Why taking a break is a good thing for people who care about art
‘When things get too much for me,’ wrote Joseph Mitchell in his 1956 essay ‘Mr Hunter’s Grave’, ‘I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.’ The appeal is clear. Time stands relatively still in a graveyard and the dead have salutary lessons for the living: snap out of it, live while you can, be present. I sometimes skulk around tombstones for the same reason, but what I like better is to walk a mindless, unvarying circuit of a lake near where I live. I went there the other day and saw an accidentally perfect symbol of how things are right now, one that also felt like a teachable moment. Out in the middle of the sunlit waters was a rowboat, a silhouetted figure perched at either end: at least two metres apart, I’d have said. I sat on the shore, pulled into their slowed space, and watched awhile. They weren’t fishing, or even moving, just staring peaceably into space, becalmed, as if one of Peter Doig’s canoeists had found a friend in the time of social distancing. Elsewhere on the shores other people were fishing – perhaps not all of this was in accordance with the law – but of course fishing is mostly doing nothing except being there, reflecting, meditating without spiritual trappings.
The most useful book I read before everything changed was Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing (2019), for reasons the title might make obvious. Odell is an artist, and her book is not so much about inactivity as about tuning in to the real world and reclaiming your own attention. Some of her examples for how to do this come from art – John Cage makes an appearance, as Odell finds her hearing marvellously heightened after leaving a Cage concert – but after reading it I spent a fair bit of time mooching around parks looking, for periods long enough to make me conspicuous, at single trees or plants, discovering how much I could get out of them visually, and also refusing to engage with the whole picture, which would probably have felt overwhelming in zoom mode. Part of the pleasure of walking outside in those days was that I was newly attending to things that were already there and had been under my nose all along, except I hadn’t been able to focus on them. This activity didn’t require the production or pursuit of something newly made, just a shift in focus.
In the artworld and outside of it, I suspect most of us spend more time on intake than contemplation. It’s easier, for one thing, to keep chasing the new than to drill down into something already half-familiar and find noteworthy new layers, even if the latter is, in the long run, more satisfying. There’s a bit of resistance that has to be overcome when novelty is ever-beckoning. (For this reason, some of my happiest reading experiences have been when I’ve been stuck, on holiday say, with just one book.) But glut can also be an alibi for inattentiveness. Now, as you may have noticed, the artworld is broadly on pause. Except in a handful of cities, new exhibitions are not happening. But, for a range of reasons – primarily that heavily leveraged galleries need to keep selling work to survive – they’re happening online. Meanwhile it’s assumed that we’re so addicted to content that we need a tsunami of fresh gallery-generated podcasts, ruminative in-house texts, sneak peeks at what artists are making during lockdown, etc.
I wish it could be otherwise. Contemporary art is, or has been for the last couple of decades, a perpetual-motion machine, or a tail wagging a dog. In a book I wrote a few years ago, I lamented seeing ‘too many exhibitions that are blatantly products of the studio treadmill, which circularly pay for the assistants and the fair-booth acreage’, and nothing has changed in the meantime except, well, you know. You can’t meditate if you only inhale; you need to exhale too. This could have been and still might be a moment for a breather. Not least because what art is it that artists are supposed to make in the face of this snookering virus? Art about it feels wrong (and risks short-term relevance); art about anything else feels gauche. But the gallery system has snookered itself as well by becoming, broadly, structurally unable to handle a break in operations; hence the frantic pivot to online art fairs, etc. Magazines, too, need a steady crop of fresh faces to suggest or simulate dynamism. If you have an emerging-artist section, an artist needs to emerge every month, whether a good one has actually done so or not. The capacity for a backwards glance, even the potential for reflection, has felt barely there for years, until now.
Of course, while the shutters are down and the market scrambles to compensate by reaching out through the screen, a viewer can arguably move at their own speed, wander around awhile in the cemeteries of the archive, sandwich in hand. Follow the Cageian advice to stay with something after it bores you and see what happens when you crash through the irritation barrier, whether that thing is a single image or an artist’s oeuvre or an essay you last read a decade ago and with which you think you’re familiar (except that you’re a different person now, so perhaps not). Forget trying to memorise the names of every new artist, curator, etc, because for most of us that’s been impossible for a while. And you won’t be physically cornered for some time anyway. Resist in general the infinite scroll, the desire for which fades after a while. It remains to be seen whether, bumpy ride though it will undoubtedly be and not without undeserved casualties, the artworld reverts to a more manageable, less monolithic scale that makes it easier to honour art with our attention, perhaps our newfound attention, to it. Gallerists and artists are beginning to predict as much, and a sizeable part of me hopes they’re right.