Talking Arts, Culture and Heritage: the AAH Careers Day in Oxford

By Tamsin Hong, current MSt student, on the Association for Art History Careers Day held in Oxford in November


It is week five of Michaelmas term and as I approach the Association for Art History Careers Day for Arts, Culture and Heritage, this year held in Oxford, I am considering whether the full day of talks is a good investment of my time when there are essays to write, readings to wrestle with, and a deeply neglected dissertation limping around the back corners of my mind. Having worked in the museum and gallery sector for over 10 years and attended numerous career forums, I find myself somewhat sceptical about how useful this event will be for me.

But the AAH Careers Day may have been one of the best investments I have made since landing in Oxford. Oxford DPhil candidate Emily Knight is to be congratulated for organising the event and carefully choosing eight speakers in disparate and not always well-known arts professions who all addressed the often-thought question for History of Art students: How do I become a successful arts-professional in this ultra-competitive era?

Each speaker clearly articulated how people are entering their profession. Emerging professionals drew from their recent experience of breaking into the field and more senior professionals reflected on what they are looking for when they are hiring. Each gave practical advice and concrete examples on how to obtain your dream job, whilst also providing honest and sometimes brutal realities of working in the sector. This was far from the usual glittery eyed if-you-work-hard-you-can-do-it approach that many similar events provide, but it is precisely this kind of knowledge that anyone entering or attempting to progress in the sector needs.

Helen HillyardSpeaker Helen Hillyard © Tamsin Hong

The morning session addressed some of the more traditional roles in museums and galleries and started with the much-coveted Assistant Curator experience. Helen Hillyard is now working at the Dulwich Picture Gallery after steadily working her way through a variety of voluntary positions and paid internships in the sector. Jo Rice was next and explained what skills and experiences she looks for when employing staff in her role as Head of Education at the Ashmolean Museum. Her colleague Jevon Thistlewood then suggested 10 useful qualities of a good conservator while explaining in detail how his profession operates.

The middle session started with Alice Purkiss from the National Trust and University of Oxford explaining her convoluted but fascinating career path to her unique role as Knowledge Transfer Partnership Associate. I am not sure how to explain this position but it is somewhere between digital content organiser, curator, public programmer and knowledge ninja. She was followed by Ros Holmes who finally illuminated to me the mysterious process of life after obtaining a PhD: the post doc. We all know they are difficult to get, but Ros Holmes explained the step-by-step process of gaining such positions and provided some excellent suggestions.

Ros HolmesSpeaker Ros Holmes © Tamsin Hong

The final three speakers spoke on freelancing and the art market. Tarini Malik has worked diligently on a rich assortment of curatorial projects and now works as a freelancing Exhibition Consultant where she is able to channel her enthusiasm for time based art and marginalised culture through her work. The next talk was on an area I have only ever wondered at, which is freelance journalism, and Lily Le Brun revealed her secrets on how she juggles multiple projects while establishing herself as a reputable arts writer. Lastly, Alexis Ashot spoke about selling art with Christie’s and provided anecdotes of this intense part of the sector, including his being tested on table manners at his second interview.

Each speaker had about 10 minutes or so after their presentations to answer some of the many questions we enthusiastic attendees had. I valued the frankness of many of the arts professionals who explained the importance of perseverance through their shared experiences of feeling repeatedly rejected, whether it be experienced when applying for jobs or attempting to publish articles.

Alexis AschotSpeaker Alexis Ashot © Tamsin Hong

My experience at the beginning of my career was similar and after speaking to several other students trying to land their first paid position in the industry, it is perhaps something that we need to be more aware of to prepare ourselves and develop coping strategies when dealing with this unfair side of the arts industry.

The message that all these speakers reiterated was to be resolute in your goals and work towards fleshing out your skills so you can eventually develop a career you are happy with. There were also a few examples of people who had tried a few different positions and eventually ended up in role they thoroughly enjoy even if it was not where they thought they would end up.

