The Art of Looking Slowly
It’s late afternoon on a Wednesday in the middle of winter and I’m sitting in front of a Van Gogh painting, The Poplars at Saint-Remy. Perched on portable folding stools, we’re all gazing up at the canvas in front of us.
“That blue,” says an older man with thinning hair, “I thought at first it was water, but now I’m not sure.”
“At first, it seems sunny,” says a young woman gently rocking an infant in her arms. “And then I thought, no, look at all the darkness in the sky.”
By the time the mother with the baby makes her comment about the sky, we’d been examining Poplars at Saint-Remy for nearly seven minutes. In a regular tour or an unguided visit, we’d have moved on long ago. But today I, the guide, have asked this group to try something new. We’re practicing slow looking.
How Long Do We Look?
Slow looking is exactly what it sounds like: taking time to thoroughly explore a work of art. Like the slow food movement, which encourages diners to relish each ingredient on the plate, slow looking encourages deliberate observation of a work of art.
Our group’s seven-minute experience may not sound that long but, when compared to the time most museum visitors spend in front of a piece, it’s an eternity. A 2001 study by Lisa F. Smith and Jeffrey K. Smith found that visitors spent an average of 27.2 seconds at each of six pieces they’d selected for observation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later studies in other museums found similar results: the amount of time spent in front of a work averaged 15-30 seconds.
That isn’t too surprising. Museum visitors are not immune to the culture of speed, even when they’re seeking solace from it. Many people go hoping to see as much as possible, which means looking at as many objects as possible. Because our brains can only pay attention to so much at once, museum visitors often find themselves growing tired after only a short while. This is called museum fatigue.
Despite the possibility of museum fatigue, museums can stimulate curiosity – and they’re spaces where stressors can be left at the coat check. Slow looking is a valuable tool for those looking to recharge their brains, and many museums now offer slow looking experiences.
Practicing Slow Looking
If you already have a work of art in mind, that’s great. Returning to a work can be a very rewarding experience. If you don’t have anything in mind, that’s okay too. Pick an area of a museum that sounds interesting to you. Go straight there, with no side trips to other galleries. Once you’re there, let yourself wander. Don’t look at labels; don’t look in detail; just let your eyes slide over the works until one catches your attention. If you’re with a group, take turns choosing artworks.
When you’ve selected your artwork, find a spot where you’ll be able to stay for at least a few minutes. Once comfortable, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
When you’re ready, open your eyes and look at the piece. Let your vision travel over it, noticing how your eyes move across its surface. Do you look at faces first? At the background? Is there a detail that attracts your eye? Notice the arrangement of the figures or landscape, and the expressions on people’s faces.
As you explore the details, embrace any other associations your mind brings up. Does the work evoke specific memories? Remind you of a book you’ve read, a movie you’ve watched, or a piece of music you’ve listened to? If you are with a group, share your observations, and listen to theirs in turn.
If you feel your attention start to wander, take a break. Close your eyes and breathe deeply to cleanse your mental palate. When you open your eyes, compare your experience on the second viewing with that of the first. Do you look at the same spot, or somewhere else? Or you can use categories or counts to guide your looking. Tally up eyebrows or tree trunks, or look for places where you can see the painter’s brush strokes or a sculptor’s chisel marks.
When you feel you’ve exhausted what you can see, move away from the artwork. Now you can read the label if you want! This level of attention will be tiring, especially at first. But instead of the irritable exhaustion of museum fatigue, slow looking leaves you with the satisfaction of having deeply engaged.
Our discussion of The Poplars at Saint-Remy ends when the group begins to fidget. I invite the six participants in my group to share a moment of silence and depart when they are ready.
One by one, each of them stands up, folds their gallery stools and takes one last look at the painting before walking out of the gallery. After a few minutes, only the older man with rimless glasses and I are left. Together, we stand and stretch. I offer to take his stool, and he hands it to me as I fold up my own.
“You know,” he says over his shoulder as he shuffles towards the door, “I’ve looked at this painting a hundred times. Today was the first time I really saw it.”
Six Steps For Slow Looking
Choose a work of art that catches your eye.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
Open your eyes. What do you look at first? Second?
Let your eyes travel over the work. What does it make you think? Feel? Remember?
Move closer or farther away. What else do you see?
Take a break or find a new artwork when you start to get tired.
Did You know?
Every spring an annual "Slow Art Day" invites museums or individuals who wish to lead slow looking experiences to register their event. In 2018, Slow Art Day falls on April 14.
Wanna Dig Deeper?
Artsy: How Long Do People Really Spend Looking at Art in Museums? by Isaac Kaplan
Background, Context & Reference
Website: Slow Art Day
Book: Museum Experience Revisited (Routledge, 2016), 135-138 by John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking
Article: “Museum Fatigue,” The Scientific Monthly, Vol.2, 62-74 by Benjamin Ives Gilman
Excerpt: The Social Work of Museums (Routledge, 2009) pp. 43-45 by Lois Silverman
Excerpt: Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation (Routledge, 2017), pp. 2-3, 6-7 by Shari Tishman