Wednesday, August 4, 2010

An Essay Induced Changing of Gears



A couple of days ago, I decided that I needed to watch Star Cricket’s live telecast of England playing Pakistan in a test match at Trent Bridge. An ordinary enough way in which to while away a rainy afternoon? Possibly. But for me, on that day, this was a conscious act, a decision, a Moment of Reckoning. I’m exaggerating, but only a little. I promised myself that I’d watch half an hour of the game without distraction - no channel surfing, no riffling through the day’s newspapers, no listening to music with the commentary turned all the way down.

And why did I do this? Because, the previous evening, I’d been lucky enough to read an essay by Jeanette Winterson entitled ‘Art Objects.’  It’s an essay about art, but mostly an essay about a cultivating a relationship with art – about making the effort to engage with an artwork. The words ‘making an effort’ are key – Winterson shifts the onus of ‘connection’ onto the audience, asking viewers to shed their inhibitions and prejudices, to look beyond instinctive ‘like/dislike’ responses, to appreciate that art has it’s own language – essentially, to accept that absorption and delight in an artwork is a privilege, not a right. And that earning this privilege takes openness, willingness and time. Winterson is openly dismissive of the museum model of art viewership, where people make hurried dashes through galleries, stopping only to take pictures of particularly celebrated works.

All of which rather uncomfortably brought to mind my own visits to renowned museums, made just a few days earlier. I’d like to say that I lingered over my favourite works, and took the time to really attend to what I was looking at. But the truth is that in spite of my purported interest in art and artists, I was guilty of many of the sins Winterson enumerates. I reacted instinctively to what I saw, I made snap judgments about what was/ was not worth my attention, and I moved between works far, far more quickly than I should have. In my own defence, though, it’s difficult and almost embarrassing to ‘take your time’ with an artwork when people are literally queuing up behind you, awaiting their ‘turn.’ It’s simpler to just take a picture and promise yourself that you will be back later, with more time on hand.

But even so….

Of all the important and valid (and some not-so-valid) points that Winterson made in her essay, the one that resonated most with me was her insistence that “Art takes time.”

Time. That one commodity we all lack. A luxury. Right? Right.

Or…That one commodity that we are least generous with – both when it comes to others and to ourselves? Think about it. To take time is to give oneself permission to move slowly, eat slowly, drink slowly, think slowly, do slowly, to listen, to absorb, to learn.

A love of immediacy has been blamed for phenomena ranging from the hollowness of this year’s Hollywood summer blockbusters and the staccato-SMS nature of Hindi movie dialogue, to the growing inability of school students to process long texts (and I do not mean text-messages) at an uninterrupted stretch. Most commentators agree that this need for speed seems to go hand-in-hand with a cultural preoccupation with the new, the exciting and the different. Ebert has described this as a quest for ‘frisson,’ and others have blogged, written and spoken eloquently about what such a quest might imply for us, our relationships, work and culture.

Given the way trends work, it’s no surprise that in the internet age, slowness is fast (!) gaining its own cult following, with movements dedicated to Slow Food, Slow Reading, and a host of other things.

It’s interesting that some of these movements, especially Slow Food, are comfortable conflating a return to slowness with respect for indigenous cultures, the preservation of regional cuisines and the promotion of organic farming. Under the aegis of these movements, slowness acquires a philosophical and even moral weight, which is of course, problematic. While we need to explore ‘speed’ and ‘immediacy’ critically, we also need to remember that these are afflictions of the privileged, at least with reference to terms and gestures such as frisson and the leisurely consumption of a five course meal. There are too many people imprisoned within loops of slow change and missed opportunities. This is not a repudiation of slow, but just a thought I think we should bear in mind before making slow-is-good, fast-is-bad generalizations.

And it’s doubly important that we guard against flippancy and faddishness with respect to slow. Because this reduces slow to a momentary distraction, a passing blip on our collective radar. Moreover, it is also important to not only be interested in slow-ness, but also explore what it means that we now have to grant ourselves permission to be slow.

It means that taking time with a book, with music, with movies or even a game of cricket tests our patience. We’re too primed to hit pause – on anything.  It means that we are uncomfortable with standing still, with waiting or with doing nothing at all. Which makes it difficult for us to negotiate and contend with things that we genuinely find interesting. One example would be the museum visit I mentioned earlier – if taking my time makes me uncomfortable and even makes me feel a little guilty (I mean, other people are waiting to look at this!) then how am I supposed to derive any pleasure out of the experience? So what happens is that we compress our interests to fit our narrow bandwidths and small windows of time – read 30 minute novels (they exist) during the commute, listen to music while we walk/ clean/ drive, eat in quick bursts. And our engagement, and joy in that engagement, shrinks accordingly.  

Not all instant reading/drinking/ eating is unavoidable or even unpleasant. Maybe someone somewhere likes the cup-noodle experience. There’s something to be said for instant gratification – that it’s pretty good! But it would be nice to allow ourselves to occasionally do things differently. Winterson’s essay was a timely reminder that seeing is sometimes a way of being. And if seeing is a way of being, then I must conclude that slow is the way to go.   

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