I think the primary skill any artist must possess is the ability to notice. In fact, I’ll go one better. All art is drawing attention to what you have noticed. The very meaning of the word “aesthete” is to be sensate and sensitive; sensing, aware and alert. It is the duty and expectation of every artist that they fulfil the role of being able to sense and notice for us and to help us all do the same. It isn’t something that artists do, divorced or separate from life. It is life. Artists don’t know how to be any different. They just are good at noticing things.
It’s the reason why so much art delights in detailed aesthetic elements. In music, it’s the sounds, words, textures, harmonies, rhythms. Have you ever noticed how complex and interesting a single piano note can sound, in isolation? In painting and photography, it’s the light, the perspective, the likeness, the reflections, the textures, the tones, the colours, and the composition. Somehow, the artist finds a way to draw your eyes and ears towards the things they deliberately put into their work. In writing, the art is to create convincing characters, dialogue and narrative, each with an intricately interwoven story arc. In software design, it’s a superb user experience and elegance in coding. Somebody, somewhere, spent ages noticing how beautiful a musical instrument can sound in a particular acoustic environment and recreating that experience became what the best record producers do. They don’t just plonk a microphone down and hope for the best. They are attempting to help you notice the subtle beauty of what they noticed.
Art is neurologically affective. Our deepest and strongest memories are often of images or songs. People with degenerative brain conditions, such as the devastating Alzheimer’s disease, are still able to respond and emote to the sound a familiar and beloved tune, whereas their entire existence might have already withdrawn to a disconnected, unaware state, in which they continue to exist, but barely live. When a work of art is created, the richness of the things the artist noticed and then poured into it means that people appreciating that art have much to discover and a rich experience to record in their neurological wiring.
Artists employ their own heightened senses to help you heighten yours. In every case, the aim of the artist is to produce works that enliven and enlighten, rather than dull and blunt your senses. That isn’t to say that art can’t be used in the service of distracting you from what you ought to be noticing. It can. Sometimes, the work of art is so affective, that it persuades you to look away from what you ought to be paying attention to. That’s a subversion of art, in my view. Flashing lights in Las Vegas are actually in the service of raiding your pockets for all of your money, rather than to edify you. Sad, really. Las Vegas has a strange beauty to it. It’s a shame that it’s art being abused to cause you to forget your budget constraints. The artists that created Las Vegas must have a very hollow feeling in their souls.
Sometimes an artist will notice something and then exaggerate it or amp it up. Making a feature of something small is how caricature works, or abstract expressionism. The aim is to not only get you to notice some aspect of the work, but to make it unmissable. By careful use of the artist’s craft and skill , placing the noticeable things in a composition in such a way that the artist draws your eye or ear toward it, the artist can make a deeper sensual impression on your than would have been the case if he had not made his art that way.
Sometimes the role of the artist is in noticing the deceptions. Not everybody can see them, yet much of what we call business or economics is actually highly dependent on subtle (and not so subtle) deceptions. So is politics. The media is the tool used in the deception, more often than not. If an artist sees the deception, then incorporating it into a work of art that lampoons, lays bare or parodies the deception and the deceivers is an important contribution to humanity. It’s one of the ways that artists can add value.
Today, Sarah Brown (wife of Britain’s ex-prime minister Gordon Brown) tweeted that she was going to Davos to “swan around”. Really? What is her husband doing there? I asked her. I asked if Davos was where unelected people, with no mandate, go to decide how to carve up the world’s wealth, in secret, without asking anybody else (only I got this down to the requisite 140 characters). Sarah didn’t think so, but noted that it was not what she would be doing, in any case. So why do they all go, then? In the gold fields, people that connived and plotted to take resources and wealth from everybody else, before they mobilised to prevent them, were called “claim jumpers”. And Sarah, I’m afraid, is an accessory before the fact. If her husband truly believed in democracy, he wouldn’t go at all, but as he does attend, what he is tacitly doing is endorsing dictatorship by corporate interests. I think Sarah should rethink her life. She does a lot for charity, no doubt about it and she comes across as a very nice person, but that isn’t going to buy absolution. Millions of people will suffer and probably die because of the deceptive decisions taken at Davos, by people whose only interest is self-interest. Is it any wonder that mind numbing has become such a massive industry? We’re not supposed to notice what goes on at Davos. Sarah Brown is swanning around.
