The Art of Attention

All of us have more than one way of looking at the world. We see things differently when watching the face of someone we care deeply about than when we are watching a stranger. We notice the way the corners of their eyes crinkle when they smile, the way their hands hold things, the slope of a leg, and even though it is an ordinary leg on an ordinary person, we have made it something other than ordinary because of the way we are looking.

Artists of all kinds have always known this. A photographer frames a shot, holds still a single moment, the close up of a leaf, the splintering ends of a broken branch, a cup on a table, a boy in motion.  A writer spends 18 lines on a page, only a few of which are about geese, and suddenly I can hear their song, haunting and lovely.

This week I have been obsessing over Giorgio Morandi’s bottles again, wondering what it is about them that keeps drawing me back, over and over. The conclusion I come to is that it isn’t the quality of the light, not precisely, though that is part of it, not even the simplicity of the objects he has chosen to make into art. No, what makes Morandi’s bottles more than merely bottles is that the attention he has given them is a kind of wordless adoration, and there is a way in which I feel a kind of kinship for the care he has given to them, for the way he is looking.

I am good at paying attention. For 20 minutes now my eyes have been tracking the progress of a small insect across a window screen, noting how its body is narrow enough to fit the width of one of the screen’s tiny crosshatched rows, but how it is just long enough that part of it drapes past the horizontal screen lines, too oblong to be completely inside the screen’s tiny and perfect squares. I have been watching so long that the colors of the landscape seen through the window behind the bug have muted themselves, gone hazy, become the soft suggestions of an impressionist painter’s hand, no longer distinct as different trees rising up at differing angles out of the ground.

And so I am too, it seems, equally good at inattention, focusing on one thing so much that for 20 minutes, I forget there is a world beyond the screen, beyond that insect, a world full of other people that I am not participating in. At times I have turned this focus to people, though arguably less so than other objects in the natural world, and so over the years I have watched men I love sleep, men I care deeply about sleep. Wondered about the kinds of things they dreamed about when they held the sheets to themselves, when they turned away from me, when their breathing was deep and even, wondered what was occupying their minds.

And over the years I have wondered too what they saw when they looked at me while awake. If they saw how when I stood close to them I wanted to be closer still, if that space to them felt as if electric, or like something cavernous, requiring a person to leap or to forever stand forever on an opposing side, hearing only echoes. If they saw that this want felt for me like danger. If they saw any or all of the things I couldn’t bring myself to say. If they too were paying attention.

There is nothing dangerous in Morandi’s still life paintings. Just a muted, washed out palette, ordinary household objects arranged on a table. There is no risk in this kind of looking, no chance of any part of me breaking if I give them my attention.  They are only bottles and boxes, a kind of unhurried cityscape I could find peace in, placed in the foreground before a flat wall my eyes see as a kind of sky, devoid of clouds. Filled with light.


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