LIVING WITH ART, PART 1 // Aaron Cohick

01 Aug 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

When I was in graduate school, one of my colleagues, the artist and designer Melissa McGurgan, had a brilliant idea to teach critical analysis skills to her students: they would each take a piece by one of their classmates home, hang it up, and live with it for a week or two, writing and reflecting on the experience of viewing a piece through time, in their homes. How does an artwork change if you see it everyday, at multiple times? If you look at it every morning while you eat your cereal, or in the periphery as you do the dishes or glimpse it as you rush out the door to meet a friend?

“Living with” an art object spreads the experience of a static thing over a discontinuous time, it weaves the object through the life of an individual. The idea of the artwork in the home and life of a person feels very important, and so I want to write a series of posts thinking through various aspects of and questions about this idea of artwork, specifically what we might call readerly artwork, in the home.

Books and prints are really good at living with people—they are small, light, and can often be very affordable. Living with a book is a bit different than living with a 2D piece that hangs on the wall—viewing tends to be a little less rushed, a little less accidental. The person has to open the book at least. But I know from my experience of reading graphic novels and art books (here I mean books about an artist’s work) that a kind of quick, partially distracted, random reading of books can and does take place. A partially distracted reading is probably easier to fall into with books that rely heavily on visual content, but it can certainly happen with text-based books as well.

In the famous and still relevant essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin writes about the “ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator.” This is toward the end of the essay, section XV, where he is talking about film as an art made for/as “mechanical reproduction”—so in this case something very similar to books or prints. Benjamin writes: “Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. […] In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art. This is most obvious with regard to buildings. Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction.”

Working from Benjamin’s idea that “distraction and concentration form polar opposites” and from his concept of absorption—perhaps attention is not so much an either/or state (as in you are paying attention or you are not) but a continuum of absorption. At times the reader is absorbed by the art object, at other times they absorb it, and that relationship is changing at different rates throughout the experience. That absorption does not necessarily depend on the reader being in front of the object, actively reading, to take place. The reading (which is also attention) is discontinuous: it starts, stops, picks up again, repeats, skips, is processed from memory, etc., and all along the amount or type or quality of the absorption changes in relation to the reading conditions, to the necessities of the reader and their world. The amount of discontinuity in the reading is also related to the length of the object itself, and/or the reading conditions. Even a short artist’s book that can be read in one sitting (hopefully) continues to be read after the book is put down.

If reading is always discontinuous (and perhaps benefits from discontinuity?) then having the artwork in the home becomes ideal. Reading in galleries/museums is generally not great—too many other pieces to see, too many people, not enough time, etc. Reading in libraries is much better, but a long-term, discontinuous reading doesn’t really happen unless a reader happens to have convenient and consistent access to a library collection. The artwork is at its most available state when it is in the home, meaning that it is much more likely to be read in/as/through multiple states of attention, to be woven in/as/through the rhythms of a life.

Work Cited:

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 239.

Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.


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