The best of a recent performance art festival takes seriously contemporary ways of looking at art
An art critic of the connoisseur kind extols the rewards of hours spent in contemplation of a single work of art. As his gaze probes a painting, the time that the artist spent on it comes back again, revealing the subtle pleasures of the work’s crafting. His attention does something to it. The prolonged spotlight of his gaze is what cognitive scientists call “direct executive focus”, which sounds so significant, so brawny—executive! direct! Yet this kind of attention is also the most vulnerable. It’s an easy target for the lesser stimuli that would interrupt it. This is why (according to the connoisseurs who run them) museums should be quiet, why their walls should be white, why the furnishings should be demure. It should be as if life pauses there, or isn’t there at all.
Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot is about eighteenth-century critics who praised artists’ depictions of total engrossment. The rapt attention on faces in paintings became a model for the viewer’s own gaze. “It is rare that a being who is not totally engrossed in his action is not mannered,” Diderot wrote of his favor for attentive figures. Only when painting freed itself from the falseness of theater could it achieve Diderot’s ideal of art as “a street, a public square, a temple,” places where—unlike in the theater—action is not calculated to capture the attention of others. “[I]t was only by negating the beholder’s presence that this could be achieved,” summarizes Fried, “only by establishing the fiction of his absence or nonexistence could his actual placement before and enthrallment by the painting be secured.” The connoisseur wants coquetry from painting. To earn his attention, art has to play hard to get.