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Attention, Paid Forward
Pedro Zenteno, Academic Director, The Global Leaders Program
Life is the sum total of what we pay attention to.
The idea of attention has gained significant traction in the last few years—in particular, the idea that we might be less able to pay attention in the new landscape within which our lives now unfold. While concern about human attention spans may be as old as black thread, there’s enough scientific evidence and lived experience to believe that the current focus on our perennial struggle to pay attention may be at an all-time high. From best-selling books to Netflix documentaries, experts are highlighting different factors in our everyday life that contribute to a changed attentional environment. The business model of social media platforms, the peaks and valleys induced by our diet, the quality of our sleep—all seem to play a role in creating this shift. (For those interested in this general subject, the book Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari, is a great place to start.) My particular interest here is the role that artists and arts leaders play in this conversation.
I. Artists can amplify and deepen the felt experience of attention. About 15 years ago, I joined my aunt to interview a renowned Chilean poet, Nicanor Parra, in his house. Parra kicked off the conversation by describing the apples that grew in his backyard. His description was captivating—in part because the scene and the topic felt random and surprising, but also because—as a poet would—he had a way of moving through different nuances in the experience of biting into an apple that made it seem like a sensorial feat. From smell to colors, textures to taste, he completely transformed the encounter we were about to have with his apple tree. At first glance, the apples were uglier and less appetizing than I expected—at most, ordinary apples. But despite their lack of color, thick skin, and sour flavor, I will never forget that moment. For the first time, I had been primed to experience an apple. My attention had been guided in a way that opened up my senses and made biting an unremarkable fruit feel like a treasured scene from childhood.
II. Artists practice a sustained kind of attention that leads to excellence. As a motivated piano student, I understood the type of attention that is needed in the last weeks leading to a performance. “The price of excellence is eternal vigilance,” was my teacher’s motto. Vigilance is a type of attention that requires discipline and stamina and is fueled by dedicated teaching artists who use their skills to prime their students’ attention for endless fresh encounters with works of art.
III. Artists have a particular capacity for the playful transformation of attention and perception. When Antanas Mockus took office as Mayor of Bogotá in 1995, he faced a seemingly impossible task: restoring the sentiment of citizenship in a city that was then one of the most chaotic, dangerous, and corrupt in the Americas. Since conventional methods for accomplishing this were useless, one of his first actions as mayor was to fire corrupt traffic police and hire pantomime artists who, despite having no law-enforcing authority, managed to turn crosswalks and traffic lights into a theater of civic values. If you were a rude or violent driver, these pantomime artists directed pedestrians’ attention to you, domesticating violence and indifference through participatory fun. Mockus not only understood the artist’s power to direct people’s attention; he went a step further to harness that power as a mechanism for civic impact.
Artists bring these unique qualities to today’s shifting attentional environment. Their ability to capture people’s attention and guide it toward positive personal and civic outcomes may be a virtue worth making explicit in the professional training of artists and arts entrepreneurs. Taking time to think about this seems increasingly urgent in the information-heavy, discombobulated times in which we are living. While this is only a starting point, if arts professionals become more explicitly aware of how their practice connects with the textured and traction-gaining concept of attention, they may start noticing new opportunities for learners, as well as value-added ideas for arts organizations.