The Economics of Attention
The Economics of Attention
Style and Substance in the Age of Information Richard A. Lanham
Our recently ended twentieth century overflows with monuments to artistic outrageousness. Never have so many artists flung so many paint pots and puzzles in the face of so many publics: urinals turned upside down and exhibited as art, Rube Goldberg machines that do abstract drawings, canvases that are all white or all black, paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, sculptures of the boxes the soup came in, trenches dug in the desert where nobody can see them, the Pont Neuf in Paris wrapped up in gold cloth for a few days and then unwrapped again.
One strand of this outrageousness isn’t outrageous at all, once we see the lesson it teaches: During the twentieth century, art was undergoing the same reversal from stuff to attention described in chapter 1. Art’s center of gravity henceforth would lie not in objects that artists create but in the attention that the beholder brings to them. Some examples.
In 1917, the French artist Marcel Duchamp got together with two friends, the painter Joseph Stella and the connoisseur Walter Arensberg, to play a joke on the Independents’ art exhibition. They bought from the J. L. Mott Iron Works a urinal on which Duchamp, after turning it upside down, painted the nom de plume R. Mutt. They then sent it into the show under Mutt’s name, with the $6 registration fee. Since, under the rules of the show, any artist could submit any piece of work, it had to be shown. Some joke. None has become more famous or engendered more comment than this Fountain. [Offsite link: See a photo from Wikipedia.] In 1989, an entire museum show and book were built around it. The usual explanation of the joke has been that it illustrated the premise of the show: art was what an artist decided it was. This ipse dixit definition of art, though, however much it may elevate the artistic ego to godlike stature, doesn’t help much unless you take it a step further. Art is whatever the artist wishes to call to our attention. Art is an act of attention the artist wishes to invoke in the beholder.
Duchamp had developed this theme a few years earlier with his “Readymades.” The first, apparently, was a bicycle wheel mounted on a kitchen stool. [Offsite link: See an imagefrom the Museum of Modern Art.] You could spin it around when you felt like it. Early “interactivity.” Later came an inverted kitchen bottle rack, less user interactive but equally stimulating to serious interpretation. [Offsite link: See an image from the Norton Simon Museum.] You could say, for example, that there was a great deal of beauty hidden in a bicycle wheel, but so long as it was attached to the bicycle, its utility obscured its beauty. Likewise with the bottle rack. From such efforts descended the long list of “found objects” littering the museums of the last century. The lesson was simple and, once learned, tedious. Art is not stuff made out of stuff taken from the earth’s crust. Art is the attention that makes that stuff meaningful. The more commonplace and physical the objects teaching the lesson, the more they taught the final insignificance of physical objects.
But Duchamp himself repudiated this interpretation. He said he did not think his Readymades had any hidden beauties to reveal. Furthermore, as he said on more than one occasion, he despised the high seriousness the beholder brought to art. Art, he thought, was a worse religion even than God. He made his feelings clear when he annotated a postcard of the Mona Lisa by drawing a mustache on it. [Offsite link: See an image from Wikipedia.] Art not only was a way of paying attention to the physical world, it was a pompous and overblown one as well. This disillusionment with art led him, in 1923, to stop creating it. His oeuvre since then, indeed over his lifetime, is slender. Yet his recent biographer Calvin Tompkins argues that he is the most important artist of the twentieth century. How could this be?
Duchamp said that he wanted to deflate the seriousness of art. He wanted to make a game out of it, a game with the beholder. We might, thus, consider his career as fabricating a series of attention games with the art-loving public. Consider the famous urinal. It illustrated the premise of the Independents’ Exhibition and so constituted a serious statement. It mocked the premise of the Independents’ Exhibition (“See, art is a real pisser, isn’t it?”) and so mocked the serious statement, and the conception of the artistic ego that the exhibition stood for. The art historians and interpreters have fallen into this ironic bear trap every time they’ve walked over it.
