Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Slow Looking

One of my favorite memories from college involves an assignment given to students of a humanities course I took: We would visit a museum, find one of several pre-selected paintings, and look at the piece.

Simple enough, right?

Actually the looking was expected to last an hour or more. We were meant to stare at the piece, getting close, sitting at a distance, viewing it from the side (to assess its "painterliness") and generally living within the work.

My painting was by a Russian-American artist named Ben Benn; the piece was entitled Still Life with Fruit. It was, as you'd imagine an Early Modern painting, literally named. No impressionistic wispiness here, the bold lines and saturated colors made for an unmistakable impression. These were fruit and they were sitting.

Still, after an hour I found myself integrating classroom discussions about war and technology and progress into my viewing of the piece, shifting from the practice of looking to the craft of interpretation. My paper reflected an undergraduate glee of peering beyond the world of five-paragraph essays. Referencing World War I, considering the Russian-American painter's hybrid-status, reviewing my notes on cubism, I over-wrote the hell out of this assignment, a tendency that served me well in grad school.

I remembered that happy hour while reading a recent NYT article by Michael Kimmelman. The article tackles the question: What are we looking for when we adopt the tourist gaze?

As you'd guess, Kimmelman recalls from a visit to the Louvre that few tourists dwell lengthily at any one work of art; most buzz from piece to piece, snapping pics, often comparing their experiences to the words of guidebooks. The larger point of this critique concerns a tolerance for surface level impressions in preference to in-depth analysis of art in any form:
"At one time a highly educated Westerner read perhaps 100 books, all of them closely. Today we read hundreds of books, or maybe none, but rarely any with the same intensity."
Intriguingly, Kimmelman then shifts to the premodern "Grand Tour," that province of travelers (need we add the inevitable yet invisible adjectives of "wealthy" and "privileged"?) offering a point of comparison to the author's dismal recollection of clicking cell phones and blase expressions, of cameras in Paris.

Abandoning the class-implications of that turn, Kimmelman shifts to a safer argument, noting ways we use cameras and camcorders to store experiences, to allow us to encounter them, to edit them, to repackage them but not necessarily to be touched by them. The consequence of this simultaneous explosion of images and privatization of experience?
"[T]he canon of art that provided guideposts to tell people where to go and what to look at was gradually dismantled. A core of shared values yielded to an equality among visual materials. This was good and necessary, up to a point. Millions of images came to compete for our attention. Liberated by a proliferation, Western culture was also set adrift in an ocean of passing stimulation, with no anchors to secure it."
Kimmelman concludes with a call for "slow looking," even for a return to the old school practice of sketching what we see. In a way similar to the "slow food" movement "slow looking" compels us to slow down, to limit rather than expand the number of our observations and to seek their experience in a manner we may call "live" (ideally with other people) rather than to save them for later when we're alone.

Read the entire article: At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus (free registration required)

1 comment:

Evan said...

I think the ability to really look at a piece of art depends on the museum experience around you. Going during the day in the middle of the week gives you a completely different experience versus being there on the weekend, especially if it's a popular exhibition designed to get as many people through the galleries before depositing them in the gift shop. It can be hard to concentrate with so many people around you.

Still, I agree with the premise that few people actively spend time looking at something for more than a few seconds.