity, corporate power, the Other, the West vs.
the rest, may be somewhat different from what they seem.
Let me start with a thread that seemingly takes us far afield from
issues of art, namely the concern over corporate power. That concern, I
want to suggest, is based on an extremely widely held assumption that
the basic outlines of the industrial, money-based economy will continue
largely unchanged as the Internet comes increasingly to dominate life.
This continuation has both its celebrants and its contemners, but either
side suspects its inevitability. I don't. Rather I see the Internet as
the setting of a new kind of an economy, a post-material one. Of course
I am not alone in making such statements, but where I do part company
with most is to argue that this new kind of economy is centered not on
information, as is so often suggested, but much more on what it is that
putting forth information might get you-namely, attention.
Unlike information which is only artificially scarce under current
circumstances, attention is intrinsically scarce. As it must come from
other human beings to be of value, there is only so much of it around
per capita. Having some is a definite requirement for humanness, and
having a great deal can be highly desirable. The Internet especially is
rich in holding forth the possibility that attention in abundance may be
Attention paid by one person and received by another is of course a
different way of describing intersubjectivity. For attention to be
exchanged, there must be a meeting of minds, or at least the feeling of
such a meeting. But what of attention paid by many and received by one,
which happens to be the common condition of successful Western art?
Clearly on the part of the beholder there must be an illusion of
intersubjectivity, but since, under most circumstances the artist is not
actually paying attention to the particular audience member, this is
just an illusion, albeit possibly a deeply moving because deeply
Whatever else it does, every work of art to be successful must succeed
in focussing attention, pulling it in. In fact why not consider the
ability to do that as the very essence of art in the contemporary world?
Whether we reefer to Damien Hirst's meat slabs, Jenny Holzer's flashing
signs, Chuck Close's self-portraits or the web art of jodi.org, all must
ensnare our attention to be successes as art, and if they do that, they
need do nothing else specific to be art. (Most of the time, at least in
Western art, more happens.; we note not only the art but the artist, and
in fact our attention can be thought of as traveling through the work to
its creator (or, occasionally, creators).
A few contributors to this forum have suggested that art must move us
deeply or must be an attempt to present (or represent?) a worldview.
Both these thoughts are consistent with the suggestion that to be art
something must draw forth our attention. First, what does it mean to be
deeply moved? If we had some a-priori list of deep emotions we could
label their occurrences. But we only know retrospectively that something
has been moving in some way by the fact that it keeps recurring to our
attention. Nor can we pay intense attention to anything without some
feeling of being held, which,perhaps oddly as metaphor, implies being
moved (from the position of mind one must have had before, at least).
But I also want to point out that to pay attention to any form of human
expression is to make a certain contact with the minds and personalities
behind it, in fact to adopt, temporarily their viewpoint. Thus an art
that calls forth attention must also of necessity present some sort of
worldview. (To have a viewpoint entails having a worldview, and having a
world view likewise requires having a viewpoint.)
Since art must achieve an intersubjective illusion to work, art that
ostensibly is not the creation of a single person or a well-integrated
small group is extremely difficult. One does not easily feel that one is
intersubjectively relating to a large corporation, and anonymous
collective , a nation, a society, or a civilization. So none of these
entities, in and of themselves, are likely to be artists.
This view of art puts it in a new light in the new economy. If the
scarcity of attention and attempts to capture large amounts of it have
become the central features of the post-material economy, then the
attempt to create art is an increasingly central type of activity,
whatever the medium used. One gets attention less by what may be called
production, in the sense of routine production of standardized objects,
but by performance, doing something original, and somehow in the (or a)
In this new economy, where attention is wealth, having attention is
having a kind of possession or property. The conditions which best lead
to gaining this property are quite different from those entailed by the
somewhat contradictory category known as intellectual property. To gain
the most attention, one generally wants one's work, or word of it, to be
widely disseminated. The best way to achieve this is to allow anyone to
copy or reproduce it, with no strings attached.
But how then do you prevent someone from simply claiming your work as
their own? The simple answer is to arrange to have witnesses as early as
possible to every project you engage in. Imagine everything you do on
one's your own computer automatically and immediately appearing on your
website; that would go some way towards assuring witnesses very early
For this and other reasons, all of life to some degree becomes part of
one's art, one's performance. One gets most attention by having nothing
to hide, or rather choosing to hide nothing. Thus success in any kind of
activity depends upon a performance ability, and innate and possibly
deliberate artistry revealed in that activity.
Of course, to say that everyone must now strive to be an artist is not
to say that most of the art will either be terribly good, nor that most
people will be able to gain much real attention by their art. (The
latter possibility may be pretty much the same as the former). An
attention economy is highly creative and deeply aesthetic in nature, but
it is not necessarily a very equal world. There remains only so much
attention to go round.
Those who are successful end up with far more than their "fair" share of
attention, others with far less. Full equality in this new economy can
only result from an audience willing to give equal attention to
everything. I have to admit I would not like to be a member of such an
audience, nor can I imagine that many really would.
Not so incidentally, let me take this opportunity to thank Jordan
Crandall for putting together a very thoughtful and thought provoking
group of participants in this forum. Most of it got my attention. If you
are still reading this, thanks for yours.
(I have only touched on some of the ramifications of an attention
economic understanding of art. One might glean more by examining some of
the postings on or referred to on my website.)
Michael H. Goldhaber
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