Inquiry of all sorts has to be serious. That is its organizing premise. But if you subtract the object of that seriousness by putting a urinal in its place, that seriousness is turned into a game. To understand it, you must then write a serious treatise on games and play, wondering all the while what you are about. The critic, like a bull bemused by the toreador’s flashing cape, starts pawing the ground, angry and confused. Such confusion has made Duchamp famous. The urinal proved to be an extraordinarily efficient generator of fame because other people—the critics and historians—did all of Duchamp’s work for him.
Likewise with the Readymades. Duchamp said he made the first one, the bicycle wheel, just because it was fun to spin the wheel around. But when you exhibit it, when you put it into an attention field called “art,” it becomes a catalyst. You must look at it differently. Yes, we should indeed pay more attention to the utilitarian world, savor its beauty as beauty. But when you find yourself gazing at it worshipfully, Duchamp turns around and says, “It’s just a bicycle wheel, you silly jerk.” The final result is to make us oscillate back and forth between the physical world, stuff, and how we think about stuff. It makes us look at our own patterns of attention and the varieties of “seriousness” we construct atop them.
That oscillation constitutes a serious lesson about seriousness. But it does not constitute great art, if we think of art as composed of stuff shaped into beauty, as forming part of a goods economy. In this industrial framework, Duchamp is the charlatan some have taken him for. But if you are willing to put him into an attention economy rather than a goods economy, let him work in attention, not in stuff, then things look different. Duchamp, as few before him, knew how to catalyze human attention in the most economical way possible. The disproportion between his oeuvre, the physical stuff he left behind, and his reputation can be explained in no other way. If we are looking for economists of attention, he provides a good place to start, an excellent lesson in efficiency.
When we consider the twentieth century from this point of view, we are reminded that futurists not only ushered us out of it but into it as well. These first futurists were led, and often financed, by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a wealthy Italian intellectual who wanted to catapult Italy into the future, or at least into the sophisticated present of Paris, where Marinetti lived in spirit and often in the flesh. He announced his utopian vision in an advertisement, a “Futurist Manifesto,” that appeared on the front page of the Parisian journal Le Figaro on 20 February 1909. [Offsite link: English translation of the text from Wikipedia.] Marinetti would have made a stupendous ad man in our time but, more remarkably, he already was one in his own, before blitz ad campaigns had been invented. He was, above all, an economist of attention. “Italian Futurism was the first cultural movement of the twentieth century to aim directly and deliberately at a mass audience.” He ran his intellectual campaign at the beginning of the century exactly as spin doctors would conduct political campaigns at its end. To reach this audience, Marinetti generated a torrent of manifestos and position statements. And, like an Internet company trying to buy “eyeballs” by giving away its product, he gave his products away to purchase attention: “It is believed that two thirds of the books, magazines and broadsheets that the futurists published were distributed free of charge as ‘propaganda’ material.”
The platform of this campaign for Italian cultural leadership, the famous “Manifesto,” might have come right out of the sixties. Here’s a sample: “It is from Italy that we are launching throughout the world this manifesto, charged with overwhelming incendiary violence. We are founding Futurism here today because we want to free this land from its foul gangrene of professors, archaeologists, guides and antiquarians. For too long Italy has been a market-place for second-hand dealers. We mean to free her from the innumerable museums that cover her like so many graveyards.” Get rid of everyone over thirty, especially those gangrenous professors. Forget the past. Fearlessly mount the Star Trek holodeck. Marinetti’s friendship with Mussolini and his association with Italian Fascism and its glorification of war have brought futurism into well-deserved discredit. But in a later manifesto, from 1913, he points to a less horrific future, one that Marshall McLuhan was to describe later at greater length: “Futurism is grounded in the complete renewal of human sensibility brought about by the great discoveries of science. People today make use of the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the train, the bicycle, the motorcycle, the automobile, the ocean liner, the dirigible, the aeroplane, the cinema, the great newspaper (synthesis of a day in the world’s life) without realizing that these various forms of communication, transformation, and information have a decisive effect on their psyches.” Later on he speaks of an earth shrunk by speed and of the global awareness thus engendered. Like futurists today, Marinetti had no use for the past but rather tried to glimpse the operating system of the global village to come: “The earth shrunk by speed. New sense of the world. To be precise: one after the other, man gained the sense of his home, of the district where he lived, of his region, and finally of his continent. Today he is aware of the whole world. He hardly needs to know what his ancestors did, but he has a constant need to know what his contemporaries are doing all over the world.”
