Natalie Goldberg’s book The True Secret of Writing, like many of her other books, talks about the relationship of Zen meditation practice to writing. Reading it recently reminded me of a favorite Zen story not in the book, this:
The eager student seeks out the Zen Master and at last is able to get a meeting with him. “Master, please, tell me how long it will take to achieve enlightenment.”
The teacher replies, “Twenty years.”
“Twenty years? No, no, you don’t understand. I am going to follow your instructions to the letter, I have a will of iron, I will meditate every day for as long as necessary, twice as long, I will not stray nor will I rest until I achieve enlightenment.”
A while back, I posted a photo of an intriguing street mural called “Wordscape” that I had come across while strolling in Brooklyn; at the time, I had no clue as to who the artist was, other than the name on the mural. Fortunately since then, I’ve been in phone contact with the artist, Don Porcella, who now lives in California. I had a great conversation with him, and in the near future I hope to post the audio of the interview here.
Until then, I just wanted to comment on one thing that Don said to me: when a person goes to a museum or gallery, the average time that the viewer interacts with a piece of art is just three to seven seconds—that’s it. The artist may have taken months or years bringing a project to fruition, but that three seconds could be the entire length of time that a viewer engages with the piece of art. So the artist’s job, as Porcella sees it, is to somehow persuade or seduce a person to stay and engage and interact a little longer. He wants people to see through the surface, and then take the time to go a little deeper.
That resonated with me, because it seems as if in all the arts, there’s that obligation of baiting the hook for attention. It seems almost whorish. But the novelist is taught that the first few sentences have to grab, or no one’s going to read the rest; a musician has to have a musical hook that gets the audience humming or singing along; the old vaudeville maxim declared that “you gotta have a gimmick.” The great British actor Ralph Richardson once stated that the art of acting consisted of keeping the audience from coughing for two hours.
In magic, too, the first obligation is to get the audience’s attention. Indeed, it’s doubly important in magic: not only do magicians need your attention so that they can perform for you, they need first to receive your attention, so that later they can deceive your attention. There’s the story about a teacher of coin magic—I wish I could remember who it was!—who would stop his students’ rehearsals of coin sleights barely before they had begun. He would admonish them that they were attempting magic when they hadn’t even made eye contact with their spectators yet. Without engaging the audience’s attention, there is no hope of manipulating it.
There are crude ways of getting attention and more subtle, artistic ways. Attention is deeper and longer lasting when the viewer makes that decision without coercion. But without attention there can be no art either on the part of the artist or the part of the viewer.
There is a classic Zen Buddhist story that goes like this:
A student goes to a Zen Master: “Master, will you please write for me the essence of Zen?” The Master immediately takes out a brush and writes the word “Attention.”
“Is that all?” asked the man. “Can you explain more?”
The master then writes: “Attention, Attention.”
The bewildered student says, “I don’t understand.”
The master writes: “Attention, Attention, Attention.”