Slow Looking, Boredom and Contemporary Art

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.

5 Replies to “Slow Looking, Boredom and Contemporary Art”

  1. Great post. I’m not well-versed in modern art, and while I agree that that there’s no such thing as a “bored artist” — creation is, if anything, a stay against boredom — I do think that there can be a bored aesthetic, the anxiety of influence so great that artistic productions largely reflect the exhaustion of fashion. There is so much that’s not worth reading, mentioning, viewing, perhaps exactly when aesthetics became an avocation — a hobby. Down the long tail of creative productions art was at root a vital ritual of the community, the goat-song of Dionysos become theater, the mythic reenactment of the Great Hunt painted on the walls of Lascaux for 30 centuries. As we became individual creators, there grew much license to bang out echoes rather than sounds. Just my verbose but humble opinion. — Brendan

  2. […] arts as it was more towards inward looking endeavor and exploring purity within a specific medium. Contemporary artwork on the other hand usually could refer to an artwork created by a still living artist. It […]

  3. There is nothing I dislike more than feeling I can’t take my time to look, to question, to take apart, to appraise, to talk about, to share.

    I can say, honestly, that I’ve seen artwork that didn’t merit long looking (or maybe even that first look), started and been unable to finish a very few books, listened to conversations that grew wearisome but bored is not something I’ve been, especially when I am writing or engaged in physically making something. There is so much that’s magnificent in this world; how anyone can be bored is just beyond me.

  4. […] Slow Looking, Boredom and Contemporary Art « Slow Muse […]

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