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Frank Auerbach, Reclining Head of Gerda Boehm, private collection

Over the fall months James Elkins, the prodigiously prolific writer about art, art history, criticism and art appreciation, wrote a series of pieces for the Huffington Post. (I wrote about his series here.) One of those articles as a title—Are Artists Bored By Their Work?—that is so provocative you can’t not read it.

Elkins starts by addressing a theme kindred to the founding principle of this blog—slow looking:

The philosopher Arthur Danto asked that I not fetishize slow looking. He pointed out that some works of modern art, like Duchamp’s urinal or Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, do not ask to be looked at for hours and hours. A quick look, or even a glance, is right and appropriate. But I’d like to pursue slow looking, and think about it as carefully as I think it deserves. One way to pursue this subject is to ask how long it took the artist to make the work in the first place…It is interesting to be writing about slow looking and slow thinking in a setting like the Huffington Post, where news moves at such a breakneck pace, where you can jump from one post to another as quickly as a click of the mouse. We are all afflicted with a mild attention deficit disorder, and when comes to images, our flightiness is especially intense. We consume more images per lifetime, per day, and even per minute than any culture before us. Modern paintings often seem to have been made quickly, by comparison with the paintings of earlier centuries, and that seems to give us the license to look at them quickly–to consume them and move on.

Elkins draws a comparison between how much time it takes to make a work of art now and before the modernist era. He postulates that paintings took more time during the Renaissance because of the desire to represent the real world. Capturing a “highly ornamented world” takes more time to draw than the minimalism and single brush stroke styles so common in the postmodern era.

But were the representational artists of the Renaissance just a little bored with the tediousness of their task? Elkins points out that many Renaissance artists only painted heads and hands. The rest, painted by their tribe of apprentices. Which raises a reasonable question: Were they bored by the task of capturing the rest of nature? “How interested could Titian have been in all those trees?”

Contemporary art making practices are very different. Elkins again:

Modern painting, on the other hand, is said to be potentially interesting throughout, in every mark, at every inch. Frank Auerbach could not possibly have been bored when each brushstroke mattered so much. His best work is exemplary because he risked everything at every moment. Not a single mark is rote, habitual, or routine. Everything is contingent, as the art historian T. J. Clark says, and nothing is settled. Boredom is out of the question. A good work could not possibly be made by a bored artist.

It never occurred to me that it could be otherwise.

But let us not forget that boredom is actually a rather recent invention. It would be easy to treat it as a human trait that has always been with us, but that turns out to not be the case. According to Walter Benjamin, boredom was an invention of the middle classes that started around 1840. Up until then, no one was writing about it, complaining about it, suffering from it. “I don’t doubt that in the Renaissance people often found themselves at a loss about how to spend an afternoon, but no one was vexed by boredom, or in need of continuous distractions. Not a single Renaissance artist left a diary, or a letter, describing the appalling boredom of the long hours spent in the studio,” Elkins writes.

Boredom is now part of what we don’t like about our lives. It also speaks to the easily distracted, ADD-ish culture in which we live. And so many contemporary trends—social, technological, personal, behavioral—are feeding that proclivity. Committed slow looking—that deliberate and disciplined slowing down to really look at something—is just what many of us need to countermand all those distractions that constantly pull us away from center, away from the deeper connection. It may now need to be taught, like learning musical scales and fundamental ball handling skills. Any artist, contemporary or historical, needs and wants that kind of engagement.

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The essay on the last page of the Sunday Times Book Review by Jennifer Schuessler this week is provocative. Her topic: Boredom. Ah, that dreaded word. Full of moral implications. Antithetical to everything I learned (and probably inherited through epigenetics) from my pioneer heritage. You never left yourself get bored, and you never admit if for some reason you do. NEVER.

As Schuessler points out, “As a general state of mind, boredom is morally suspect, threatening to shine its dull light back on the person who invokes it. ‘The only horrible thing in the world is ­ennui,’ Oscar Wilde once wrote, suggesting that boredom doesn’t feel much better in French. ‘That is the one sin for which there is no forgiveness.'”

In fact, says Schuessler, boredom has some benefits. Brain research suggests that when we are awake but not doing anything in particular, our central processors are churning along, particularly in those parts responsible for memory, empathy with others and imagining hypothetical events—in other words, many of the skills needed for a successful literary experience. Hmmm. Something to consider.

Schuessler makes the discussion lively:

It’s common to decry our collective thaasophobia, or fear of boredom, manifested in our addiction to iPhone apps, the cable news crawl and ever mutating varieties of multitasking. One cellphone company has even promoted the idea of ­“microboredom,” which refers to those moments of inactivity that occur when we’re, say, stuck waiting in line for a latte without our BlackBerry. But novelists, for all their own fears of being dismissed as boring, continue to offer some bold resistance to the broader culture’s zero-tolerance boredom eradication program.

Bringing the discussion around to books, Schuessler highlight the posthumous publication of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished manuscript, The Pale King:

In April 2011, the limits of literary boredom will be tested when Little, Brown & Company publishes “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel, found unfinished after his suicide in 2008, about the inner lives of number-crunching I.R.S. agents. An excerpt that appeared last year in The New Yorker depicts a universe of microboredom gone macro…For all the mundanity of its subject matter, the excerpt presents boredom as something more strenuous and exalted than the friendly helper depicted by the neuroscientists, keeping our minds revved up even when we think we’re idling. Boredom isn’t just good for your brain. It’s good for your soul. “Bliss — a second-by-­second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom,” Wallace wrote in a note left with the manuscript. “Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

Boredom and bliss. Who knew?

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