We live in an age of distraction. Silicon Valley’s brightest engineers deliberately design apps to be addictive and monopolize our attention. “It’s as if they’re taking behavioral cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface and that’s the thing that keeps you coming back,” former Mozilla employee Aza Raskin told BBC, “Behind every screen on your phone, there are a thousand engineers that have worked to make it maximally addicting.”
In our speedy era of swiping and scrolling, it’s near impossible to concentrate on one thing. Whether we’re trying to study for our U.S. history midterm or sitting with our boyfriend for a romantic candlelit date, chances are we’ll eventually be seduced by the siren call of our screens: the dopamine rush of likes and retweets, the endless appeal of empty-headed click-bait keeps us eternally glued to our phones. By various estimates, a typical smartphone owner checks his device every six minutes— 150 times per day. Is it any wonder we have difficulty remembering the Bill of Rights or really listening to our boyfriend when he recounts the events of his day?
If you want to recover your ability to be mindful, read Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing, a delightful field guide to becoming an explorer of the everyday. Rather than divide our attention among many pointless things— the 24 hour news cycle, email, social media—Walker encourages us to concentrate completely and wholeheartedly: on the scents and sounds of our daily walk, on a familiar film or painting. The goal? To rouse us from our lifelong slumber and reawaken our dead, dormant senses so we can see the world in a new way. Whether you’re an artist seeking inspiration or simply looking for ways to infuse your life with more joy, wonder, and imagination, The Art of Noticing will sharpen your senses and shake up your routines.
Filled with 131 playful exercises to reignite your creativity, The Art of Noticing is the sort of book that is meant to be done rather than read. In one of my favorite exercises “Make It Art,” Walker recounts a humorous incident at a museum. While strolling through the collections with his wife, he stumbles upon an exhibit with nothing but two large wooden crates. “Are these art or simply boxes meant to transport art?” they wonder.
Eager to solve the mystery, Walker searches for clues. Was there a placard that identified the artist and title of the work in elegant typeface (Henri Matisse, Wooden Crates)? Or a UPS sticker indicating these boxes were shipping containers and nothing more?
Though Walker and his wife never do find out if the boxes are “art,” the whole incident gets him thinking: what, exactly, is art? Consider the French-American artist Marcel Duchamp, who famously signed and submitted a urinal to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. Appalled by the indecency of his submission, the show committee insisted Fountain wasn’t art and rejected it. Duchamp and his fellow artists were furious. What— after all— made a painting of water lilies more of a work of art than a urinal? “The piece might have been his most famous and lasting provocation,” Walker writes, “Duchamp repurposed existing words and images and with a simple gesture redrew a boundary between the everyday and the elevated.”
What can we learn from Duchamp’s daring deed? That anything can be art— not just grand portraits of statesmen or paintings of water lilies. Like Duchamp, we can turn something mundane into something worthy of a museum display. Art can be as gruesome as a massacre of a small Spanish village, as commonplace as Campbell soup cans, as vulgar as a urinal. The only difference between an ordinary person and an artist is the latter notices— and sees the potential for beauty and drama in the seemingly uninteresting and unremarkable.
So open your eyes and truly see the world around you. A blue morning glory might reveal itself deserving of being depicted in paint and hung in a frame; a trivial conversation with your lover might offer material for a scene in your book or play. “Grant yourself the superpower of making “art” wherever you go, and see how that changes how you perceive,” Walker implores us, “Art is everywhere, if you say so.”