Some of the suggestions I will be working on since attending the day include improving my online presence and approaching volunteering for an organisation in a more focused manner. I already knew about the central role networking has in the sector but it was useful to have the speakers show how they have effectively utilised this skill in their careers. I met some attendees with fascinating experiences and aspirations throughout the day and I am looking forward to reconnecting with them at future events organised by the Association for Art History.


Tamsin Hong is currently a student on the Oxford Master’s Degree in the History of Art and Visual Culture, focusing on post-modern and contemporary art.

For more information about the History of Art MSt, please see the Department’s Master’s Degree page

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A Year in the Life of a Research Student

By Emily Knight, Current DPhil student


Each year of my DPhil has been different as my research project has taken shape and my skills as an art historian have developed. Along the way, I’ve had the opportunity to take up fellowships, make research trips, speak at conferences and teach, as well as gain work experience within museums and heritage organisations. This post gives a taste of my work as a DPhil student over the last academic year and what I hope to achieve in the next few months before finishing up.

Cumbria© Emily Knight

Research

My research looks at posthumous portraiture in Britain from the mid eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. At the beginning of the year, I went to Cumbria and Lancashire to dig around an archive and get up close to some works of art I’d read about and wanted to study more closely. With the help of a Postgraduate Grant from Trinity College, I went to the Cumbria County Archive to look at the papers of the Wilson family of Dallam Tower. A mother and daughter from the family, Ann and Sibyl respectively, were painted by the portraitist George Romney to commemorate the death of six-year-old Sibyl. I had the opportunity to study the painting last year, thanks to a Visiting Scholar Award at the Yale Center for British Art and it features prominently in my thesis, so I was eager to see if there was any undiscovered correspondence or other kinds of reference to the young girl’s death. Like many archival trips, I didn’t find what I expected to uncover, but came away with new and unexpected research leads that provided the starting point for one of my chapters.

George Romney_Ann WilsonGeorge Romney, Ann Wilson with Her Daughter Sibyl, c.1776, Yale Center for British Art. © Yale Center for British Art

On my way back down south, I stopped at Lancaster to visit the Priory, which has a monument to the young Sibyl Wilson by the Fisher Brothers of York. I was curious to see how the work compared to Romney’s painting, particularly with regards to the neoclassical motifs used in both. As all art historians know, seeing works of art up close can never be adequately recreated and it was fascinating to see the work in situ.

Monument to Sibyl WilsonMonument to Sibyl Wilson, 1773, Lancaster Priory. © Emily Knight

A few milestones

Last year, I gave my first hour-long research paper at the History of Art Department Research Seminar and received some really helpful feedback on work that would ultimately become a chapter. I was also invited to participate in undergraduate admissions. In order to prepare for this, I undertook training through the Oxford Learning Institute, which, combined with the advice and support from members of the History of Art department, gave me the tools to undertake this tricky and important task. In Hilary Term, I completed my Confirmation of status, which involved submitting part of a chapter, providing an outline of my research project and projected timeline, and an interview with a member of the department. I found it an incredibly helpful process because I was required to prepare a chapter with some polish and receive in-depth feedback from both my supervisor and moderator, as well as giving me the opportunity to discuss my project as a whole and think about next steps career wise.

Seminars, conferences and workshops

Alongside my research, I have taken great pleasure in attending and contributing to various seminar series and workshops.  For the past two years, I have co-convened a termly workshop series called ‘Reading Images’ at the Ashmolean with Dr Jim Harris, Andrew W. Mellon Teaching Curator at the museum. The idea behind the series is to encourage those who do not normally work with visual material to think about their research in relation to the Ashmolean’s collections. I also led a session with a researcher from the Experimental Psychology department who works on ‘prolonged grief’. We realised that a huge amount of our work intersected in really interesting ways and it was enlightening to discover a shared language when talking about complex emotional responses to objects.

