Slow looking

Some extracts from Michael Kimmelman’s article in last weekend’s NYT lamenting the demise of the slow observation of art, with some brief comments:

…What exactly are we looking for when we roam as tourists around museums?…

A few game tourists glanced vainly in guidebooks or hopefully at wall labels, as if learning that one or another of these sculptures came from Papua New Guinea or Hawaii or the Archipelago of Santa Cruz, or that a work was three centuries old or maybe four might help them see what was, plain as day, just before them.…

“…plain as day…”? Sorry, surely this is the problem, it’s never plain as day. Visitors need some context to understand the works, or maybe that’s what they should expect from a museum. That’s the “job” of the museum: to provide a place to see works in some kind of context. Kimmelman seems to be suggesting that the visitor should just take what’s “just before them” at face value, which I suppose they could, but it seems that is not providing enough to hold the tourists interest, hence creating the premiss for Kimmelman’s article.

Visiting museums has always been about self-improvement.…

<sighs> I think it would be more accurate to say museums have always been about someone’s idea of improving other people. The Louvre (the subject of this article) being a case in point. When it was opened up to the masses after the French revolution, the displays were adjusted from being the private collection of the king, to being specifically designed to demonstrate and inculcate an idea of France’s place in the world in “the people.”

Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look.…

…the canon of art that provided guideposts to tell people where to go and what to look at was gradually dismantled. A core of shared values yielded to an equality among visual materials. This was good and necessary, up to a point. Millions of images came to compete for our attention. Liberated by a proliferation, Western culture was also set adrift in an ocean of passing stimulation, with no anchors to secure it.

This wistful nostalgia for an overarching ideology to guide our thinking, is a bit sickly. The “liberation” he speaks of will inevitably lead to new ideologies, perhaps ones better suited to the material and the proliferation, in the same way that it will lead to new ways of seeing and presenting art – new museums even. The tourists’ inattention in the Louvre is symptomatic of this change in viewing patterns and its sensible for the museum to try and identify how to address these new patterns.

Slow looking, like slow cooking, may yet become the new radical chic.

That, I think, is wishful thinking. Just because this is how it was in the past, and what museums have been created to cater for, does not mean it will be so in the future, or that museums will be suited to our viewing habits in the future. Our viewing habits adapt, and institutions will be created to serve those habits. Museums which work by “slow-viewing” will still have a place, and will go in and out of vogue as times and tastes change, the definition of “slow-viewing” will also change to meet these new requirements.

Kimmelman, Michael (2009), At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus, NYTimes.com, 3 August 2009.

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