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Is It Bad If Art Is Boring?

Matt Rourke

Do you remember being bored as a kid? I do.

I remember long stretches of unstructured time with nothing to do. Time reduced to a kind of metronome, second after second, or sensation after sensation. I remember being confronted by the irritating sense that I was trapped, caught, in unending time.

Boredom comes in different shapes and sizes. But I find that it is not very often that we encounter this distinct type of boredom in adulthood.

We don't live by the metronome as grown-ups. We live, rather, by the project. A dinner may take a few hours and the writing of a book, or the raising of a child, many years. But these are the sorts of organized activities that arc with beginnings, middles and ends — activities that structure our lives and inject us into a curve that soars above the axis of linear time.

It is a commonplace that time seems to accelerate as you get older. I suspect this has to do with the tendency of these projects — and organized arcs of significance — to control our whole lives more and more as we get older.

But there is one place in my adult life where I have known the same boredom that I associate with childhood: It is in the vicinity of art. I think of what it is like to be stuck in a middle seat during a long performance, or that sinking feeling that comes over me when, after the lines and the coat check, I now find myself confronted with another gallery, a room full of more pictures hanging impassively on the walls.

At one performance I attended with a friend, he remarked on how "dull" the experience was. What's curious, what demands attention, is this: I don't think my friend meant that the show we'd sat through was no good. It was boring, yes, but not necessarily bad just because it was boring.

Works of art, in all their variety, it seems to me, afford us the opportunity for boredom — and they do so when everything in our lives mitigates against boredom. Maybe this is one of art's gifts? Could it be that the power to bore us to tears is a clue to what art is and why it is so important?

Some artists, we know, aim at boredom. But I'm drawn to the more radical possibility that all art points toward boredom, not exactly as its goal, but as its foreseeable consequence. Or as one of its mechanisms. Why should this be?

Art induces, in a sense, a temporary illiteracy or, even more, a temporary blindness. Works of art say: "I may be a portrait, or a still life, but unlike the photograph in this morning's newspaper, or in your photo album, there is no caption that you can think up — nor is there one written on the wall, even if there is one written on the wall — that settles, once and for all, what I am doing, what I am showing, whether I am showing anything at all, and if I am, why I am doing it."

Art in this sense interrupts the arc — or disturbs. It unveils us to ourselves. It forces us to recognize all that we take for granted that ordinarily makes it possible to know, without wondering about it, what is happening. Art precludes, maybe only momentarily, the skillful fluency that ensures intelligibility. And surely one natural response — not the only response, to be sure, but one that is always there, in the offing, as a possible response — is boredom.

This is the same kind of boredom that you might encounter in works of philosophy. You can't dip into philosophy for an answer to this or that. This is because philosophy, unlike physics, doesn't produce nuggets of truth or fact. In philosophy there is no bottom line — there is no answer that can be placed in the archives.

Art and philosophy are in this way alike. And if we measure them by more familiar standards of utility, or practical value, or application, well, then, they fall short. And in so far as we are caught up in those standards and expectations, well, then, art and philosophy are liable to bore us, for they interupt what we are doing and they demand that we break not just with what keeps boredom at bay, but with so much of what we take for granted that makes ordinary organized living possible.

Art's boredom, like philosophy's, is a valuable boredom. This boredom itself is an aspect of art's work, its power to disrupt and, in disrupting, reveal us to ourselves.

I said the work of art challenges you to perceive it or bring it into focus. The work of art, as I put in my book Strange Tools, says: "See me, if you can! I dare you!"

But works of art don't just present themselves as obscure and out of focus. They also, I think, are required — by what the choreographer Jonathan Burrows has referred to as a kind of implicit contract — to give you the resources that you require to make sense of them. Works of art, then, are contract opportunities to move from not seeing, to seeing, or from not getting it, to getting it.

Boredom can be a symptom of the fact that we are out of our comfort zone.

When it comes to art, and philosophy, there isn't even anything that rises to the level of an encounter until you experience the fact that it is not the work — not the picture, or play, or dance, or song, or installation — that is opening itself up. But you, yourself, and all of us together.

For more on this topic and on Strange Tools, you can visit Alva's website.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.