The Rhetoric of Attention. Or, the Objet d’art

March 4, 2008

his is the 2nd chapter of a larger book that I’m quite enjoying. I find this material particularly relevant to our discussions of art and artists, and the reframing conversations we’ve lately been having. I had conventional understandings of Duchamp and Warhol prior to reading this chapter; now, I see them much differently.

Here’s the citation:

Lanham, Richard A. “Economists of Attention.” The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2007. 42-77.

In this chapter, Lanham takes several people who have historically been known as iconic artists and reframes them as “economists of attention.” In so doing, he consequently refigures and enhances their contributions to society as those of “rhetoricians.” As economists of attention, the artists discussed in this chapter all share the common understanding that, in an attention economy, “art’s center of gravity…would lie not in objects that artists create but in the attention that the beholder brings to them” (42). Art is reconceptualized, in other words, as “whatever the artist wishes to call to our attention. Art is an act of attention the artist wishes to invoke in the beholder” (43).

The first artist who worked under these assumptions that Lanham notes is Marcel Duchamp. Lanham cites Fountain and Duchamp’s “found objects” as “an excellent lesson in efficiency” (44) insomuch as Duchamp managed to maximize attention (measured in the proliferation of interpretations offered to explain or otherwise ascribe meaning to his work) while minimizing the amount of “stuff” required to catalyze that attention. Importantly, Lanham points out that it was never part of Duchamp’s agenda to operate within the paradigm of high art. The fact that Duchamp is remembered as doing everything in his power to poke fun at that paradigm (the story behind Fountain is offered as evidence of such), while at the same time purposefully placing his works in the context in which high art discourse operates, “make[s] us oscillate back and forth between the physical world, stuff, and how we think about stuff” (44). This “toggling back and forth” is what characterizes Duchamp and the other artists discussed in the chapter as economists of attention.

One of the strengths of the chapter is Lanham’s conscientiousness in selecting artists from different schools and movements as examples. Yet, as the chapter’s Background Conversations illustrate, the choices were not random. For instance, after the Dadaist Duchamp, Lanham moves on to a discussion the Italian futurist Flippo Tommaso Marinetti. Historically, Futurists narrowly preceded Dadaists, and while timing is a glimpse into of the reasoning behind juxtaposing the two artists, it does not provide either a thick description (see Clifford Geertz’s, “Thick Description”) of the relationship of Futurism’s and Dada’s cultural and anti-cultural (see Artaud) motives as they function in an attention economy, or address the reverse chronological order of Lanham’s discussion of the artists—Duchamp before Marinetti.

With respect to a thick description of motives, Lanham astutely demonstrates that contrary to those who thinly describe the difference between Futurists and Dadaists as programmatic (Futurists being those with a program, Dadaists those without), “Dada did have a program, and its program was our central trope: oscillatio. Once it got people’s attention, this bi-stable poise is what it was trying to teach them. This is what the Dada brand was all about…It was about holding opposites alternately in mind” (68).

Positioning the two artists in reverse chronological order is a performance of the chapter’s key themes. First, by re-membering the artists described in the chapter as economists of attention rather than simply artists of particular genres as they are conventionally known, Lanham dramatizes the foreground/background shift (a type of visual chronology) that an attention economy realizes when “stuff you can drop on your foot” (47) moves to the background and “what we think about stuff” comes to the fore. This dramatization is figured in the discussion of Marinetti as an economist of attention. Moreover, one of the highlights of the discussion of Andy Warhol as the “spiritual successor” (48) of Marinetti is Warhol’s ability to “turn the ‘masterpiece psychology’ of conventional art upside down” by foregrounding mass production over skilled handiwork, proletariat audiences over connoisseurs, trendiness over immutability, and repetition over rarity (54). This turning of the gestalt switch is a central feature of the attention economy insomuch as “style and substance have traded places” (55).

One of the consequences of this turning of the gestalt switch is the wild success of artists who draw their rhetorical power from bottom-up processes, as opposed to top-down ones. Lanham offers “earth artist” Christo Javacheff as a quintessential example of an economist of attention cum rhetorician (his work, Running Fence, did, after all, “persuade people to reflect on the social machinery of persuasion and thus to understand its necessity” (59, my emphasis)). While Running Fence is traditionally appropriated by the avant-garde art community as an exercise in art-for-art’s sake, Lanham convincingly recasts the work as a lesson in bottom-up entrepreneurship and the human behavior required to persuade bodies of law to allow a 26-mile long fence adorned with thousands of yards of sail-like fabric to be constructed on dozens of people’s private land and summarily dismantled after a two-week lifespan (61). Lanham concludes the chapter by explaining that a driving similarity among all of the artists discussed is that they “singled out attention as the central asset in the new economy and tried to ‘paint’ it” (63).


One Response to “The Rhetoric of Attention. Or, the Objet d’art”

  1. Aha, Richard Lanham. I am not surprised you have fallen in love with his rhetorical mind. What I like most about Lanham, though, is that though he is said to have been very much influenced by Burke, his rhetorical arguments are that more practical to everyday life, allowing the concepts to be fully grasped. Who would have thought, for example, that Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists where inventing a new way of looking at things and breaking into a new sort of frontier–pushing the envelope…testing the limits. All the while, however, these artists were creating different fields of attention. Alicia you do very well in drawing our attention to these new structures that Lanham illuminates.

    -Josephine Walwema

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