Noticing also means you need to see the patterns and the seemingly unrelated connections. When a scientist painstakingly reconstructs John F. Kennedy’s head wound, through the tried and tested science of photometry, proving beyond reasonable doubt that the bullet exited from the rear of his head, when several other witnesses are on record as saying that the Presidential limousine’s windshield had a bullet hole in it, shot from the front and when the Zapruder film clearly shows the limousine’s driver momentarily braking, as if by instinctual reaction, before driving on, you have to conclude that the fatal shot came from the underpass in front of the motorcade, not the grassy knoll or the book depository. Strangely, nobody has made that connection publicly, even though the trajectory of the bullet would fit that observation. They don’t notice that a man identified as Jack Ruby was seen in the same underpass with a rifle in a pickup truck, just a day before the Presidential visit. A shot taken from the back of a pickup truck with a rifle, fired from a darkened underpass, where simply driving on, toward the crime scene, but on the opposite carriageway, would provide a very good means of escape for a gunman, in all the chaos. The victim, from that angle, would provide a steady, front-on target that would not require the gunman to pan his weapon from side to side, since the target would be merely growing in size as the limousine moved toward his position. It would be a very easy kill shot to make, compared to firing from a distant sixth floor window. But we’re not supposed to notice the obvious. Artists do. Artists should. Artists are trained to see these patterns and connections. It’s their speciality.
Artists are also good at noticing what works. Their stock in trade is making emotionally affective works. They have an idea of what will and won’t achieve that end. They also know how that work can be used to spread propaganda and disinformation. The artist has a grave responsibility to choose who to affect and to what end. They wield an enormous power. Do they use it for the benefit of all mankind, or to line their own pockets? It comes down to personal ethics and integrity, in the end.
Part and parcel of this is noticing the sensitive responses of others to things. This means responses not only to their own art, but to events, to circumstances and to life. Artists know when an audience has been moved. They also sense how they are affected by world events. They can choose to elicit that response through their work. Is it right to do so? Only the individual artist can decide. Do you create elaborate assassination plots to sell fictional novels to readers, or do you do it to plan an actual elaborate assassination that will fool most of the people. Do you subjugate a population to shock and awe, terrorising them for your own ends, or do you help them see and understand that such events are not, in fact random, but carefully staged and planned. If people are feeling afraid and despondent, should your art reinforce those feelings, or should you seek to create an antidote to that, encouraging people and making them believe that a better future is within their grasp, if they make the choice to seize it. What does Hollywood do?
Noticing means paying attention. Take nobody’s word for anything. If the media tells you something is the top story today, ask why that should be so and why today? Who benefits? What other story are they not covering, in order to devote air time and column inches to this one? Who sets the agenda and what is their purpose in doing so? Too often, we take what we’re told by people we assume to be in authority and acting in our best interests, for granted, uncritically. That’s a good way to get yourself and your children killed. Remember, all news is a narrative. It differs from fiction only to the extent that they can produce and demonstrate extraordinary proof of their extraordinary claims. Too often, the facts are not presented, the proof withheld and we’re told that we’re too easily offended to be shown the truth. They’re paternally protecting us from the ugliness of it all. Whenever I see that kind of behaviour, I know I am being kept on the fiction side of the story and not hearing what they profess to peddle, which is non-fiction. If it’s fiction, why should I believe it?
Artists need to read (i.e. sense) the Zeitgeist and respond to it. John Lennon said something about writing songs that say what everybody else is feeling: “My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all”. Art can actually affect the Zeitgeist. It has that power. Artists can set the agenda and set the tone of what people ought to think, but Lennon was clear about it. We shouldn’t tell people how to feel, we should express what we all feel. To do that, you have to notice how people feel. There’s a serious ethical dimension to what we choose to draw attention to, in our art and the emotional impacts we wish to communicate through our art. We must choose wisely and beneficently.
Being an artist means being mindful. Mindfulness is a movement with a long and ancient history. We need to be mindful. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness. Being mindful leads to a reduction in stress and to the elevation of positive outcomes and emotions. Mindfulness is about awakening our awareness. It’s a technique that teaches us how to notice things better.
As artists, we need to keep in mind what we are doing, the power we wield and how to best use that power to serve humanity, rather than condemn it, when we draw attention to elements of our artistic work. When I see journalists and authors denigrating human beings and attributing their condition as being their own fault, I despair. Is that the thing we want everyone to notice? The world needs kindness. People need to be shown how to notice for themselves.
Aesthetic training is an important skill to acquire. So much warfare and bad behaviour in business relies utterly on people being unfeeling and insensate to the effects of their actions. Training them to sense, feel, notice, and empathise and to be alert to manipulation for bad purposes is a powerful antidote to these regrettable tendencies in some human beings that still believe their purpose on earth is to take from all other beings on earth, or else to blindly take orders and maintain the status quo, regardless of how corrupted it is. Becoming an aesthete that notices more acutely would soon put an end to that piece of faulty philosophy. Indifference to the consequences of wars you wage, the people you kill or betrayals you perpetrate can only be maintained by hard-heartedness and a desire to avoid seeing the consequences. Training people to notice prevents that.
We all need to become more sensitive to what’s around us. Hyperawareness may be the goal (if not hyperawareness, then at least enhanced awareness). The ability to notice keenly and to draw attention to what you notice is a precious skill. As artists, we have the ability to show the audience where, when and what to listen to, look at and feel. It’s a heavy responsibility, but it’s what artists do best. Use that power compassionately.