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Natural Awakenings Fairfield & Southern Litchfield Counties

The Art of Seeing: Appreciation of Art Encourages Living Slow

May 28, 2020 12:27PM ● By Patricia Staino
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” 
~ Henry David Thoreau

Before we can see, we need to look. But what does it mean “to look”? Think back to your last art gallery visit. How long did you gaze at each installation? Did you give the object your full attention? Or did you slow down briefly, focus your phone, click a photo, then move on to the next work?

The average person spends less than 17 seconds looking at a work of art; but are they really looking? More importantly, are they seeing? Observe any visitor walking through a museum and it’s a clear the 17-second threshold is optimistic. If they do spend that much time in front of a painting, they read its descriptive placard rather than contemplate the artwork. 

In a world of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, we’ve come to expect a fully engaging, multi-sensory assault on our senses, no matter the situation. In that context, spending 10 minutes focused on a single, silent, stationary object is an uncomfortable experience for most people. More alarming, taking 10 minutes to really see something may be viewed as an imposition on our time. That’s precisely why the small details of life are often missed and little appreciated.

Enter the “slow” movement. It’s been creeping up on us over the years. More than a decade ago, mindful chefs started touting the pleasure of “slow food”. Now there are similar movements around slow travel, slow reading, slow cities and slow money. Most have managed to gain just a toehold within niche populations here or there, but often they experience pushback because much of the “civilized” world is unwilling to give up the luxuries and convenience necessary to live slowly.

If done with intent, looking at art may produce a relaxing, meditative state, and Slow Art Day was born to show museum visitors how to achieve such mindfulness. Launched in 2009, Slow Art Day was the brainchild of Phil Terry, founder of the Reading Odyssey and CEO of Collaborative Gain: “My wife kept dragging me to museums. I did not know how to look at art. Like most people, I would walk by quickly,” he said.

His first “test” of the slow art concept was spending an hour in front of Hans Hoffman’s Fantasia in The Jewish Museum. He found it such a powerful experience, he brought along friends on subsequent experiments, finally deciding to launch and promote Slow Art Day in 2009. 

The now-annual event usually takes place in April, and a number of Connecticut museums and arts organizations take part, including Clare Gallery in Hartford, ARTworks Gallery in Norwalk, the Norwalk Arts Commission, and Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme. The participating museums (around 200 worldwide) choose a number of works from their collections, and visitors commit to spending no less than 10 minutes with each work, viewing, contemplating, taking notes, and sketching. Organizers encourage viewers to look closely at a work, then back up and view from a distance. Terry reminds viewers “there is not a right or wrong way…be naïve, be patient, allow the experience to unfold…breathe.”

Turns out that may be easier said than done. Until recently our common goal was to do as much as we could in as little time as possible for the maximum amount of payoff. We don’t know how to live slow. Foreign correspondence arrives instantaneously via email; Amazon delivers just about anything within hours; any data we need can be accessed in seconds. How can we possibly justify 10 minutes looking at art, an activity with no immediate, tangible takeaway? 

Art requires the viewer to seek, find and maintain a personal connection. The artist hopes we will stop, consider, think, and see. That pause, that engagement, sets apart, for example, the completely white canvas by Robert Ryman, dubbed “Twin,” in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, from a random doodle in a notebook. The viewer’s gaze and consideration are necessary components of a masterpiece.

Art asks something of the viewer. The mood and emotion conveyed and elicited, the ongoing conversation between the viewer and canvas, the impact a work has on the viewer long after they’ve left the gallery—that is the true purpose of art, and it can’t be achieved in 17 seconds. True art, once seen, must be consumed, digested, and contemplated, or it has not achieved its purpose. 

Have you ever seen photos of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre? Most show the modest-sized painting against the stark white wall at the far end of a hall crowded with a sea of tourists—10 to 20 deep on some days—all holding their cameras above their heads and blindly clicking to grab the photo they will post on Facebook to prove they’ve seen the Mona Lisa. But have they? Once they’ve captured the painting digitally, they turn and walk away, none the better for having been there. And if they are lucky enough to go to Paris twice (or more) in their lifetime, it’s a sure bet they won’t return to visit her, complaining it’s not worth fighting the crowds. 

But for art fans, returning again and again to visit favorite works is like seeing an old friend. New details emerge upon repeat visits: the brushstrokes, the light, the hidden messages, the movement. For them, visiting their favorite artwork is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, each time they go. For the rest, looking at art should at least serve as a form of momentary meditation.

Spending time with a work of art moves you beyond the surface, the first impression, your mistaken idea that you must understand what the artist was saying. Because when you take the time to look, you find what speaks to you. You experience the palette, textures, light, vibrations and movement. You note how its impression changes at various times of day, how it means something different at a new stage of your life. The work becomes your own and its meaning is found within you—in light of your memories, your emotions, your biases. The next time you see that work, which could be weeks or months or years from now, you may feel something completely new as you gaze at it. The artwork has remained the same, but you’ve changed, and you begin to see and feel and understand the work as you never could before. You’ve grown older and wiser, and so, magically, has the masterpiece. 

To enjoy a work of art is to mindfully live in the moment. As artist Marcel
Duchamp once said, art is completed by the viewer. Give it more than 17 seconds.

Patricia Staino is the managing editor of Natural Awakenings’ Hartford and Fairfield County editions. Connect at [email protected].

How to Look Slowly

While COVID-19 cancelled this year’s Slow Art Day, you can plan your own slow walkabout once your local art museum reopens, or practice during quarantine by choosing a favorite item in your home.

Here are some tips for how to look and how to see: 

  • If possible, choose a smaller museum. You’ll feel less pressure to “see everything,” and smaller crowds are more conducive to spending more time with a work.
  •  If the museum offers folding chairs or stools to borrow, be sure to pick one up so you can relax in front of the artwork.
  •  Spend at least 10 minutes observing the work. Look at it, section by section. Get as close to it as the gallery sensors will allow, then move back to view from a distance.
  • Notice colors, brushstrokes, shadows, reflections, imperfections.
  • Empty your mind, breathe deeply, and view the work passively. What do you discover when you aren’t consciously looking for something?
  • Start a gallery journal. Keep track of the works you view. Leave at least a page per work, then freewrite as you observe, and sketch if you are so moved. 
  • If discussing the work with a group, leave the gallery area after 10 minutes to chat. This will require you to draw from your memories of the work rather than glance at it for prompts.
  • Write a poem immediately following the viewing, capturing your raw reaction and your memories of the work. 
  • After your visit, learn a little about the artist, the time period, the subject matter, and any other social context. Do these align with what you assumed about the work based on your observations?
  • Plan a return visit and examine the same work(s) again. Has your view of the work changed? What do you notice now that you didn’t notice the first time?
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