What Can Be Seen

Officially known as ACT-CL J0102-4915, the galaxy cluster has been nicknamed El Gordo. “This cluster is the most massive, the hottest, and gives off the most X-rays of any known cluster at this distance or beyond,” said Felipe Menanteau of Rutgers University. (Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/J.Hughes et al, Optical: ESO/VLT/Pontificia Universidad. Catolica de Chile/L.Infante & SOAR (MSU/NOAO/UNC/CNPq-Brazil)/Rutgers/F.Menanteau, IR: NASA/JPL/Rutgers/F.Menanteau)

Slow Looking, a new book by Peter Clothier, is a meditative invocation to slow way down and connect deeply and profoundly with the world around us. Clothier (I have written about him previously here) is focused on the impact of slow looking on art and how frequently we do not allow ourselves to really see. As a “reformed art critic,” Clothier shares his personal recognition of how easy it is to fall into that “not really seeing” stance:

It was once I began to learn about the value of paying attention, then, that I began to take more careful note of how I was looking at art. It disturbed me more than a little to realize that I could easily walk into a show at a gallery or museum, take it all in—so I thought—speedily and efficiently with my discerning eye, and then go home and and write about it. So it was disconcerting to catch myself, sometimes, spending more time with the wall label than with the painting I was going to write about…

The impediments, as I see it, are threefold: there are in the first place, innumerable distractions. Then, too, we bring mind-sets along with us, which prove to be nothing but a cause of distortion. And finally there are mental fabrications: we often just make stuff up; we see those things our minds invent for us, rather than what is there in front of us, real and evident.

It is easy to get lazy about looking. And for those of us who are makers with our very specific and well developed aesthetic proclivities, Clothier’s description of perfunctory viewing hits home (for me anyway.) It is easy to dismiss art that comes from outside my very elaborate value system. Way too easy.

To address these issues, Clothier combined his interest in meditation with his passion for art to offer up the notion of “One Hour/One Painting.” It is a simple exercise to be sure, and not necessarily a new idea. That was the assignment I received as an art student when I asked my professor what makes a Rothko painting great. His response was simple: “Go sit in front of it for one hour. Then let’s talk.” It worked for me. Completely.

So why stop at art? One hour of looking deeply at anything is transformative. One of my other favorite places for deep looking is NASA’s steady stream of images from space. Conceptually and visually, there’s plenty to contemplate. How appropriate that David Grinspoon begins his enjoyable and informative read, Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life, with this quote:

Penetrating so many secrets,
we cease to believe in the unknowable.
But there it sits, nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.

–H. L. Mencken

3 Comment

  1. Altoon says:

    I am also one of those perfunctory viewers; I can’t imagine sitting in front of a painting for an hour. Deep, attentive looking, something most of us, myself included, are too impatient to do.

  2. deborahbarlow says:

    I am going to make this a priority. I feel like I’ve locked myself out a lot of experiences that deserve more of my attention. I appreciate you saying that it is not easy for you either. And so glad your comments show up now!

    1. Cette notion de “regarder vraiment une toile ou une oeuvre d’art a été largement soulignée aussi par Nikos lygeros, lors de sa conférence consacrée à Vincent van Gogh : http://dzovinar.blogspot.fr/2011/01/nikos-lygeros.html

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