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Only Our Attention is Eternal

Only Our Attention is Eternal


Fifty-four years ago, the English artist and writer John Berger recorded a four-part series for BBC television called Ways of Seeing that achieved instant critical and popular acclaim, so much so that its key arguments were compiled into a best-selling book shortly thereafter. It is hard to overestimate the impact these two concise documents have had on students of aesthetics and the humanities in general during the intervening years. 

Berger’s accomplishments in the brief series were many. But none was more significant than his ability to explain the fundamentally relational nature of artistic value in a time of reproducible images and global markets, destroying in this way the oft-employed trope of the “timeless masterpiece” possessing “eternal” aesthetic qualities. 

Building on the work of Saussure in linguistics and Walter Benjamin in cultural criticism, Berger suggests that our appreciation for a given work is largely determined by the set of assumptions we bring to the act of viewing, assumptions that are, in turn, largely inculcated in us over the course of our lives by social institutions. 

When, for example, we take a painting executed for the purpose of being seen in the chapel of a 16th century Italian noble’s castle and display it, or a copy of it, in a 20th century New York museum, we are not just moving it, we are fundamentally altering its “meaning.” 


Because the people viewing it in the second place will, in the main, be lacking the inventory of social and semiotic referents that its 16th century Italian admirers brought to the task of seeing it. In the absence of these referents, they will, with the aid of a skillful curator and their own culturally-conditioned insights, necessarily bring a new set of interpretations to the piece. 

To acknowledge the inherent complexity of making definitive claims of artistic value in the case of works subject to brusque alterations of their spatial, temporal, and cultural contexts is not, however, the same as saying, as many postmodern theorists do, that all interpretations are equally valid. We may not be able to fully recreate the context of that 16th century castle, but we can try to be as thorough and open-minded as possible when engaging in that act of mental reconstruction. 

We can, of course, only engage in this process of historical recreation with the help of institutionally sanctioned authorities such as curators, gallerists, and art historians. 

But what, an inquisitive person might ask, is to prevent those authorities from grafting their own sense of aesthetics or their own ideological preferences onto the interpretations they develop for the rest of us? 

As Roland Barthes suggests in “The Great Family of Man,” his masterful three-page essay written in 1957, the answer is “basically nothing.” Institutional authorities can decontextualize and mythologize with the best of them. We can hope they’ll confine themselves to the narrow task of helping us recreate a semblance of the work’s original context, but we cannot count on it. 

So where does that leave the rest of us?  

Basically where we’ve always been if we want to live conscious and personally meaningful lives: cast back, in the final analysis, upon our own intuitions and painstakingly-developed sense of discernment, on our own ability to wrestle with the sense of ambiguity generated by the myriad representations of “reality” around us and come up with a number of postulates that make inherent sense to the completely unique person each of us is. 

It could be worse, a lot worse. 


If, for example, the cultural authorities, aware of how essential dialectal processes are to the development of personal discernment, were, in the name of eliminating coercion and oppression, to stop providing us with explicative discourses coherent enough for us to argue with or against. 

This nightmare scenario came to mind as I recently walked around the latest big addition to Mexico City’s extraordinary art scene, El Museo Soumaya, where the enormous collection of one of the world’s richest men, Carlos Slim, as well as those of some of his family members, are on display.

As the process of secularization advanced rapidly in Western societies at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, a number of cultural transformations took place. Perhaps the most important of these, as I have argued elsewhere in considerable detail, was the nation’s substitution of the church as the prime receptacle of the citizenry’s longing for transcendence, a change that led, in turn, to the need to create new “secular” sacred spaces. 

One such sacred space was the museum where one went to absorb relics and/or renderings of the national collective’s historical “miracles” as well as its pantheon of secular saints. Just as in a religious service, the museum-goer would be led through a well-ordered and well-explained itinerary, a liturgy if you will, designed to locate the viewer properly in the historical sequence of the collective’s saga in the hope that he feels ever more identified with its set of ideational norms. It is no doubt this religious subtext that impels many, if not, most of us to instinctively lower our voices to a whisper when making our way through the “stations” of an exhibition. 

As internationalist and class-based movements of a collective identity came into prominence a few decades later, their leadership cadres, as Barthes makes clear, erected similar institutional structures designed to place the energy derived from the perennial human desire for transcendence at the service of these supposedly universal ideological projects.

One can argue about the relative veracity or falsity of the discourses generated by these civic liturgies. But what cannot be denied is that they allow the attentive viewer to generate a more or less ordered and coherent vision of the history covered by the exhibition, something that allows him or her to more or less locate themselves in geographical space and historical time. 

But what if the attempt to narrativize the reality of the objects on display through the placement of introductory blurbs and detailed placards providing the date of creation, a summary of its main motifs and/or possible thematic interpretations are largely, if not completely absent in such a place? 

The museum then turns into little more than a warehouse, or as the French anthropologist Marc Augé might say, a non-place

If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place…A person in the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer or driver…The passenger through non-places retrieves his identity only at Customs, at the tollbooth, at the check-out counter. Meanwhile, he obeys the same code as others, receives the same messages, responds to the same entreaties. The space of non-place creates neither singular identities nor relations; only solitude and similitude. There is no room there for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle, usually in allusive texts. What reigns there is actuality, the urgency of the present moment.

