Life is fast. It’s perhaps stating the obvious, but the pace of information, that routinely flows in our direction, is like never before. With so much competition for our attention and so much competition for the attention of our audiences, how does this affect artists?
Art requires attention. When you are creating an artwork, there is so much to think about simultaneously and if you aren’t paying attention, you’ll miss something important or worse still, break the creative flow. The quality of the work will fall in direct proportion to your inattention.
For your audience, unless your work succeeds in attracting their attention above all the other things in their lives trying to do the same thing, your work will not achieve the recognition or value its quality may merit. In some senses, to reach an audience, your art almost has to be designed to attract attention. An audience member needs to pay attention to your art to really appreciate it and to derive the sense of pleasure that it can bring.
Some artistic endeavours are collaborative efforts, simply because of their scale. Creating new software products can be like this, for example, as can making a feature film or recording an album of music. When there is a singular artistic vision driving the collaborative project forward, keeping everybody’s attention on the most important goals and tasks becomes the biggest component of the work. Co-ordination does not come for free. That’s why directors, record producers and product managers are so vital.
The dark side of this is that if you only have ten people, but a hundred things that the team needs to pay attention to simultaneously, only ten will really get attention and that’s only if the team are disciplined professionals that know better than to spread themselves so thinly across a hundred different things, that nothing effectively gets attention. That’s a fact. It’s unrealistic to expect otherwise (though so many large-scale, collaborative projects do expect otherwise and fail as a result).
If you’re making a new software product, as an example, keeping everyone aligned on the customer’s priorities and making sure everyone knows that some decisions have shelf lives (in other words a different decision will apply after some key event or milestone) is hard to do. Once it is pronounced, it becomes gospel and it is hard to make sure everyone on the team know when the policy has been changed. Film makers encounter the same problem with script changes. At some point, the knock on effect of a script change can reveal itself in continuity errors or lack of coverage when shooting (which backs the editor into a corner).
Everyone on the team tends to see the world from the point of view of their own flow. It is hard to get them to simultaneously view the universe as an integrated whole, with everybody else’s work included and from the ultimate point of view of the audience for the completed work. It’s even hard to get them to focus on external deadlines. All they can see clearly is the view from their own desk.
In music making, paying attention to all the things needed to make a finished recording of a song, while not getting bogged down on any one small detail or neglecting anything important, is just as hard to do. So many artists fail to complete tracks that they start. Just getting an album to the mastering stage is a feat. Ultimately, by definition, a commercial recording artist is trying to make something that will compete for listeners’ attention. Grabbing a listener’s attention is becoming harder to do, as the number of channels and platforms for music delivery increases and the audience presence on each change so rapidly and radically.
In painting, paying attention to all the aspects of the work on the easel, such as the colour combinations, tonal values, perspective, proportion, brush technique and so on, all add up to one big juggling act for the painter. Some painters make a virtue of not caring about all these things, but ultimately any painting of quality results from the painter paying attention to many aspects of the work.
In creative writing, character development and story arcs have to be cohesive, credible and compelling. No wonder authors rewrite and redraft so much.
As an artist, the constant barrage of peripheral emails, instant messages, cell phone calls, Skype calls, interruptions, facebook dalliances and other distractions can dilute your attention so much, that you become ineffective in your art. Filtering out all of that noise is essential to achieving a good artistic result.
In the not so distant past, it was arguably easier to get an audience’s attention. All you had to do was hijack some time on the channel with the largest aggregate audience, somehow. Record pluggers, literary agents and PR professionals made a handsome living doing just that on behalf of their artistic clients. Now, audience fragmentation and on-demand consumption of media makes that much harder to achieve. There is no large (enough) audience in any one place. Making a splash is more difficult.
Attention is scarce. There is not enough of it about. If you have read this far, you’re in the minority. You have to spend your attention carefully and expect audiences to do the same. Everybody rational will pay attention to is those they hold nearest and dearest, as a priority. Those that don’t manage their available attention will have it consumed by myriad pointless messages and media. Is attention deficit disorder really a disorder, or just a symptom of information overload and a failure to control how you spend your available attention? Shouldn’t we be teaching the young how to spend their attention most effectively?
Getting your artistic work done, to a high standard and finding an appreciative audience for that work is a question of paying attention to paying attention.