For the Memory, Not the Moment

Visitors at the Louvre: some engage directly with the art while others take pictures of pictures.

That NYT photo tagline above sums it up: museum crowds often snap a steady stream of photos for the “been there, done that” memory (think Mona  Lisa), not the  “aha moment” — the long, lingering introspective ponder that results in a myriad of intellectual streams to wander down and eons more insight into the artist’s world view.

A NYT “experiment” captured the museum scenario: for two hours the author watched passersby approach — and then walk by — the art on the walls.

A few game tourists glanced vainly in guidebooks or hopefully at wall labels… Almost nobody…paused before any object for as long as a full minute…

…tourists… wander through museums, seeking to fulfill their lifetime’s art history requirement in a day, wondering whether it may now be the quantity of material they pass by rather than the quality of concentration they bring to what few things they choose to focus upon that determines whether they have “done” the Louvre. It’s self-improvement on the fly.

The author mentioned that he and his 10-year-old brought along sketchbooks to St. Peter’s in Rome, “just for the fun of it… to help us look more slowly and carefully at what we found. Crowds occasionally gathered around us as if we were doing something totally strange and novel, as opposed to something normal, which sketching used to be.”

But is sketching enough? The author never posits how, exactly, we should look at art. Do you get the best “view” when you can get a grip on what appears beyond the actual paint, the charcoal, or the pencil to see the artist’s political motivations? How about the social undercurrents? Here lies the difference between an artwork’s “Visual” portrayal and it’s “Narrative” portrayal.

Just to flesh out some of the varying perspectives, I cobbled together this list of “how to look at art”:

  • Art is not just about the execution, it is about the concept. The concept of most nonrepresentational art is about the pleasing or satisfying arrangement of shape and color (art society).
  • to see how the pieces at the Met come together to tell a broader story–not so much a narrative, but a story (the Atlantic)
  • The way museums (art museums are often the worst) are designed today is terrible. You have a wall-spanning painting or massive sculpture, and then the only informational context is a 5 inch plaque next to it — often showing only the artist, the year, and perhaps the period/genre. Put interesting things there. Put how it fits into the region, the time, the culture. Put stories about how the artist had to hide it from his patron because he didn’t like it, or how that person in the foreground is actually based on his mistress, or how this type of paint had to be smuggled in from Egypt. (the Atlantic)
  • To really get into art, all you need to do is ask yourself a few questions that will get you thinking about what you’re looking at. There are only two questions that you really need to look at art, and those are: “What’s going on in this picture/sculpture/building?” and “What do I see that makes me say that?” (The Art History Blog)
  • 1. figure out what’s worth stealing
    2. move on to the next thing
    rinse and repeat (somebody’s Flickr page)

Another question is, how long do you have to perform the “lingering moment” before you can really get into the head of the artist? To figure out his world view?

For me, the jury is still out.

Someone said you can’t measure it (good point):

Timing people and picking the arbitrary minute as a measuring stick to differentiate who breezes through and who really stops and drinks it in seems unfair. If we go to a museum and its crowded, then the intimacy is harder to attain. If one goes with friends it might be a social occasion as much as an art encounter. Talkative friends at a museum can be a very different visit than going alone or with one’s wide-eyed-drink-it-all-in kid. Lots of people study a room full of Sargeant’s paintings longer than I do, but few people linger in front of a Franz Kline or Rothko or Milton Avery than I do. I check in on every room if I can, want to see everything everytime but my wife wants to see just an exhibit or two. I can’t get my daughter out of the Asian wing of the MFA. My wife was a ballerina so looking at paintings of Degas has a hundred more layers for her than some people. (the Atlantic)

All that I really know is that the curator around the corner would be most pleased if you stopped, stared, and ogled, only twenty minutes later coming to, not having realized that you had been drooling, lost to the world.

How To Look At Art (like an artist)

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3 comments

  1. For me, all the grand museums are just way too big. It’s exhausting to look at so much art in one place, one visit. In New York, although the Met and MOMA have amazing stuff in them, I prefer small museums like the Cloisters or the Frick. If I am in one of those megamuseums I generally have to stay in a limited section, or just rush through glancing (as described in the Times article) until I find a particular piece that catches me.

    The Louvre, the National Gallery, the Prado, the Hermitage, etc. are, like multibillionaires, examples of gross overconcentration and maldistribution of wealth.

  2. Fred, it’s so true. I can think of so many museums where “extenuating circumstances” ruin the visit to see the art. Whether it’s from information overload or just getting lost, you are right – get too big and you lose the “message”, ANY message!

    My favorite museums, too, are those that have a more intimate feel, and usually they are former homes (like the Frick, the Phillips, and the Museo des Bellas Artes in Seville, whose architecture and history are worth marveling at beyond their art collection). With a smaller collection on display, I also feel less anxiety that I need to rush through, and almost as if the world’s my oyster. It’s a more peaceful, settling, introspective experience.

    Thank you for your comment, and I very much enjoy your blog!

  3. Thanks, Lori. Also, those smaller museums, because they’re based on the personality of an individual collector or a narrowly defined field, have a lot more “personality” and are often more illuminating than the gigantic institutions. A couple of other examples are the Brancusi Studio in Paris and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A.

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