slow looking

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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

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Frank Auerbach, Reclining Head of Gerda Boehm, private collection

Over the fall months James Elkins, the prodigiously prolific writer about art, art history, criticism and art appreciation, wrote a series of pieces for the Huffington Post. (I wrote about his series here.) One of those articles as a title—Are Artists Bored By Their Work?—that is so provocative you can’t not read it.

Elkins starts by addressing a theme kindred to the founding principle of this blog—slow looking:

The philosopher Arthur Danto asked that I not fetishize slow looking. He pointed out that some works of modern art, like Duchamp’s urinal or Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, do not ask to be looked at for hours and hours. A quick look, or even a glance, is right and appropriate. But I’d like to pursue slow looking, and think about it as carefully as I think it deserves. One way to pursue this subject is to ask how long it took the artist to make the work in the first place…It is interesting to be writing about slow looking and slow thinking in a setting like the Huffington Post, where news moves at such a breakneck pace, where you can jump from one post to another as quickly as a click of the mouse. We are all afflicted with a mild attention deficit disorder, and when comes to images, our flightiness is especially intense. We consume more images per lifetime, per day, and even per minute than any culture before us. Modern paintings often seem to have been made quickly, by comparison with the paintings of earlier centuries, and that seems to give us the license to look at them quickly–to consume them and move on.

Elkins draws a comparison between how much time it takes to make a work of art now and before the modernist era. He postulates that paintings took more time during the Renaissance because of the desire to represent the real world. Capturing a “highly ornamented world” takes more time to draw than the minimalism and single brush stroke styles so common in the postmodern era.

But were the representational artists of the Renaissance just a little bored with the tediousness of their task? Elkins points out that many Renaissance artists only painted heads and hands. The rest, painted by their tribe of apprentices. Which raises a reasonable question: Were they bored by the task of capturing the rest of nature? “How interested could Titian have been in all those trees?”

Contemporary art making practices are very different. Elkins again:

Modern painting, on the other hand, is said to be potentially interesting throughout, in every mark, at every inch. Frank Auerbach could not possibly have been bored when each brushstroke mattered so much. His best work is exemplary because he risked everything at every moment. Not a single mark is rote, habitual, or routine. Everything is contingent, as the art historian T. J. Clark says, and nothing is settled. Boredom is out of the question. A good work could not possibly be made by a bored artist.

It never occurred to me that it could be otherwise.

But let us not forget that boredom is actually a rather recent invention. It would be easy to treat it as a human trait that has always been with us, but that turns out to not be the case. According to Walter Benjamin, boredom was an invention of the middle classes that started around 1840. Up until then, no one was writing about it, complaining about it, suffering from it. “I don’t doubt that in the Renaissance people often found themselves at a loss about how to spend an afternoon, but no one was vexed by boredom, or in need of continuous distractions. Not a single Renaissance artist left a diary, or a letter, describing the appalling boredom of the long hours spent in the studio,” Elkins writes.

Boredom is now part of what we don’t like about our lives. It also speaks to the easily distracted, ADD-ish culture in which we live. And so many contemporary trends—social, technological, personal, behavioral—are feeding that proclivity. Committed slow looking—that deliberate and disciplined slowing down to really look at something—is just what many of us need to countermand all those distractions that constantly pull us away from center, away from the deeper connection. It may now need to be taught, like learning musical scales and fundamental ball handling skills. Any artist, contemporary or historical, needs and wants that kind of engagement.

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