Take your time: a day for giving art the attention it deserves

Slow Art Day asks gallery visitors to spend 10 minutes looking at one work. It’s harder than it sounds

Tue, Apr 8, 2014, 01:00

Every writer knows the power of a punchy opening. So are you paying attention? Yes, but for how long? It seems that everything is speeding up: plays are preferable to many at 50 minutes with no interval; movies race along at the speed of a fast-paced computer game; and we express ourselves in 140-character tweets. So in an age increasingly defined by the shortening attention span, what happens to art?

The answer is: a great deal of it suffers. Research carried out by various museums and institutes, including the Louvre and the Getty, has discovered that, while 10 years ago we may have spent an entire 30 seconds looking at a painting, now it’s down to about four. We give the labels longer (10 seconds), and if the artist turns out to be famous, the picture gets another (brief) look. Even the Mona Lisa , surely the world’s most famous painting, only gets about 15 of our seconds.

Suffering arts
Of all the culture sectors, the visual arts suffer most from the increased pace of life and diminished attention spans. Visits to galleries and museums can become little more than a checklist of names. Think of a visit to the National Gallery: yes, I’ve seen the Caravaggio, clocked the Rembrandt, glanced at the Vermeer, there’s Burton – Ireland’s favourite painting – done le Brocquy, now it’s time for coffee.

We can lose ourselves in music precisely because it takes time to listen to – but give it time, and you can do the same with a painting. The late Mark Rothko was known to spend hours in his studio, gazing at his spare, minimal paintings as the changing light of the passing day caused shifts in colour and tone. That’s painting as meditation, painting as a slow, seeping path to grace.

A worldwide movement, Slow Art Day, wants to bring us back to the idea of giving time to art. Slow Art Day takes place on Saturday (see panel), with museums and galleries selecting four or five works and asking visitors to spend 10 minutes on each. Everyone is then invited for coffee to chat about their experiences of looking longer.

Giving 10 minutes to an art work might not sound like much, but it can be harder than you would think. The eye tends to slide off difficult work; perhaps that’s one reason why another study found we give longer to paintings from art history than we do to more challenging contemporary work.

Another is that figurative and landscape paintings can embody and suggest stories, while it can take longer to pull thought and idea from more abstract objects – but if we give those thoughts and ideas time, they can take us to very interesting places.

Slow Art founder Phil Terry established the movement after spending an hour at the Action/Abstraction exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2008, looking at just one painting: Hans Hofmann’s Fantasia (1943). He began to notice things he had never seen before: a drip of paint inspired ideas about the work of that famous drip-painter Jackson Pollock. But as the hour progressed, Terry realised he wasn’t looking for answers, rather that he had fallen into a stream of consciousness.

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