Saturday, December 13, 2008

Becoming cultured, part 2.

This is another of my favorite excerpts from Discover Your Inner Economist (which is still by Tyler Cowen). It is also from Chapter 4.

"The art critic tries to make the viewer a better person. This sounds good--after all, who is opposed to “better people,” or people who are better informed? But it is not necessarily the way to solve the problem which is fundamentally one of attention and interest. In contrast to the art critic, our Inner Economist starts with the recognition that our attention is scarce and works with that constraint. I therefore recommend the following.

1. In every room ask yourself which picture you would take home--if you could take just one--and why.

This forces us to keep thinking critically about the displays. If the alarm system was shut down and the guards went away, should I carry home the Cezanne, the Manet, or the Renoir? In a room of Egyptian antiquities, which one caught my eye? And why? We should discuss the question with our companion.

To put it crudely, we must force ourselves to keep on paying attention. Ranking the pictures focuses our attention on our favorites. It also focuses our attention on ourselves, which is in fact our favorite topic. Me, me, me. It sounds crude, doesn’t it? But if the “Me Factor,” as I will call it, is operating against the art rather than working with it, our love affair with museums won’t last very long.

Finally, it is fun to imagine ourselves as thieves. Theft is exciting, and we value objects more highly when we can think of ourselves as owning them. That is also part of the Me Factor.

Of course, we must ignore the carping of the sophisticates. Well-educated critics may claim that pictures cannot be ranked, value is multidimensional or subjective, or that such talk represents a totalizing, colonizing, possessive, post capitalist, hegemonic Western imperialist approach. All of those missives are beside the point. When it comes to the arts, dealing with the scarcity of our attention is more important than anything, including respecting the artists.

2. Pretend we are shopping for pictures on a budget.

We are probably better trained at shopping than looking at pictures. So we might do some basic research on the prices (e.g., surf the Internet or visit an auction house). How might $20 million be spent at the Met?

Or how about $500,000? The smaller budget forces us out of the market for major paintings and into niche areas. This exercise will again focus our attention, force us to clarify our intuitions, and improve the quality of our viewing. The shopping question puts the Me Factor, albeit unobtrusively, back at the center of the experience.

Viewing art at an auction house is useful for learning about prices. In New York City, November and May are usually the best times for advance viewings of auction material. But local auction houses hold viewings throughout the year. Typically the quality of the selection is worse than at a pre-culled art museum. Nonetheless it often makes for a superior viewing experience, if only because of the prices and the shopping and browsing mentality that the setting induces.

3. When visiting a blockbuster exhibit, skip room number one altogether.

There is too much human traffic, because people have not yet admitted to themselves that they don’t care about what is on the wall. Maybe you don’t care much either, but you will care more by relaxing the pretense.

[This tip reminded me of the big Monet to Picasso exhibit that I went to earlier this year. The museum girl who was letting us in told us about this! The reason we all had to wait was because the first room takes awhile to clear out. In the first room, people still think they want to read every sign by every piece. After the first room, most people stop doing that, and then the flow is much better.]

4. At the end of the visit, ask which paintings stuck with you.

Did you find yourself thinking back on the Munch, the Pollock, or the medieval tapestries? A week later ask the same question. Then go read about those artists or that period. That is a more useful procedure than reading about the art in advance.

These recommendations flow from the general principles from above. Our time and attention are scarce. Art is not that important to us, no matter what we might like to believe. So we should stop self-deceiving and admit to ourselves that we don’t just love “art for art’s sake.” Our love of art is often quite temporary, dependent upon our moods, and our love of art is subservient to our demand for a positive self-image. How we look at art should account for those imperfections and work around them."

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