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.
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.
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.