This is exactly what I observed at the massive Museo Soumaya

There were acres and acres of art housed on its six floors in the generalized absence of suggested itineraries, clear explanations of the spatial groupings of the pieces, or detailed documentation about those that created them. 

And because these basic structuring mechanisms were lacking, people behaved, not surprisingly, as they would behave in that ultimate non-place, the shopping mall, speaking loudly in packs as they glimpsed rapidly and distractedly at the objects before them.

The only explanation I could come up to explain this expensive chaos was that a pack of too-clever-by-half curators, drunk on postmodern theory, decided that having the attendees know too much about the original contexts in which the objects were generated, might deprive them of the “freedom” to come to their own novel, if also probably random and hare-brained interpretations of them. 

Owing to my professional background I could probably provide a heck of a lot more of the missing contexts needed for basic interpretation of the works than many in the building. And yet I still felt adrift, and therefore frustrated most of the time. 

If it left me feeling far out to sea, where does that leave a young poor or middle class child being brought to the place to experience that precious and supposedly wonderful thing called Culture (with a capital C) for the first time? 

What does it demonstrate to him or her about the legibility of one of mankind’s most persistent activities, creating art, and from there, the general scrutability of the world around them? 

I can only assume that it leaves them feeling overwhelmed and quite small and impotent before it all. 

And when I tried to imagine what, if any takeaways, such a youngster might derive from passing through the Soumaya, the only one I could come up with was: “Carlos Slim must be rich and that wealth has allowed him to accumulate a whole lot of booty.” 

My pique grew when I realized that this abolition of the human impulse to structure the world’s chaos into some sort of comprehensible order was the mirror image of what had occurred little by little in the humanities in the course of my time in the academy. 

The general approach among many of my colleagues toward the end of my career seemed to be something along the lines of: “Why burden today’s young with the need to visualize events in the context of the passage of time, or to have them delve deeply enough into a given work and its contexts to make reasonable suppositions about how it and the time in which it was produced might or might not shed light on their own circumstance when you can simply reward them for reacting ‘freshly’ before on the basis of their 19 years of accumulated wisdom?” 

Though it has gone out of fashion to say it, we learn best and most rapidly through the process of argumentation, of talking back to an assertion that someone or some entity has placed before us. It is at these moments of making our case in an orderly way before possibly indifferent or hostile others with our ego on the line that we learn, perhaps for the first time to truly take stock of the little details floating around in our own minds and in the world before us. 

In our preparations for dialectic encounters like these we become much more intense readers of the world. Why? Because we hope to be seen, as a result of our demonstrated observational competence, as worthy of being carefully and respectfully “read” by the gaze of others. 

In a society that, on the contrary, declines in the name of protecting fragile egos to provide master narratives for the young to internalize and to argue for or against, this key process of individuation never gets off the ground. This not only gravely prejudices a child’s ability to adapt to changing life circumstances, but effectively delivers him or her unformed being on a platter to the powerful to do with them as they see fit. 

One of my father’s most prized possessions was a framed photocopy of a letter sent by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana to his classmate at the Boston Latin School and Harvard John Merriam, given to him by Joseph Merriam, a beloved colleague and mentor of my father’s and son of Santayana’s interlocutor. 

The letter is a continuation of a dialogue the two old classmates had been maintaining about their times together at school and how neither could quite believe that the crystal clear images they both possessed about those times had taken place a half a century earlier, a conversation that was brought to its end by the following words of the great philosopher (I’m quoting here from memory): “Merriam, time is but an illusion. The only thing eternal is our attention.” 

As I grew toward adulthood, Dad would repeat that line to me again and again. At first, I could not really understand what he was trying to say to me, or why he was being so insistent about having me hear it. 

In more recent years, however, the wisdom of the phrase and the reasons for my father’s obsession with it have become all too clear to me.  

It is, I have learned, the ability to pay attention that separates seeing from mere looking, living from mere existence, and true creativity from mere daydreaming. 

It is, in short, the only thing that allows us to come close to realizing and acting upon the enormity of our own miraculous individuality. 

And it is the elites’ understanding of the prodigious power of attention that has led them to engage in their current campaigns of massive distraction, symbolized by the constant bombardments of noise we suffer in our public spaces and the building of massive, history-less no-places like the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City. 

Fifty-two years ago, the BBC was secure enough in its own power and trusting enough of the intelligence of its viewers to allow John Berger to demonstrate the crucial importance of turning the passive and self-limiting practice of looking into the endlessly catalytic process of attentive seeing. 

Were the Beeb to offer a show to a young scholar of art today, it would, I fear, probably be called something like Ways of Glimpsing and would involve a series of titillating images shown in quick succession whose only true purpose would be to insure that the viewer be left just as tentative in his understanding of the historical and social genesis of the works shown as he was at the beginning of the program.  

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  • Thomas Harrington

    Thomas Harrington, Senior Brownstone Scholar and Brownstone Fellow, is Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where he taught for 24 years. His research is on Iberian movements of national identity and contemporary Catalan culture. His essays are published at Words in The Pursuit of Light.

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