We’re not so far here, in the preceding, from the Internet-based paradise of perfect information prophesied by digital seers like George Gilder. And not far, either, from Peter Drucker’s conviction that information is the new property, the new stuff. Marinetti’s cultural campaign, in fact, makes sense only if we assume that such a world already exists. Assume that, in an information economy, the real scarce commodity will always be human attention and that attracting that attention will be the necessary precondition of social change. And the real source of wealth. Marinetti’s conviction that attention was the vital stuff ran so deep that it went without saying. Everything he did implied it.
Carlos Carra Words in Freedom
Figure 2.1. Carlos Carra, "Words-in-Freedom." From Lacerba, 1914.
Look at how this worked out on a small scale, in his declaration of war on conventional typography. One favorite battleground of this war was the journal Lacerba, a revolutionary Italian journal published between 1913 and 1915. A page from it can be seen in figure 2.1.
Why would anyone want to construct such a ransom-note pastiche? The usual explanation—conventional typography symbolizes bourgeois convention, which the avant garde exists to épater—works well enough here. That’s what the journal was all about, after all, and what Marinetti certainly yearned to do. He called it “spitting on the altar of art.” But might there be another lesson lurking here? Who, or what, is actually getting spat upon?
It helps if you don’t know Italian and look only at the visual pattern. Conventional printed typography aims to create a particular economy of attention, but, since this economy is so ubiquitous, the basic reality of reading, we have long ago ceased to notice it. Print wants us to concentrate on the content, to enhance and protect conceptual thought. It does this by filtering out all the signals that might interfere with such thinking. By nature a silent medium and, for people of my generation at least, best read in a silent environment, print filters out any auditory signal. It also filters out color, prints only black on white. By choosing a single font and a single size, it filters out visual distraction as well. Typographical design aims not to be seen or more accurately, since true invisibility is hard to read, to seem not to be seen, not to be noticed. We don’t notice the verbal surface at all, plunge without typographical self-consciousness right into the meaning.
Print, that is, constructs a particular economy of attention, an economy of sensory denial. It economizes on most of the things we use to orient ourselves in the world we’ve evolved in—three-dimensional spatial signals, sounds, colors, movement—in order to spend all our attention on abstract thinking. The “abstraction” can be abstruse philosophy, but it can also be a particolored landscape description. Doesn’t matter. They both work within the same economy, one that foregrounds “meaning” in the same way that a goods economy foregrounds stuff you can drop on your foot.
The Lacerba typographical manifesto makes us aware of that “invisible” convention, forces us to notice it as a convention. By breaking all the established rules, it makes us notice them, look at them rather than through them. It makes an economic observation that is an attack not on a particular economic class but on a particular economy of attention. It aims to make us economists of expression.
In conventional typographical text, meaning is created through syntactical and grammatical relationships. In figure 2.1, “meaning,” such as it is, is created by visual relationships that pun on the meaning of the words. One example: on the right side, halfway down, “Gravitare” (to gravitate, tend toward) “of perpendicular masses onto the horizontal plane of my little table.” But little table gets a big bold font and an even bigger T,which is a letter and a table at the same time. We read the words for meaning—we can’t help doing that—but we are made to “read” them for shape as well, and in an uneasy combination. The print economy of attention has been destabilized. It is still there, but it toggles back and forth with a new one.
Marinetti’s spiritual successor was Andy Warhol. Warhol the commercial artist, Warhol the painter, Warhol the filmmaker, Warhol the writer, Warhol the collector, Warhol the philosopher, and, superlatively and climactically, Warhol the celebrity: all these roles float on a sea of commentary, nowadays mostly hagiographical. Let’s try, as a perspective by incongruity, to describe Andy Warhol as an economist, an economist of attention. And perhaps the perspective would not in fact seem so incongruous to him. Here’s what he said about the relation of art to business: “Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. . . . Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art . . . making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
Warhol was an avid collector of stuff. His last house was so stuffed with his collected stuff, from cookie jars to diamonds, that there was no room left for the people. He would have been delighted, had he been able to attend Sotheby’s auction of it all after his death, to see it knocked down for nearly $27 million dollars, far more than the pre-auction estimates. And to see his silk-screen painting of Marilyn Monroe Twenty Times (the actress’s face, taken from a publicity photo, silk-screened onto canvas twenty times) fetch nearly $4 million. He did not share the conventional liberal intellectual’s distaste for stuff and the advertising of stuff. It was his life’s work to illustrate the paradoxical relationship of stuff and attention.
