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 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.”
© 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.
© 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.
Johannes 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.
© 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.