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You snooze, but do you really lose? In defence of a cultural nap


Grayson Perry is making 2013 a vintage year for the Reith Lectures. Along with everybody else, I’ve nodded along at his witty demystifications of contemporary art. There’s one point, though, on which we disagree.

Discussing video art, Perry cheekily wagered that the success of Christian Marclay’s The Clock was partly down to the comfy sofas provided for gallery-goers, instead of the usual austere benches.

I’m right behind his broader point that art and pleasure needn’t be mutually exclusive. But, in my experience, plump upholstery doesn’t make for a more enjoyable experience of art. In fact, it’s often the main ingredient in a recipe for cultural torture.  

You may have experienced this. Friday evening, after a long week at work, and you’ve got theatre tickets. As you sink into that cushiony seat and the lights go down, the first wave of drowsiness presses gently on your eyelids. Throw in a crowd of warm bodies and a drink at the bar and conditions are set for neurological civil war as you battle to stay awake, full of dread at being the source of snoring in the quiet bits.

Art, artists and sleep have been snuggling up together for centuries. Sleep is linked to dreams; the subconscious and artistic creation; the sleeping body can be vulnerable, erotic and deathly. That’s why – as Perry noted – Tilda Swinton can nap in the Serpentine Gallery or MoMA and it’s called art. It’s the poor audience that’s locked out of this snooze-in. If you’re not part of the exhibit, sleeping is rarely viewed as a creative act. Ironically, while so much of art is concerned with the body, ceding to one of its most basic needs remains taboo.

But perhaps it’s a taboo worth busting: how much angst might we save ourselves if we allow ourselves to embrace the shut-eye? Even if you’re not bored, the pace and sheer length of certain “slow cinema” titles, for example, make, erm, “lapses in concentration” inevitable. I love dialogue-free cinematic marathons, but you’ll nonetheless find me dozing through bits of films by Bela Tarr or Ben Rivers. Perhaps, since they favour the sensorial over conventional narrative, that’s part of the experience – a gentle reassertion of the unruly body over the neatly rationalising mind. And I’m grateful, actually, that my unscheduled snoozes encourage multiple viewings, rather than allowing me to tick products off a cultural shopping list. So, on second thoughts, bring on those comfy sofas. Once again, Grayson is probably right.