Warhol used to ask his friends what he should paint. One friend suggested that he should paint what he liked best in the world. So he began to paint money. This wasn’t what he truly liked best in the world, however. That was attention. But you couldn’t paint attention, at least not directly. So he went about it indirectly.
He began, in 1960, to paint pictures of Campbell’s soup cans. [Offsite link: See an image from Wikipedia.] Never has a single source of inspiration been so commercially exploited. People usually remember him as the painter of a can of tomato soup but he developed the product far beyond this simple notion. His soup cans “had legs.” He painted pictures of the different kinds of soup—vegetable beef, beef noodle, black bean—in single portraits and in a group of two hundred that seemed, at least, to run through all the flavors. He painted them half-opened, crushed, in the act of being opened, with torn labels, without a label (you know it is a soup can because the caption tells you so), stuffed with money, and so on. Most were photorealistic in technique but a few were sketches. He then made exact models in wood of the boxes that the soup cans came in, along with the now-famous Brillo and Heinz ketchup boxes. [Offsite links: See images from Cybermuse Gallery and from the Chrysler Museum of Art.] These boxes then made wonderful gallery shows, stacked in various new and exciting ways. How’s that for brand name exploitation?
When he began, the New York galleries would not show him. You can’t blame them. The great pop explosion of the 1960s, the style that took the attention economy as its central subject, had not yet occurred, and nobody knew what to make of this new genre of mass-produced commercial still life. And so it was left to the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles to mount the first Campbell soup can show in 1962. Let that show stand for many to follow. What happened there? Like Duchamp with his urinal, Warhol put a banal object in an alien attention structure. An art gallery, public or private, is a place to which we come with a definite set of expectations. Duchamp mocked these expectations; like Marinetti, he was spitting on the altar of art. Not young Andy. No disrespect intended either for the soup or the public who looked at it. No meaning, in fact, at all. What you saw was what you got. He never pretended otherwise.
The surface, he said, was all there was. He sung not of the soup but the can it came in. Obviously no art critic could be content with this dead-end candor. Those soup cans had to mean something. You could repeat the mantra of “art for art’s sake” but no critic can actually accept this as truth because it leaves the critic no function. There had to be somereason why the soup cans were put into an art gallery, why we were asked to admire their beauty, even take one home and hang it over the mantelpiece. There had to be somesoup in the can. And so all the interpretive machinery, professional and amateur, went into action. The soup cans represented the detritus of consumerist capitalism, its vacuous tastelessness, etc. Or the tastelessness of modern mass-prepared foods. Or they represented the signage with which we are surrounded these days, no less fitting a subject for a still life than a dish of pears was for Renoir. Or, since the paintings were all the same, they represented the sterility of mass production. Or they allegorized the bankruptcy of the masterpiece tradition in Western art, a tradition based on skill of hand and beauty of form. Or, quite to the contrary, because formal decisions were required to transform the soup can labels to canvas, they represented an exquisite case of ever-so-slight formal transformations that elicited the beauty implicit in the Campbell’s label, lent it a tailor-made beauty the store-bought can did not possess.
It took time for this flood of commentary to flow downstream. Meanwhile, when the show was still up in the Ferus Gallery, another gallery close by put some real soup cans on display, suggesting that you could get the real McCoy for much less. Nice comparison. What did the exhibit do that a local grocery store could not? It created a powerful yet economical attention trap. A maximum of commentary was created by a minimum of effort. Subject? Off the shelf. Basic design? Off the shelf. Technique? Ditto. Replication? Silk screen, off the shelf too. Thought, allegory, philosophy, iconography, meaning? Nothing in that line required at all. Drafting ability: de minimis. The meaning, since this was an attention trap, would be supplied by all the interpreters waiting out there to make sense of such artifacts. For them, the more puzzling or outrageous the artifact, the better. Altogether, a dynamite niche product at a bargain basement cost.
