Attention is proportional to effort

Some of the greatest art in the world comes too easily to us. Seated in a balcony on a Sunday morning, I have the pleasure of listening to Frédéric Chopin, one of the greatest composers who ever lived, at the flick of a button. At a mere whim.

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In the past, this would have required me to be a member of the Parisian elite, with the fortune of being present at one of Chopin’s 30 public recitals. Even about 50 years ago,  this would have been possible only in a concert hall, or with a bulky and error-prone Gramophone record. Access to Chopin’s music has never been as easy as it is today. Most great art is at our fingertips. Van Gogh, da Vinci and Picasso’s best paintings are spread across galleries several continents. They are now a mere image search away.

So if that is the case, why do we go to plays, concerts, operas and art museums?

The answer has to do with how this proximity affects our relationship with art. Art at its essence is an experience that changes something within us. In the past, art was hard to access, and we valued it more. We paid attention to it. And art can have its effect only when we pay attention.

The famous Joshua Bell experiment comes to mind. Bell, a child prodigy and virtuoso, is one of the best violinists in the world. One day, he played in plain clothes at a Washington DC subway station. He picked out some of the most intricate violin pieces for this performance – true masterpieces. Thousands of people stormed past him. In a 45 minute performance, he made $27.

When things come easily, we do not pay attention. By going to a concert, we make several investments: the €70 ticket, dressing up, traveling to the hall and dedicating an entire evening to the experience. All these investments prime us into a state of focus when we sit down to listen.

Money and effort are great placebos that convince us to pay attention. Our brains understand the dignified ambiance of a concert hall better than these English words I use to describe it. It is in such places that we really listen to Chopin and Joshua Bell.

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