Attention please! Art in a hyperactive age

Saturday 17 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Garden Room, Barbican Arts & Society

A study by Microsoft earlier this year suggested that, at only eight seconds, the human attention span has now dipped below that of a goldfish. While many query the accuracy of such findings, the falling attention span of audiences is a subject of some debate in the arts world.

BBC Radio 3 and the Proms have faced criticism in recent years for adding TV and film scores to their repertoire in order to attract younger audiences from the ‘instant gratification’ generation. The annual Slow Art Day encourages audience to focus on selected paintings for 10 full minutes and discuss the content amongst themselves and discover ‘they can see and experience art without an expert (or expertise)’. Others, meanwhile, embrace the challenges thrown up by changing audience behaviour, with the National Gallery following a trend of allowing ‘selfies’ with portraits; many more encourage us to tap into multimedia experiences through interactive apps and digitally curated tours.

Yet some question whether falling attention span is really what is driving different relationships between arts institutions and audiences. Theatre and opera audiences have proven happy to flock to long, difficult works – such as George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the National Theatre or Philip Glass’s Einstein On The Beach – which might have struggled a generation ago; screenings in cinemas seem to have broadened the appeal of the arts further than previously. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘golden age’ of serious TV dramas such as The Wire, foreign language shows such as Borgen and the podcast hit Serial suggests audiences are more willing to indulge longer and more complicated narratives than ever. Novelists such as David Mitchell and Teju Cole have begun to experiment with stories published on Twitter, a form that arguably requires more concentration to follow than more traditional mediums. 

Is the alleged decay of the human attention span a myth or something more? Are museums and galleries at risk of patronising audiences by assuming a short attention span or responding to a shift in how large numbers enjoy culture? Do we still have the mental stamina to spend an evening taking in the fluid expressiveness of a Monet masterpiece or Wagner cycle, or should artists and performers adapt their work to the demands of an evolving generation? Should art become a smartphone free zone?

Mar Dixon
creator, MuseomixUK and MuseumCamp

Dr Susan Foister
deputy director and director of public engagement, National Gallery

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Josh Spero
editor, Spear's magazine; art critic, Tatler; author, Second-Hand Stories

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Produced by
Dr Tiffany Jenkins writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there
Recommended readings
Is technology making your attention span shorter than a goldfish’s?

Published scientific research looking at the effect of modern technology on our cognitive abilities does show an effect on attention. But contrary to popular opinion, it shows attention spans have actually improved.

Martin Thirkettle and Graham Pike, Conversation, 28 May 2015

Humans have shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to smartphones

A Microsoft study highlights the deteriorating attention span of humans, saying it has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds

Leon Watson, Telegraph, 15 May 2015

The Rise of Visual Content and the Fall of Attention Spans

Over the past few years visual content has risen to the top as a preferred form of social media content. Seeing is believing, and in 2015 this visual trend will continue and strengthen as our attention spans weaken.

Lori McNee, Fine Art Tips, 13 January 2015

Technology in museums - less is more

The drive to 'engage' patrons with gadgets strips museums of their innate wonder.

Wendy Earle, spiked, 17 December 2013

Our Attention Spans Are Getting Shorter, And It's A Big Problem

The following is an excerpt from Daniel Goleman's new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

Daniel Goleman, Huffington Post, 23 October 2013

The Attention-Span Myth

How did we find ourselves with this unhappy attention-span conceit, and with the companion idea that a big attention span is humankind’s best moral and aesthetic asset?

Virginia Heffernan, New York Times Magazine, 19 November 2010

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