But hasn’t it always been so? No. Attention traps had been tried before—Rabelais set them for his humanist explicators all the time—but they could come into their own only when there was a powerful and established Interpretive Bureaucracy of Attention Economists waiting there to be used. The Interpretive Bureaucracy was what made pop art such a success. Made it possible, in fact. The right cultural judo expert could make use of all that established power to get talked about, to get famous. And if asked about the meaning of it all, as Warhol repeatedly was, he could make up the meanings expected (I was raised on Campbell’s soup. I had it for lunch every day. I love it.). Or he could shrug and say that there wasn’t any meaning. What you saw was what you got. The surface was the meaning. Once the Interpretive Bureaucracy got started, it didn’t matter. With the bureaucracy’s relentless seriousness, it could philosophize surface as well as depth. And so what if Andy did say one thing one day and contradict himself the next? More grist for the mill. That’s how an attention artist works.
So there was a way to paint “attention.” You had only to add the right enzyme to a preexistent mixture. Then that enzyme—and a soup can would do as well as anything else—could represent the subsequent interpretive conversation. It would, as time passed, embody a complex attention structure, an entire cultural moment in the same way that, say, Barbie dolls do.
Once the attention-trap formula was worked out, it was easy to apply it elsewhere, to the celebrity portraits, for example. The day after the Ferus Gallery closed, Marilyn Monroe died. David Bourdon describes what happened next: “Within a few days of Monroe’s death, Warhol purchased a 1950s publicity photograph of her and, after cropping it below her chin, had it converted without any alteration into a silkscreen. The silkscreen enabled him to imprint her portrait hundreds of times onto various canvases. He screened her face one time only on small, individual canvases, and repeated it—twice, four times, six times, twenty times—on larger canvasses, positioning the heads in rows to create an allover pattern.”
Marilyn was already a cultural icon, and her death ensured that the golden hair would never gray. Here was an attention trap already made, waiting to be exploited. Its power could, in a simple judo throw, be harnessed for mass production. Some of the silk screenings were out of register, blurring the image, but that only individuated the various iterations. Again, it was such an economical, such a profitable and efficient, way to paint attention. A 1950s publicity shot, silk-screen technology, and you were ready for mass production. Vary the size, the number of iterations, the color, actually induce the off-register blurring, all these were the signs of real artistic creation and cried out for interpretation. The next step? Obvious. Extend the franchise to other celebrities. Get them into a contest to have their faces replicated.
Thus was attention converted into money by instantiating the attention in physical objects, stuff. The ingeniousness of the solution should not blind us to the difficulty of the problem. The Internet dot-coms have not yet solved it, and this indeed may be what shortened their life. Information, digital or otherwise, is not like stuff. You can eat your cake, let somebody else eat it too, and you both still have it. Books are a great way to bring information down to earth in a salable product. Warhol found a way to bring a certain category of information—somebody else’s celebrity, maybe even celebrity itself—down to earth in salable products. And no one sued him for copyright infringement, or unauthorized use of personal image, or trademark violation. All these starlets lined up to be violated. An amazing business coup.
The celebrity portraits, like the celebrities themselves, drew their power from Homo sapiens’ fondness for the centripetal gaze. We love looking at movie stars, sports stars, royalty. We simply cannot get enough of it. Louis XIV based the plan of Versailles on this centripetal gaze (all the alleyways radiated out from the king’s bedroom) and palace plans ever since have striven for the same visible ego enhancement.