Reading Images workshop HT 2017Reading Images workshop, Hilary Term 2017

During the first two years of my DPhil, I spoke at various conferences around the country. With a number of these under my belt, I decided to apply to speak at just one conference last year, the Association of Art Historians Annual Conference, held at Loughborough University. I contributed to a session run by the Yale Center for British Art and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, entitled, ‘Sculpture in Motion’. The focus of the session was on both motion (in the broadest possible sense) and animation. I had recently been considering the ways in which artists augmented death masks to make them appear more lifelike and so I thought that this would be an exciting opportunity to try out some new ideas. In preparation for this, I worked with two researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute, Dr Kathryn Eccles and Jamie Cameron, to create 3D images of death masks in the Anatomical Museum in Edinburgh. Hoping to ‘move’ around these images on the projector, the images were sadly not ready in time, but I now have a set of images that I can use in future presentations and perhaps an online journal article.

3D image of the death mask of Sir Walter Scott at the Anatomical Museum, University of Edinburgh. © Emily Knight

Teaching

This year, I tutored three visiting undergraduate students through the Sarah Lawrence Programme at Wadham College (eighteenth-century British art), the Middlebury CMRS Oxford Humanities Programme (seventeenth-century Dutch painting), and the Oxford Study Abroad Programme, Washington International Studies Council (the history of royal collecting). Having already completed the DLT and PLTO training programme at the Oxford Learning Institute, I was interested to receive further training and hear about alternative teaching methods so I signed up to an ‘Art Group Crit’ workshop for Humanities researchers at the Ruskin School of Art with Martina Schmuecker and undertook a weeklong workshop at the Ashmolean Museum called, ‘Eloquent Things: Teaching Using Real Objects’, led by Dr Jim Harris. Both workshops provided me with a variety of creative teaching methods and I look forward to using some of these in the future.

Other projects

Alongside my DPhil, I also joined the AAH Students Members Committee, which has involved judging the Undergraduate Dissertation Prize and organising this year’s careers day that took place in Oxford earlier this month. I’ve also recently been appointed co-convenor of the Paul Mellon Centre’s Doctoral Researchers Network and I’m currently working on a programme of events for doctoral students working on British art.

Trusted Source article©National Trust

Alongside my DPhil, for the past two years I’ve also worked part-time at TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities as a Graduate Project Coordinator. This has involved running the AHRC-TORCH Graduate Fund and Student Peer Review College, as well as organising the AHRC-TORCH Public Engagement with Research Summer School. The experience has taught me a huge amount about the role and value of public engagement with research, as well as project and budget management. The job came to a fantastic end when my team, led by Dr John Miles (former Humanities Training Officer), were highly commended for our work at the university’s Public Engagement with Research Awards. I’ve also contributed to various late night events at the Ashmolean and wrote my first article for the Oxford/National Trust project Trusted Source. For the latter, I wrote a short piece on national mourning following the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817. The Trust then asked me to deliver a lecture on the subject this month as part of its events programme to commemorate 200 years since the death of the princess at Claremont, her former home.

At the beginning of the summer, I was offered a five-month position as Postdoctoral Fellow/Curatorial Assistant at Historic Royal Palaces to work on the exhibition ‘Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World’. I’m still writing my thesis as well and in the new year I’ll be heading to the Huntington in California for a Robert R. Wark Fellowship, which will be the perfect way to kick off the final few months of my DPhil.


Emily Knight is a 4th year DPhil student, her research topic is “Art, Death and Memory: Posthumous Portraiture in Late Eighteenth- to Early Nineteenth-Century Britain”.

For more information about the History of Art DPhil, please see the Department’s Research Degrees page.

Undergraduate Study Trip to Sicily 2017

By Professor Gervase Rosser


At the end of June, ten second-year Art Historians embarked on a week’s optional, extra curricular trip to Sicily. The programme was led by myself, Gervase Rosser, and Alessandra Buccheri (who completed her DPhil in Renaissance Art History in Oxford and who now lives in Palermo).

