Adrift in a Sea of Information? Decipher the Medusa Code

Paradoxically, even though graphic arts is one of my unmitigated passions, I am not a very good observer of the visual world. I give images a once-over, and, unless they grab me, I move on. In fact, even if they grab me I move on. I only skim the surface of art magazines, design exhibitions, photo portfolios and museums shows. Yet, my short attention span (a mild case of what is clinically referred to as “Attention Deficit Disorder”) is a critical asset. When you are in the communication business, as I am, an ability to quickly “get the picture” is a plus.

But how do we see what we see anyway? How do we decide what to ignore in our fluctuating field of vision? During a recent visit to the Louvre, I got to think about how we navigate the surging sea of visual information. The cause of my musing was—appropriately—a painting with a spectacular nautical motif.

I was typically jogging through the museum, merely glancing at one of the world’s greatest art collections, when one painting attracted my attention. Not the painting actually, but the crowd gathered in front of it. Dozens of tourists, their digital camera raised in the air, stood motionless in front of The Raft of The Medusa, apparently mesmerized by the sight of the condensed image of the huge canvas held captive on their small screen. In a spirit of dissent, I decided to stop, sit down, and actually look at the painting with my very own eyes.

The detailed painting by famed 19th century painter Théodore Géricault shows a desperate party of shipwrecked men clinging to each other and to their makeshift raft. A representation of an actual event that took place a couple of years earlier, the scene is both horrifying and fascinating. The center of the painting is occupied by a heroic tangle of male bodies—half of them corpses—in various state of undress. You want to ogle while at the same time avert your eyes to avoid being an involuntary participant in some gruesome homo-erotic act of voyeurism.

At first I was bobbing on the surface of the image, as adrift as the raft itself, clinging to details in an attempt to focus my attention somewhere. Géricault’s Medusa is loaded with so much daunting pictorial information—ropes, body parts, pieces of canvas, waterlogged garments, scraps of wood, shadowy figures, and more body parts—I felt as if the huge painting was luring me to look closer, to come within inches of its vanished surface. But why so many confusing details, I wondered? Was Géricault’s intention to make viewers feel seasick?

Since the Renaissance, painters have been known to use details the way mystery writers use clues: to alert viewers of some impending twist in the plot (re: Da Vinci Code!). In The Raft of The Medusa, it seems, the details act as decoys, as if to lure you away from the focal point of the painting. That point, it turns out, is a faint speck on the horizon. Just a smudge really, it is unmistakably the silhouette of a distant ship. In fact, two of the raft’s survivors are shown atop a pile of broken barrels, waving torn pieces of garment in the direction of the barely visible vessel, hoping to attract the attention of its crew.

Obviously, the discourse here is the dialectic relationship between attention and distraction. Will the rescuers spot the raft lost among the swells? And, will we, the viewers, spot the rescue ship lost among the details of the painting? In more general terms, how do we know where to look? Columbia University art historian Jonathan Crary, author of the cult book The Technique of The Observer (MIT Press, 1992), and Suspensions of Perception (MIT Press, 2001) considers The Raft of The Medusa emblematic of a moment in our culture when the way we look at images underwent a major transformation. Indeed, concerns with attention and distraction can be traced back to the beginning of the 19th century when Géricault was painting his Medusa masterpiece.

Paying attention, according to Crary, is a learned behavior, the result of an economic imperative whose origins is the industrial revolution, a period during which a vast number of workers had to be trained to pay attention to the machines they were operating.

Unlike earlier paintings with religious or allegorical subjects that invited viewers to ponder and daydream, The Raft of The Medusa solicits your attention, requiring you stop, focus, shut off the peripheral world and actively process visual information. Though classical by its style, the painting is modern because its topic is newsy, timely, true-to-life. For this reason, it is not a subject of meditation, but an object for popular consumption.

Paying attention, according to Crary, is a learned behavior, the result of an economic imperative whose origins is the industrial revolution, a period during which a vast number of workers had to be trained to pay attention to the machines they were operating. Attention Deficit Disorder, then, is not a physiological disorder, as the medical profession would have us believe, but a reaction against the increasing pressure of a system that requires we put our natural ability to perceive at the service of productivity.

Crary’s historical perspective on the manufacturing of attention helps explain the reason for my short attention span, and for that of many of us suffering from information overload. Our absentmindedness is a defensive technique, a direct reaction against a practice that attempts to discipline the natural rhythm of human perception, characterized by ebbs and flows.

But there is more, according to Crary. One of the side effects of this “suspension of perception,” as he calls the state in which we pay attention, is the amount of time we spend immobilized and isolated. Peeping Toms instead of participants, we stand alone as we struggle to rein in our volatile power of concentration; we are cut from the world, often in the dark, focusing on a single set of images or sounds.

And I am not just talking about being stuck in front of a television set or a computer monitor, or hooked to an iPod, a cell phone, or a blackberry. The way most tourists behaved at the Louvre was evidence that even in a situation that encourages people to drift from room to room and from painting to painting, the pressure to pay attention insulates us from the very world we have come to see.

Some unfortunate visitors were starring at paintings with a blank expression on their face while listening to audio devices; others, as docile as schoolchildren, were scrutinizing the works of art to see what their guidebooks or their guides told them to see; and still others, riveted to one spot, were snapping digital pictures of whatever was in front of them. Each individual was alone in a private world, too busy consuming information to look around and partake in the often cathartic experience of shared art appreciation.

Understanding this isolation factor might help us solve the so-called ADD crisis. Crary points out that one of the things that triggers attentiveness—and its backlash, ADD—is sensory impoverishment in the peripheral vision. So, the solution to communicate with easily-distracted people might require more connectivity and complexity all around, rather than attention-focusing gimmicks that cut people off from their surroundings. Some writers, for instance, report being more productive in noisy surroundings than in the silence of their room. And kids often tackle their homework more efficiently with the TV turned on. Maybe distraction is not a bad thing after all. Instead of trying to grab the attention of an audience and hold it captive with bold graphics or stunning visuals, why not offer richly detailed pictures with lots of intriguing clues and ornate frames to boot?

Imagine designing something as chunky and full-bodied as Géricault’s Medusa? One minute you’d walk to it, the next you’d step back. One minute you’d squint, the next you’d scrutinize. You’d focus on the middle before letting your gaze wander over to the edges of the picture. Like a sailboat taking advantage of every current and every breeze, your awareness would be allowed to navigate freely on the sea of information.