Slowing Down for Art

This post is part of a blog series celebrating the College Art Association annual conference taking place in New York City from February 15–18. Please visit us at Booth 605 if you are attending, and otherwise stay tuned for more content related to our new and forthcoming Art books.


by Arden Reed, author of Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell

Surprise: more Americans visit art museums every year than attend professional sporting events and amusement parks combined. Way more, in fact. But many visitors feel clueless about how to navigate: where to head first? what to look at in, say, Gallery Nine? how to connect with that thing? Such befuddlement needn’t be the case. Everybody, I believe, is not only entitled but already equipped to have meaningful museum encounters. Whether or not visitors have any particular talent, art education, or technical vocabulary, they have all they need to find pleasure in looking—namely their life experience and their eyes. But everything depends on how we use those eyes. Generally speaking, art worth its salt only reveals itself gradually, as we dwell with it. If you speed past most works, you simply cannot know what you’re missing. But slow down and magic happens. Paintings, for instance, start to behave like moving pictures—that’s how much they can change under your gaze.

Accustomed to instant gratification and addicted to speed, how can we stretch out the 6–10 seconds that, on average, people spend looking at any given artwork? Slow Art tries to think through that challenge and develops strategies to enhance our artful encounters. A wide range of contemporary genres—including photography, film, video, digital art, painting, sculpture, fiction, installation and performance art, even tableaux vivants (“living pictures”)—shapes this new aesthetic field. But rather than a collection of aesthetic objects, as you might suppose, “slow art” names the dynamic relationship that transpires between objects and observers. Slow Art is also about changing our practices of looking. Together beholder and beheld create the experience.

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More than describe, I advocate an aesthetics of slowness: decelerating benefits works we contemplate but us as well. Over roughly the past 200 years the pace of everyday life has quickened exponentially, leading people to seek time-outs—the kind of quiet spaces that religion used to offer. But even as our need for breathers has intensified, our opportunities have diminished. The option of worship—think of contemplating icons—shrinks in secular societies. The result: speeding along the Autobahn of modernity we seek off-ramps—only to find the old rest stops closed. Might experiencing art reclaim the social spaces evacuated by religious gazing? Can slow art be a modern, secular displacement of old sacred practices? For museumgoers seasoned or raw, Slow Art models ways to enhance our acts of looking.


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Arden Reed is Arthur and Fanny Dole Professor of English at Pomona College. He writes on the visual arts and literature, and his publications include Manet, Flaubert, and the Emergence of Modernism and Romantic Weather: The Climates of Coleridge and Baudelaire.


A New York Reading List for the 2017 College Art Association Conference

UC Press is exhibiting at the College Art Association Conference February 15–18 in New York, and we can’t wait to see you there! Be sure to stop by booth #605 for discount details on all UC Press art books and follow @educatedarts, @collegeart, and the hashtag #CAA2017 for meeting news—including an upcoming series of author posts.

As we get ready for the conference, we’ve rounded up some suggested advance reading for art and music aficionados, whether you’re going to the conference or just heading to the Big Apple in spirit. To save 30% now, use discount code 16W6596 for the following titles (enter code at checkout).

Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

“The maps themselves are things of beauty.”—New York Times 

Twenty-six gorgeously rendered maps and informative essays chart New York city’s hidden histories in the final volume of Rebecca Solnit’s trilogy of atlases. Bringing together the insights of dozens of experts—from linguists to music historians, ethnographers, urbanists, and environmental journalists—amplified by cartographers, artists, and photographers, the book explores all five boroughs of New York City and parts of nearby New Jersey, celebrating the region’s incubation of the avant-garde and its literary history, while also critiquing its racial and economic inequality, environmental impact, and erasure of its past. Check out our previous blog posts on the atlas and follow @nonstopatlas on Twitter for more peeks inside the book.

Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s by Michael C. Heller

“A vital chapter in downtown history . . . a study long overdue.”—Village Voice

The New York loft jazz scene of the 1970s was a pivotal period for uncompromising, artist-produced work. Faced with a flagging jazz economy, a group of young avant-garde improvisers chose to eschew the commercial sphere and develop alternative venues in the abandoned factories and warehouses of Lower Manhattan. Loft Jazz provides the first book-length study of this period, tracing its history amid a series of overlapping discourses surrounding collectivism, urban renewal, experimentalist aesthetics, underground archives, and the radical politics of self-determination. Learn more about the movement and the book in this Village Voice article.

Drawing the Line: The Early Work of Agnes Martin by Christina Bryan Rosenberger

If your interest was piqued by the recent Agnes Martin exhibition at the Guggenheim, then this revelatory study of the artist’s early works is just what you need. Beginning with Martin’s initiation into artistic language at the University of New Mexico and concluding with the reception of her grid paintings in New York in the early 1960s, author Christina Bryan Rosenberger offers vivid descriptions of the networks of art, artists, and information that moved between New Mexico and the creative centers of New York and California in the postwar period.

Consuming Stories: Kara Walker and the Imagining of American Race by Rebecca Peabody

New York-based artist Kara Walker is well known for her site-specific pieces around the city—”A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” at the former Domino Sugar compound and her mural, “Event Horizon,” at the New School, among others. In this in-depth study, Rebecca Peabody delves deep into Walker’s brilliant and provocative art and her engagement with literary genres such as the romance novel, the neo-slave narrative, and the fairy tale to how Walker uses her tools and strategies to unsettle cultural histories  and examine assumptions about race, gender, power, and desire.