The choice of Sicily (where Alessandra and I have also organised visits in the past) is deliberate: the island teaches an unconventional history of art. The Renaissance grand narrative is still a story of Tuscany, Venice and Rome.  Yet Sicily’s position in the middle of the Mediterranean has made it a nexus of cultures and a crucible of artistic invention across millennia.  Generations of travellers from northern Europe have been drawn there.  The discovery of the Greek underpinning of European culture in the Italian context was, for  Goethe, a revelation. He wrote:

‘Without Sicily, Italy creates no image in the soul: here is the key to everything.’

One of the most evocative sites from this period – which we made the goal of one of our first visits –  is the Greek city of Selinunte, on the southern coast of the island – abandoned since the city was destroyed in the third century BCE.

Selinunte, Oxford Art Historians in the steps of Goethe © Department of History of Art

A wonderful survivor of that Hellenistic culture, found by a fisherman in the sea not far from Selinunte in 1998, is the bronze Dancing Satyr now kept in a little museum at Mazzara del Vallo. The sight of it silenced everyone.  The challenge of capturing its dynamism inspired those of us who could draw, and we all sat and gazed at it for a long time.

Dancing Satyr, bronze, ?4th century BC, Mazzara del Vallo Museum © Department of History of Art

After Selinunte, the vast Roman villa at Piazza Armerina – thought to have been built for the imperial governor of the island – was palpably from a different culture.  There was more than a hint of vulgarity in the sheer scale of the mosaic decoration, and the herculean scenes of hunting.  It is a monument to a variety of pleasures.

Sicily’s gardens and fountains testify to the Arabic presence in the island, dominant for over two centuries. The Normans, who replaced Arabic rule in the twelfth century, retained much of the culture which they found. We found our way to La Zisa, the out-of-town residence to which the Norman court adjourned from Palermo during the heat of the summer – and we also felt refreshed by the water from the restored fountain which flows from the marble and mosaic interior of the building out into the gardens.

We caught there an installation by Ai Wei Wei, with the theme, still highly significant for the Sicilian location, of migration and cultural crossings.

Ai Wei Wei Evelyn EarlAi Wei Wei, Odyssey, installed at ZAC Zisa, Palermo, 2017 © Evelyn Earl

The week was full of artistic high-points, but probably the most sensational moment was the entry to the Norman cathedral of Monreale – with its walls completely covered in mosaics – an extraordinary intensity of colour and light.

Cloister Monreale Cathedral Evelyn EarlTwelfth-century fountain in the cloister of Monreale Cathedral © Evelyn Earl

The combination of Arabic and Byzantine extends into the cloister in a contrasting but complementary idiom – of restful decorative detail of stone and the cooling presence and touch of water.   This architectural sophistication is developed into a further dimension in the Cappella Palatina, the chapel of the royal palace, in Palermo. The ceiling with its secular paintings – the work of Arab craftsmen – is as remarkable as the marble and mosaic work of the building.

We wandered extensively in the city of Palermo, which was our base for the week.  At the Hispano-Sicilian Palazzo Abatellis, now the Regional Museum,  we were particularly struck by the anonymous fresco of the Triumph of Death, originally in the cloister of a late-medieval hospital in the city – an image full of life, and visual evocations of contemporary culture (and its corruptions): hunting, fountains, music-making, and some fabulous hats.

Triumph of Death Palazzo Abatellis Evelyn Earl.jpgStudents debate the Triumph of Death in the Palazzo Abatellis © Evelyn Earl

The inventiveness and vitality of Sicilian art extended across the centuries.  The extraordinarily elaborate stucco work of Giacomo Serpotta (d. 1732) made a huge impression on everyone.

The marked Sicilian taste for rich ornament is evident across all media. The interior of Palermo Cathedral was therefore a surprise, being, at the time of our visit, relatively austere and cold. We reflected, however, on the effect of timing upon the art-historical experience. The patronal feast of Santa Rosalia each July transforms the church and the city into a colossal stage. The festival impressed earlier travellers, including the Englishman Patrick Brydone, whose vivid and sympathetic account in his Tour through Sicily and Malta was published in 1776:

‘The whole of the cathedral, both roof and walls, is entirely covered over with mirror, intermixed with gold and silver paper, and an infinite variety of artificial flowers…Now, form an idea if you can, of one of our great cathedrals dressed out in this manner, and illuminated with twenty thousand wax tapers, and you will have some faint notion of this splendid scene.’

