Curiosity didn’t really kill the cat

Image of Peter Aspden

You all know the feeling. You are working intently in front of the computer screen, rapt in concentration, but something is nagging away in the corners of your otherwise fully focused mind. It is a plea. Let me out of here for a minute or two. I have had enough of this. Give me something else to think about. You fidget a little, and try to assert some discipline. A deadline looms. But there is no ignoring the insistent voice. You quickly leave your document to check your emails. And that’s it. You are gone, dead to the trials of your true task for anything from half an hour to an entire afternoon.

This is not an original phenomenon. But it has added resonance in today’s world. Not least because it is the very implement that we use to work, which also seduces us away from our labours. The computer keyboard is instrumental in our downfall. Entire software programmes have been designed to prevent us from lapsing into internet drift. The American novelist Jonathan Franzen famously applied glue to his internet connection port when writing his mighty novel The Corrections. But there is no denying us when the online surf’s up. “I’m sorry,” you will tell your super-ego, if not your immediate superior. “I just got distracted. I was curious.”

The regarding of curiosity, and its complicit cousin distraction, as sins has a long history. St Augustine was damning of those who “desire nothing but to know”, detecting in their inquisitiveness a wish to be released from the pursuit of virtue. During the scientific explosion of the 17th century, thinkers warned against delving into trifling or minute matters when there were broader concerns at hand. They took aim against the “cabinets of curiosities”, those collections of random objects so carefully assembled by intellectuals to give scholarly legitimacy to their fickle attention spans.

“Distraction was regarded as a dangerous thing,” says Brian Dillon, curator of a new show at Margate’s Turner Contemporary gallery, opening next Friday, that celebrates the wonder of the wandering mind. “There was disapproval at the excessively precise attention paid to trivial matters.” Intellectual promiscuity was as enfeebling as its carnal counterpart.

In Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing, Dillon wants to redress the balance. The show brings together bizarre objects from different periods of time that have no thematic coherence, but are capable of striking unlikely connections. “We want to encourage the idea that confusion, concentration, strangeness, distraction are all aspects of the human mind,” says Dillon. “They are not opposites.”

There is an element of the aesthetic freak show about the exhibition. Contemporary artists play with icons from the past to produce mysterious, hybrid images. Historical objects that attracted wondrous visitors more than 100 years ago are themselves revisited, and produce a new sense of oddity: witness the weirdly puffed-up Horniman Museum walrus, bought in the 19th century, which was overstuffed out of ignorance of what the animal really looked like.

My favourite item is the collection of business cards, mounted on seven Rolodexes, assembled by the anti-nuclear protester Ed Grothus. He had worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which helped develop nuclear weapons. Grothus resigned in 1969, and kept the business cards as a historical record of a cause he had come to despise: here was everyone you needed to know, from military contractors to widget suppliers, to make an atomic bomb.

The cards are themselves documents of a uniquely strange period in global warfare. Imagine being handed one from one WW “Bill” Hall, territory technical representative of the Pako Corporation. “It is a particular moment in American corporate culture,” says Dillon. “Those clumsy titles were supposed to confer a quasi-scientific status. But they were so naive. So here was this secret, million-dollar industrial programme, being represented by the most mundane of objects.”

Dillon is the UK editor of the New York-based Cabinet magazine, founded in 2001 to bring the joys of improbable eclecticism back to contemporary cultural life. It is a renaissance whose time has come. Technology has made possible the acquisition of an unprecedentedly broad range of knowledge. That is something we need to embrace, rather than shy away from.

Academic knowledge has traditionally been judged by the depth of its research and scholarly detail. Those who have preferred to skip lightly over a wider variety of subjects are routinely condemned as dilettantes. But that needs to change. The era of connectivity demands that we wash the glue out of our computers. Curiosity is good for you. Now go check your emails.

‘Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing’, a Hayward Touring show at Turner Contemporary, Margate, opens on Friday,

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