Attention and the Arts

This evening I went to see my friend Beth sing. Her New York Choral Society was backing up the Opera Orchestra of New York in a performance of Minion by Ambroise Tomas. I got a pile of work laid on me as I was leaving the office so I could only stay through part of the second act. However, even if I had stayed for the whole thing, it would have tested my patience.

Not because it was bad, far from it. The vocalists were wonderful, the orchestra very tight and who can complain about the acoustics at Carnegie Hall. And my guess is the fact that I'm trained in music and I generally like opera means I'm probably better prepared than the average bear.

A lot of pundits and cranky-pants complain that people are losing their attention span. That Mtv, CNN, and video games are rotting our minds. That we've gone backwards from the height of art at the end of the 19th century. When, incidentally, Minion was written. This is the kind of stuff that Alan Bloom wrote in "Closing of the American Mind". Mr. Bloom can bite me.

Of course, we do have shorter attention spans, but it's not a bad thing. It's just a fact. We've got more stimulation now, and there is so much information we can't afford to take as much time to receive and process it. My guess is that we are also much more capable at handling change, stress, and multitasking than our ancestors. The environment changed and we adapted, there's nothing evil afoot.

Plus many of the stories of the past are not told in a compelling way. Personally, aside from some beautiful music, I don't much care what happens to a bunch of annoying rich people as they jump from one love triangle to another and from France to Italy. Maybe in 1890 this was exciting, racy stuff, but now it's just stuffy and annoying. Or maybe the opera should never have been 2.5 hours long and it's just a remnant of a overly indulgent baroque society that also gave us codified etiquette.

So maybe it's not that we've actually gone backwards, maybe it's that the bubble of pretention burst; the market crashed. We're also much more efficient today which means that people have a higher standard of living than ever before. The world is far from a perfect and just place, but maybe we're not doing so badly afterall. And Alan Bloom can still bite me.