Definitively austere, however, was the former palace of the Spanish Inquisition in Palermo, containing grim cells, which nonetheless miraculously preserve dozens of wall-paintings created by the inmates – a moving trace of human resilience.

Palazzo Lo Steri Maria OHanaPalazzo Lo Steri, Palermo, cells of prisoners of the Inquisition, wall-paintings, 17th-18th century © Maria O’Hana

The long-standing cultural cosmopolitanism of Sicily is reflected also in its culture of food and wine. Patrick Brydone recalled the reputation (well established from ancient Greek times) of the seductive, honey-coloured wine of Agrigento – together with the effects of drinking excessive amounts of it. Primed to avoid such excesses, we appreciated the qualities, and enjoyed scenes such as the following on a nightly basis.

Socialising Evelyn Earl© Evelyn Earl

The culture of eating together was also one of conversation.  Experiencing such an amazingly rich set of cultural encounters and talking about our shared impressions prompted further reflections on the animation of space – and about the relationship between art and friendship (to be continued …).

Group photo.jpg

 


Gervase Rosser is a Professor of the History of Art in the Department of Art History and a Fellow of St Catherine’s College. For the BA course Gervase teaches courses on the classical tradition, medieval and Italian Renaissance art, and theoretical approaches to the subject. 

For more information about the BA degree, please see the Department’s Undergraduate Admissions page.

An introduction to Oxford: What really happens at a History of Art Undergraduate Open Day?

By Clare Charlesworth, Academic Assistant for History of Art


Not even the rather dreary forecast of ‘summer’ showers could dissuade or dampen the spirits of some several thousand prospective applicants from visiting Oxford as part of Oxford University’s Undergraduate Open Days in June. The History of Art Department welcomed around 40 to its Lecture Theatre on Wednesday 28th June to find out more about the Undergraduate degree and what Oxford has to offer.

So, why study History of Art and why study it at Oxford? Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art and Head of Department, kicked things off by providing a bit of background. The History of Art undergraduate degree here at Oxford is a young one, with its first cohort of students only graduating in 2007. It is a small department, and a place where everyone knows your name. There is an unmatched degree of personal attention here within the Department in terms of contact hours with tutors, although it’s more about the quality than the quantity. Further, the Department is part of the wider University and therefore has access to an enormous array of resources including libraries, museums, galleries that are arguably unmatched in quality or for their inspiration.

Radcliffe             Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library © Department of History of Art

The content and structure of the course was then expanded upon by Professor Alastair Wright, a member of core academic staff and subject tutor at St John’s College. Students all take the same core courses in the First Year, and work on a research-based extended essay (see here for more information) , all of which require spending a significant amount of time in Oxford’s collections and galleries in front of artworks and objects. In the Second and Third Years, students are able to pick from a variety of optional courses from specialists in the Department and further afield (and not just traditional Western art!), culminating in the writing of their thesis. Previous thesis topics have included Space and Style in Inter-War British Cinema, Tattooing as an artistic medium within Contemporary Art, Exhibiting Encounters within an African Archive, and ‘Kitchen Sink Realism’ and British Visual Culture to name a few.

Professor Geraldine Johnson, another member of core staff and subject tutor at Christ Church, then led a discussion about the application process. It is a competitive programme but it is certainly not impossible to get a place! The application and interview process for the subject is actually relatively straightforward (see here for details on the application process). Much has been written and said about interviews at Oxford, so Professor Johnson took the opportunity to try and dispel some common myths and mysteries and provide some key facts in order to show that they really aren’t all that scary. For example, you won’t be asked to do any bizarre things during an interview, tutors aren’t trying to catch you out by seeing if you can give a ‘correct answer’, rather they want to see how you are able to argue your point and how you respond to questions or prompts. They should be seen more as informal conversations than a test, and you are interviewing the tutors just as much as they are interviewing you!

