Friday, November 10, 2006

Attention span

Karl Zipser commented on my post at Art and Perception, writing Let me offer some criticism of your post. The entire first paragraph is unnecessary. This is a blog post. Even intelligent people expect to have instant gratification, to know what the point is right away. Why do you think you have special rights to violate the expectations for the medium?

It's an interesting question, deserving of a serious answer. It strikes directly at the heart of what I think ought to be the role of Art in our society.

Is it true that even intelligent people expect to have instant gratification? And if it is, does that mean that we need to oblige them? Our society caters to that desire, and the result is that we get served up a world view that consists of thirty second snippets, starting with Sesame Street and continuing on through our lives. Instead of serious issues getting serious, substantive discussion, the political discourse is conducted in point-scoring 30 second soundbites on the evening news. The result is that big issues that could easily be the subject of dozens of doctoral dissertations are handled by the process of extreme distillation, so that all the detail and nuance is gone.

Art can help. Art can teach us that there are rewards in taking a longer look - that often instant gratification is nowhere near as gratifying as the climax we experience at the end of a longer effort of attending to something.

Time for a concrete example. Consider which is more gratifying, this:

A man went to war. On his way home, he had problems.

or Fitzgerald's beautiful translation:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.

He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.

Robert Fitzgerald's translation of The Odyssey runs on for another 460 odd pages. Maybe it's ok to take a little more space and time, in order to get at things a bit more deeply.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Paul, the post you're referring to gave me some interesting things to think about all day as I did landscaping in my yard. I would not have gotten that from an instantly gratifying style.

I'd like to see more of the same. Not only was the post challenging, it was beautifully written.

3:08 AM  
Blogger Jon Conkey said...

It is a good thing the "merchant's son" who cracked the "rosetta stone", didn't have A.D.D.!

8:52 AM  
Blogger Karl Zipser said...


Boy did I take a beating for that comment! But I don't mind.

2:51 AM  

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