Howard Jacobson: Stop running. Slow down. And take a good long look – you'll get far more out of art

I find nothing tiresome about standing rapt before a painting and thinking long about what we see
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Today I write in praise of slowness, longevity of attention, what used to be called – when we had schools – concentration. This in response to an article my fellow Independent columnist John Walsh wrote last week about that artist of the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't, Martin Creed. I won't be discussing Creed's work itself. It passes me by – which is perhaps, given Creed's commitment to evanescence, the highest compliment I can pay it. "Why do we have to look at paintings for a long time?" he asks. "Why not just look for a second?" So that's his second. What interests me more is John Walsh's high-spirited gloss on Creed's philosophy of instantaneousness. "Our response to the spectacle," he writes, meaning the spectacle of athletes dashing through the Duveen Galleries at Creed's artistic behest, "is a joyful blink, rather than a solemn, chin-stroking inspection of brushwork."

I like "joyful blink". I've been practising it for days. It is harder to achieve than you might think. The blinking anyone can do without raising a sweat, but doing it with joy is more problematic because joy takes a little longer than that for some of us, both in the build-up and the aftermath. There is a wonderful Wordsworth poem that describes joy striking out of a clear sky – "Surprised by joy – impatient as the Wind / I turned to share the transport" – that moment when you are so oblivious to yourself, made so unaware by the sheer exuberance of being, that you forget you are no longer companioned by the beloved person you want to share that exuberance with. For that's the terrible pang that accompanies this blink of impatient joy – the realisation that the beloved person exists no more. What Wordsworth's poem then becomes is a meditation on the rights and wrongs of forgetting. Which is the higher love – to go about never not remembering that the person you loved is dead, or to have her still so vividly about you that you can turn to her in a forgetful transport of devotion?

So this poem suits us all – Martin Creed, John Walsh and me. Yes, there is a joyful blink of spontaneous delight, and yes, you can give a lifetime to thinking about the part it plays in the complex of a man's emotional obligations. You pays your money and you takes your choice: make art the blink, or make art the meditation on it. We are of the meditation party.

But it behoves those for whom it's all over in a flash not to deride those who enjoy a deeper absorption. In genial mood, and doing his best by Creed, John Walsh makes the alternative to the blinker a ponderous chin-stroking pedant, the last person you want to find yourself next to at dinner, a solemniser of art who misses the joyous quick of it because he's too busy "inspecting" brushstrokes. A double sin, because "brushstrokes" conjure sterile connoisseurship, and "inspecting" makes us think of municipal snoops and health and safety bureaucrats – the dead men of our society.

I beg to take exception to this view. I find nothing tiresomely solemn or chin-strokingly pedantic about standing rapt before a painting and thinking long about what we see. It's true that we might labour over art sometimes, as lovers might labour over one another, but which of us would forgo the pleasures of slow mutual appreciation for the short and sometimes bitter exhilaration of the "quickie"?

In slow, not to say meditative appreciation, much can be revealed. Martin Creed crumples a ball of paper. Stanley Spencer paints the Resurrection. You are within your rights to act the clown and see more in the crumpled ball of paper. But you can't even determine what's happening narratively in Stanley Spencer in under an hour. And in the gradual revelation of meaning and achievement reside great pleasures – the noticing of detail, the making out of harmony or dissonance, the sensitising of ones eyes to the throb of colour, and that sensation of transference of ownership in which another person's imagination lays gradual claim to yours, and yours to its. None of these need be solemn. None is incommensurate with joy. Indeed, I'd claim the very opposite – you who haven't looked long and hard and felt comprehension dawn and admiration animate your spirits know nothing of the joy of art at all, merely the pricks of joy's distant cousins: catching hold of an allusion or being in on a joke.

Little is now expected of art, as little is expected of learning. The latest word from that inconsequential hell which is school examining is that if you write "Fuck off" in an examination paper you are awarded marks for spelling and clear expression of what you mean. How the examiner knows the candidate means "Fuck off" and not "I love you" he has not explained, but that is probably a question about intentionality too far. Take it as read that "Fuck off" is all any of us want to say.

I am asked sometimes what art, what books, what music, I really enjoy. Enjoy as opposed to read for work or pretend to high-mindedly admire. The assumption is that I am party to a cultural subterfuge – affecting an enthusiasm for "solemn" art while grubby-fingering another kind, the cheaply illicit, the easily disposable, under the bedclothes. The distinction is the same as that between the pondering of brushstrokes and the blink of joy. And I reject it for the same reason. I can enjoy only what I hold to be of value, and I esteem those works to be of value which in some way strike me, by dint of gradual understanding or long acquaintance, to be true.

Readers of this column don't need reminding of John Donne's words about truth in "Satire III". "On a huge hill, / Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will / Reach her about must and about must go; /And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so."

The "about must and about must" enacts, as we used to say at Cambridge, the strenuously circular pursuit of truth. But the hard work is the pleasure. We hear the love of effort in the repetition, the deep, driven satisfaction of working against resistance and then, at last, the liberating sensation of accomplishment. You would speak to us of joy? Well it is there, in the winding ascent, and the eventual breaking free into light. As for those content to sit blinking at the bottom of the hill, they are welcome to whatever joy they find in it.

Turn the pages slowly, I say. Look long, drink deep, what is over before it has begun might as well never have begun at all.