Left: Professor Geraldine Johnson at Christ Church Picture Gallery. Right: Professor Alastair Wright at the Ashmolean Museum © Department of History of Art

Students then had the chance to sit down with some of our current BA students and chat over coffee, tea, and biscuits (fun fact, the quintessential Bourbon biscuit is always a firm favourite amongst Open Day attendees). This provided the perfect opportunity for prospective applicants to find out more about what Oxford and the course is really like from a current student’s perspective; what was the application process like, are the interviews scary, which is the best college to pick (hint, it’s no easier or harder to get into a particular college), what clubs or societies are there to join – there are around 400 clubs and societies to choose from.

Next up, students were invited to take part in a ‘taster class’ led by Professor Craig Clunas, providing prospective applicants with an idea of what to expect from classes here in the History of Art Department. Not only did it provide an opportunity to explore the subject further by discussing images of artworks, it also allowed attendees from all over the country (and indeed from further afield as we welcomed individuals from Malaysia, Ireland, and Mexico) to get to know one another.

What would the study of art history be without actually looking at artworks themselves and Oxford really can boast of some truly fantastic museums and galleries. This time, one half of the students were whisked away to the Ashmolean Museum to look at Chinese paintings and 19th-century art with Professors Craig Clunas and Alastair Wright, and the other group accompanied Professor Geraldine Johnson to explore the treasures contained within Christ Church Picture Gallery. The Gallery comprises a superb collection of 14th-18th Century Italian art, including around 300 paintings, from the likes of Annibale Carracci, Veronese, Tintoretto, and Filippino Lippi. In previous years, prospective applicants have been given tours of exhibitions at Modern Art Oxford and Pembroke College’s collections of 20th Century British art.

CC_Ashmolean_Open Day_2017Professor Craig Clunas with students in the Ashmolean Museum © Department of History of Art

These short but action-packed gallery visits marked the conclusion of the History of Art Open Day, but students were encouraged to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring all that Oxford has to offer, including familiarising themselves with the various colleges that make up the collegiate University. There are currently 7 colleges that offer the Undergraduate History of Art degree; Christ Church, St Catherine’s, St John’s, St Peter’s, Wadham, Worcester, and Harris Manchester (for mature applicants of 21 years of age and over).

If any of the above has sparked an interest in the subject and you would like to find out more, there are still a small number of places available for our next Undergraduate Open Day on Friday 15th September 2017. Booking in advance is required, so email admin@hoa.ox.ac.uk to book your place! More general information about Oxford University’s Open Days can be found here.


Clare Charlesworth, Academic Assistant for History of Art, is responsible for answering any queries sent to the above email address, for organising the Department’s Undergraduate Open Days and is also, perhaps most importantly, the official Bourbon biscuit provider for the Department.

Slow Looking

David M. Lubin, Oxford’s inaugural Terra Foundation Visiting Professor of American Art, delivered a guest lecture on “Slow Looking” to the Concepts and Methods of Art History class in November 2016. The following is an abridgement.


You find yourself with the luxury of an unstructured hour in one of the world’s great art museums. You can stand in front of anything you like, for as long as you like. Except that you don’t do that, because it would be boring; you can’t imagine looking at anything for that long. Not even for five minutes. Or three, or, let’s face it, two. You must hurry on to another painting, and then another. Why? Because you have a bad case of FOMO. When your friends want to know if you saw Masterpiece X or Y, you don’t want to embarrass yourself by confessing that you didn’t. You’re under strict orders from no less a tyrant than your inner self to hasten from painting to painting, room to room, gallery to gallery.

Many of us in the First World suffer a common affliction, and its name is time sickness. We might also call it time anemia, time bulimia, or time starvation. In capitalist society as first described by Max Weber, the clock is forever ticking, “free” time is never free, and personal leisure is something that mature adults have been taught to exploit for their own self-improvement or self-advancement, rather than waste in a frivolous, non-productive manner.

