Artwork > Writing

Art in Isolation: A Panel Discussion
Saturday March 27, 2021

Lise Kjaer, CUNY
Dylan Gauthier (EFA Project Space)
David Armstrong (York U)
Holly Ward (York U)
Megan Irwin (MICA)
Patricia Olynyk (Wash U)

Moderator Question:
David, please discuss "aesthetic attention”, placing emphasis on art-making as an act of attention to the world, which includes paying critical attention to the otherwise overlooked.

DA Answer:
Yes, well Aesthetic attention is a form of meaningful connection to the world, and, a way of creating connections between disparate things in the world.

Its momentum is that of an opening toward things and a drawing near.

Let me give you an example from a recent online printmaking course that I taught. The course was intro level focused on Print-based drawing (the connections between print and drawing practices such as object printing, frottage, stamping, stencilling) and we were working with the idea of found materials close at hand. We were also working with a purposeful shift away from the print studio toward that of print in the world and centring on a single concept: the world is a collector of prints (the marks, the multitude traces of things touching other things).

So, in one of the zoom classes I had a short exercise, I asked everyone to look away from their screen to the room that they were in and find examples of found markmaking, line, etc.: one noticed how the branches of a tree framed by their window made an interesting composition; another showed some marks left on the floor by their cat. I asked one student who kind of hemmed and hawed and said “I don’t know, my room is kind of boring, I can’t see anything like that.” Then she bolted upright and said, “oh, my table!” “My table has a wood grain, with interesting lines and circles, uh, what do you call them? Knots. The lines have movement and pattern.” I started to respond to her example, when she jumped in again, she couldn’t contain her excitement and said: “and it kind of looks like water and waves. Like a stone dropped in water.”

Now what happened here was really interesting to me, and a great example of aesthetic attention: she moved from a kind of blasé habitual unseeing, to an engaged noticing of something, her table, to an act of imagination, a leap of metaphor connecting wood with water.

Noticing things leads to noticing things, it is a generative act.

Art, also, is a generative act. It is not borne out of nothing but rather out of a broader interconnected ecology of aesthetic awareness. Some might call this interconnected ecology, a language. I would rather call it sensitivity, like the way some leaves or flowers will turn naturally toward the sun.

So, this is a first point: aesthetic attention is alertness and sensitivity, it is generative and connective. It is a sharpening of your senses to where you are.

The second point I can make quickly: The domain of the arts, in their unique disciplinary fields, do not hold any exclusive claim on aesthetic attention. As a practice art is not all that different from many other skilled and common everyday practices—walking, cooking, eating, teaching, the list can go on. These practices are the ways that we encounter and engage with the world around us. Art is one way that we become actively and aesthetically responsive to the world. But so is the simple act of walking down the street. How do you walk down the street? Are you lost in thought? Planning your schedule? What do you notice? Anything of note? Sounds maybe? Qualities of light, the way things visually lean into each other. Smells? “Do I smell a wood fire? When is the last time I smelled that smell? How unexpected and exhilarating!

I will add one last point based on an idea of Canadian writer Tim Lilburn. In the preface to his book Moosewood Sandhills, poems about the question of living in the world as if it were home, he writes that:

“Looking with care and desire seemed a political act.”

There are many ways to act politically in the world—including aesthetic attention. I will just say lastly that in this time of imposed restrictions, “looking with care and desire” is both a political and generatively healthy act.

How do we overcome the prevailing sense of mental and physical inertia that so many of us are experiencing? I like how Rabeya Jalil put it during a panel a couple of Friday’s ago: “we are adaptive and resilient beings.”

Lilburn, Tim. Moosewood Sandhills: Poems. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1994. Print.
Lilburn, Tim. Living in the World as If It Were Home: Essays. Dunvegan, Ont: Cormorant Books, 1999. Print.

Aesthetic Attention
Art School Pedagogy 2.0 Online Symposium, Teachers College, Columbia University, NYC