"Art is Useless" (But Not Worthless)

Art is useless, but not worthless.

This edited version of an earlier post includes the full video of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's 2013 eye-opening IdeaFestival presentation. Watch for more full videos to be posted soon!

What is it about the sheer variety of ways I can now communicate that feels so impoverishing?

Having just mounted a powerful and eloquent defense of his very public work because it offers meaning rather than information, beginning at the 52:00 mark in the video here a mildly agitated Lozano-Hemmer leans into the thought once again during a question and answer session, pressing the case that his interactive works were shared experiences, not a way of saying any one thing.

Art has nothing to do with communication.... Communication is about the efficient transmission of information from one side to the other.... Art is not about that efficiency. It's not about that optimization. Art is much more about communion, about his moment of sharing.... It cannot be quantified. The telecom cannot charge us for this moment of complicity.

Beginning with an observation first made by Oscar Wilde, Lozano-Hemmer goes on to say that

Art is useless, but it's not worthless. [The artist] is actually here to slow down communication, to do interceptions....

And, finally, referring dryly to the work of artists:

If the [artist] wanted to communicate, he or she would write more clearly.

That vexation leapt to mind when I read The Attention Economy by Tom Chatfield. Like Lozano-Hemmer, I think Chatfield might ask that those who measure, map, sell or otherwise insist on surrender when it comes to our online relationships think about a set of shared experiences rather than communication. Because right now the exchange is woefully one-sided. Chatfield:

Attention... ‘comes in many forms: love, recognition, heeding, obedience, thoughtfulness, caring, praising, watching over, attending to one’s desires, aiding, advising, critical appraisal, assistance in developing new skills, et cetera. An army sergeant ordering troops doesn’t want the kind of attention Madonna seeks. And neither desires the sort I do as I write this.’

However, when it comes to automated systems for garnering attention, there’s more at play than one person listening to another; and the processes of measurement and persuasion have some uncannily totalising tendencies. As far as getting the world to pay attention to me online, either I play by the rules of the system — likes, links, comments, clicks, shares, retweets — or I become ineligible for any of its glittering prizes. As the American writer and software engineer David Auerbach put it in n+1 magazine, in a piece pointedly titled ‘The Stupidity of Computers’ (2012), what is on screen demands nothing so much as my complicity in its assumptions:

Because computers cannot come to us and meet us in our world, we must continue to adjust our world and bring ourselves to them. We will define and regiment our lives, including our social lives and our perceptions of our selves, in ways that are conducive to what a computer can ‘understand’. Their dumbness will become ours.

....Where is the space, here, for the idea of attention as a mutual construction more akin to empathy than budgetary expenditure — or for those unregistered moments in which we attend to ourselves, to the space around us, or to nothing at all?

Chatfield's defense of "attention" in distinctly human terms was so refreshing, and I marveled, having heard Lozano-Hemmer, at how poor we still are at understanding the emotional content, much less the emotional potential, of what it means to be with each other. The pity we seem so willing to attend to our stupid machines, unable as they are to tolerate our silence.

Stay curious.