Appliances introduced in the early twentieth century to make housekeeping easier had the unintended consequence of increasing the homemaker’s sense of never-ending burden by raising, rather than relaxing, standards of cleanliness. Similarly, time-saving devices such as laptops, smartphones, the Internet, and the World Wide Web have transformed us into harried workers on an information assembly line that moves at breakneck speed. See Chaplin in Modern Times or Ethel and Lucy in the chocolate factory for a comic but sadly accurate demonstration of what it feels like to go faster than you want to go, albeit in their case in the realm of industrial rather than digital technology.

We can’t help but feel pressured by instant data and its fracturing of time into smaller and smaller units. As a result our psychic wells run dry. Art has traditionally been understood as a way to replenish those wells. In the past, one went to an art museum to muse, that is, to contemplate works of art in an unhurried manner. Art was to be viewed slowly, respectfully, allowing the forms, shapes, and colours on display to enter our personal space by accretion and thereby alter our ways of looking at the world, the past, the other, or ourselves.

Not any longer. In a memorable New Yorker cartoon, a middle-class couple dashes breathlessly into an art museum, calling to the guard, “Which way to the Mona Lisa. We’re double-parked.”

which-way-to-the-mona-lisa-were-double-parked-barney-tobey© Barney Tobey

On TripAdvisor, a user asks about the fastest route through the Louvre, explaining that her goal is “to get in right when it opens at 9am and hurry directly to the Mona Lisa so as to be able to view it for a few minutes before the crowds start pressing in.” She hurries so that she might have a taste of the serenity for which the painting is acclaimed. She rushes in order to enjoy the feeling of not being rushed.

Alas, that’s the goal of everyone else in the crowd that she believes herself to be distinct from or superior to. Of course not everyone standing before the Mona Lisa does so with serenity in mind. There’s also the narcissistic thrill of being able to proclaim to your legion of “friends” that you’ve checked a must-do, must-see off your bucket list.

SUBMUSEUMS-videoSixteenByNine1050.jpg© Guia Besana for The New York Times

Even Art Fund UK, an organization dedicated to promoting British art museums, succumbs to the speed trap with its fast-paced video “All the Art in London in One Day,” in which the filmmaker powerwalks through multiple London art museums in an effort to “see” as many pieces of art as humanly possible in a single day. Do you call that seeing? It’s certainly not thoughtful looking.

The “which way to the Mona Lisa” urgency felt by museumgoers and other art viewers today has its equivalence in the fast-food industry. We want to devour art as quickly as possible and then get on with our lives: I’ll have my Caravaggio with two Botticellis on the side and a helping of Monet, the sooner served the better.

The slow food movement started in Italy in the 1980s in response to the incursion of the fast-food industry into a land that prided itself not only on its great art but also its great cooking. The premise was that good things take time to mature: Rome, after all, was not built in a day. The movement values slowness in both the production and consumption of food: don’t use hormones and other artificial supplements to speed up food’s cultivation, and don’t rush the serving and eating of lovingly prepared meals.

The slow food movement spawned offshoot movements, such as slow design, slow economy, slow cities, slow cinema, and even slow sex. Why not slow looking, too?

Harvard professor Jennifer Roberts speaks eloquently about the importance of slow looking. See “The Power of Patience: Teaching Students the Value of Deceleration and Immersive Attention” and a talk on the subject she gave to a gathering of educators.

Roberts learned her slow-looking techniques from her mentor Jules Prown, who taught generations of Yale graduate students how to slow down their looking. His 1982 essay “Mind in Matter,” which lays out techniques of slow looking, has become a staple of art history education.

The most brilliant slow-lookers of recent years include Roberts, Alex Nemerov (also a Prown student), Michael Fried, and T.J. Clark. Of a younger generation is Yale’s Jennifer Raab, whose recent book on the aesthetics of detail in the work of the 19th century landscape painter Frederic Church applies the principle of slow-looking to an artist who was himself famous for looking slowly and inducing viewers to do the same.