The centripetal gaze, the flow of energy from the margins of a society to its center of attention, creates by its nature the winner-take-all society. To be one of the winners who took all, Andy knew, he had to create a public personality that would function as an attention trap as efficient as his artwork. As he himself said of his endless party-going and art-going: “But then, we weren’t just at the art exhibit—we were the art exhibit, we were the art incarnate and the sixties were really about people, not about what they did.” Such self-dramatization is as familiar as Douglas MacArthur’s corncob pipe or General Patton’s ivory-handled six-shooters. Andy’s social self stood out from the crowd, however. The celebrity press is built on trying to find out about the private selves of the social selves, the celebs’ scintillating inner lives. Andy preempted this effort. He had, he kept saying, no central self, no private self to peer into. As with the soup cans, he was pure wysiwyg (what you see is what you get). He aimed to impersonate a purely social, two-dimensional self with no central interiority other than the ambition to be rich and famous.
A more resonant incarnation of his time would be hard to contrive. And, apparently, he didn’t need to contrive it. He was naturally shallow, selfish, and unreflective, a person who would let his kind old mom take care of him for much of his life and then not bother to go to her funeral. Like Henry VIII, he was a genius at playing off the members of his entourage (and what a gallery of grotesques the Warhol entourage comprised) against one another. True enough. But he was unusual, truly unusual, in not pretending otherwise. Each time when asked about his early life, he sketched a new one. He even sent an impersonator on a college lecture tour for him, explaining when the imposture was exposed that the impersonator was much better at saying the kinds of things college audiences expected to hear. The customer is never wrong! The colleges asked for their money back or a visit by the real Warhol. When the real Warhol did come and was asked if he was the real Warhol, he answered no. He was a creature of the surface and happy to be so. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” The question of a “real” Andy, like the question of meaning in his painting, simply didn’t arise. In a pure economics of attention, one of his college-attuned impostors might have replied for him, such questions simply make no sense.
In Andy Warhol, then, our perpetual hunger for sincerity was finally given a rest. If you looked only at the surface, and if the surface was all there was, you did not need to peer beneath it. He was all package. That’s why he knew a genuine celebrity like Judy Garland when he met her: “To meet a person like Judy [Garland] whose real was so unreal was a thrilling thing. She could turn everything on and off in a second; she was the greatest actress you could imagine every minute of her life.” But what was such candor but another attention trap? The more he confessed that he had no central self, except hunger for the centripetal gaze, the more the celebrity-interpreting bureaucracy would try to pry out, or synthesize, a central self. There had to be one, just as there had to be soup in the can. Otherwise they would be out of a job. So also with the celebrity writers who perpetually searched for the “real Marilyn” or the “real Princess Diana.”
Warhol once remarked, “That’s what so many people never understood about us. They expected us to take the things we believed in seriously, which we never did—we weren’t intellectuals.” He was not lying but he was not telling the truth either. He did take the economics of attention seriously. That seriousness, however, differed from the kind the “intellectuals” operated under. They were always looking through the self-conscious surface of things to find the meaning hidden there. He was always looking at the surface instead.
We can see, too, that he understood the paradox of stuff. The stuff you dig out of the earth’s crust becomes, in an information economy, less important than the information that informs it, what you think about the stuff. Yet the more you ponder that information, the more you understand about that stuff, the more real the stuff becomes. To put it in terms of the art world Andy lived in, the more you see that style matters more than substance, the more you see the vital role, the vitality, of substance. So, like Andy, you pursue your twin hungers: for the spotlight and for collecting stuff, knowing that each needs the other to make it real.
Let’s summarize the rules of attention-economy art as Andy practiced them:
Build attention traps. Create value by manipulating the ruling attention structures. Judo, not brute force, gets the best results. Duchamp did this for a joke. Do it for a business.
Understand the logic of the centripetal gaze and how to profit from it.
Draw your inspiration from your audience not your muse. And keep in touch with that audience. The customer is always right. No Olympian artistic ego need apply.
Turn the “masterpiece psychology” of conventional art upside down:
Mass production not skilled handwork
Mass audience not connoisseurship
Trendiness not timelessness
Repetition not rarity
Objects do matter. Don’t leave the world of stuff behind while you float off in cyberspace. Conceptual art gets you nowhere. Create stuff you can sell.
Live in the present. That’s where the value is added. Don’t build your house in eternity. “My work has no future at all. I know that. A few years. Of course my things will mean nothing.