The godfather of slow looking, however, has to be Church’s almost exact contemporary, the Victorian art critic John Ruskin. His description of Turner’s Slave Ship in volume 3 of Modern Painters is remarkably rich in its visual and verbal fluency.

Another peerless slow-looker is Ruskin’s disciple Marcel Proust, whose multivolume autobiographical novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu swells with micro descriptions of works of art, as well as buildings, home interiors, decorative objects, landscapes, cityscapes, and faces. No one looks more slowly or thoughtfully than Proust. In The Captive, the penultimate volume of the series, he famously describes the dying moments of an aging writer, not unlike himself, who gazes lingeringly at Vermeer’s View of Delft.

1109259.jpgJohannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660-61, Mauritshuis, The Haugue, The Netherlands. © Bridgeman Education

Slow looking is a form of mindfulness and, as such, an antidote to mindlessness and distraction. It teaches us to be present in our lives. In environmental terms, it’s a way of valuing what is local (the art immediately before us) over the global (everything that takes us elsewhere).

It’s difficult to maintain this reflective state of mind about an individual work of art when myriad high-culture and pop-culture goods, all competing for our attention, array before us like colorful sweets in a candy shop window. Moreover, slow looking runs counter to what we might call the postmodern work ethic, in which we internalize assembly-line norms and cost-benefit rationality in an unflagging and often unconscious effort to upgrade (“self-optimize”) our lives.

There are institutional reasons as well for the widespread resistance to slow looking. Those whom we might expect to be heartily devoted to it, art historians, are often loath to be caught performing it, as it smacks of formalism or, worse, connoisseurship, both of which have come to signify the bad old days of white male privilege.

To be sure, regarding a work of art as a world unto itself, to be appreciated solely for its beauty, structure, or uniqueness, rather than for what it can reveal about the social ideologies and signifying practices of its day, leaves a viewer open to charges of elitism, fetishism, and hedonistic self-indulgence. Much recent art history has sought, with good reason, to liberate art from its aura, which may legitimately be understood as regressive mystification. And it’s true, slow looking can be reactionary, a vestige of old-guard class hierarchy. It can emphasize aura at the expense of critical, deconstructive, or historical thinking about art.

But it needn’t. It doesn’t have to be the enemy of critical thinking. It can be its ally instead, supporting rather than forestalling revisionist views about classic works of art.

The introduction in the mid-1960s of carousel slide projection in art history classes further contributed to the institutional demise of slow looking. Now, as never before, instructors could whip through a plethora of art images in record time. Why go slow when a clicker at your fingertips provides the excitement of speed? Here, as in so many other sectors of modern life, quantity (in this case, of available images) outstrips quality (of looking), and the mechanical reproduction of images not only facilitates but also encourages slapdash viewing.

That’s too bad, because slow looking brings us into meaningful dialogue with works of art in a way that cursory looking can’t approximate. Being physically and psychologically present with an art object or even its photographic representation for a reasonable stretch of time allows us to experience it phenomenologically and hear what it has to say. Slow looking asks that you sit quietly and listen to an object that wants to speak with you, not to you or at you.

Make no mistake, I am not denying that slow looking can be fetishistic or a form of conspicuous consumption for those who savor expensive art the way they do pricey wines. Yet it can just as well be the opposite of that, the antagonist of bourgeois consumption. Philosophers have long pondered the social utility of art. Plato judged it disruptive of civic unity and therefore dangerous, whereas Adorno considered careful, attentive looking (or listening) to be emancipatory, a defiant act that resists the tightening of capitalism’s noose.

Wherever you come down on this question of the art gaze, however you assess its relevance to modern life, however you wish to wield it for yourself, let us conclude by contemplating the following image of childlike wonder in the face of art.

tumblr_men4r3EDm01qe31lco1_500© Rondo Estrello: Flickr

 

Editor’s note: Content revised August 2017


David M. Lubin was the Terra Foundation for American Art Visiting Professor 2016-17 at Oxford University, and is the Charlotte C. Weber Professor of Art at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author of Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War.

The 2017-18 Terra Foundation for American Art Visiting Professor is Miguel de Baca.