Everybody knows how to watch a movie or listen to music. Just sit through the first, groove to the second.
When it comes to art, though, people sometimes seem clueless and uncomfortable. Glancing aimlessly, they fast walk through galleries or museums as if on a cultural marathon.
The Louvre museum in Paris found that visitors spent 15 seconds on average looking at the “Mona Lisa,” the world’s most famous painting. And much of that time was straining to snap a photo over a scrum of other visitors. Researchers at the Metropolitan Museum in New York clocked 17 seconds for a typical painting, while the more laid-back gawkers at the J. Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles lingered a whole 30 seconds.
While enjoying art doesn’t demand deep preparation, time and attention help — plus having the confidence to look closely, trust your own instincts, stay curious, gather information and have fun.
“Visual art occupies space, and music occupies time,” said Jade Patrick, founder of Gamut Gallery, a downtown Minneapolis venue known for encouraging new talent. “That’s an oversimplification, of course, but time-based arts like dance and music do force people to be there longer. You need to slow down to view art, too, because you can’t absorb it all in such a short time.”
Take a minute — or 10
Impatience has prompted a backlash of sorts. This month more than 150 institutions, from London’s National Gallery to the Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis, participated in Slow Art Day, a free annual event that encourages viewers to spend 10 minutes or more gazing at individual artworks.
Groveland visitors strolled about or sat and looked in companionable silence. One sketched a Dani Roach watercolor and, in the process, realized that it was not just a sunlit vista but a study in geometry.
A couple speculated that a landscape’s soft green colors depicted spring hills above a river hidden by a line of trees. No, the artist explained, it was painted in December near Monterey, Calif., when winter rains brought the landscape to life again. Others mused about the techniques, size, shape and time spent in making the art.
“The viewer completes the art” through thoughtful observation, said veteran teacher Joan Owens, who was on an “art date” with a friend.
As it turns out, artists and experts also move fast. Still, they always have their aesthetic antennae tuned to the new, unexpected or riveting. They learn by questioning.
“I’m quick to judge or understand, whether I’m interested in something or not,” said sculptor John Hock, artistic director and CEO of Franconia Sculpture Park, northeast of the Twin Cities. “I like all types of art — abstract, political, humorous — and with sculpture or installations, I’m always looking at how it’s made. If I’m enticed, I’ll spend a lot of time, but if the work doesn’t interest me, yeah, that gets the 15-second treatment.”
Occupying 43 acres of pasture and woodland near the St. Croix River, Franconia includes a “launchpad” where resident artists design, cut, carve, cast, weld and otherwise fabricate an ever changing array of sculptures. “People can ask, ‘Hey, what are you building there?’ and that conversation can be fun,” Hock said. “The thing about being an artist is you’re always in doubt. Having to explain it helps to clear your thoughts.”
Gamut Gallery is also big on curiosity. Visitors are encouraged to get personal about art that ranges from feminist psychedelia to new-wave symbolism.
“You’ve got to listen to that voice in your head or that feeling in your gut,” director Patrick said. “Then ask questions. What was the artist thinking? How do elements in the piece work, and what are they trying to say to me? Often we just want to relate back to ourselves, and, even though that may seem shallow, I think that’s a really fine way to go with it.”
No clue? No problem
Don’t fret if you know nothing or don’t get it. Just keep an open mind.
“I don’t think you have to be a technical expert to appreciate art,” said Amy Toscani, a sculpture instructor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, whose witty concoctions have been shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and around the country. “I don’t know anything about Korean printmaking, for example, but I try to figure out what I can learn from it.”
Learning requires looking, and that takes time.
“If I really like it, I spend a lot of time,” Toscani said. “Sometimes it’s just five minutes, but maybe it takes several visits. The good stuff stays with you. I’m always looking for fresh work, someone who’s not just going through the motions.”
But if you don’t know much about art, how do you know what’s good or fresh? Not to worry.
Keep it simple
“I try to cultivate a child’s mind because then you ask simple questions about how you feel, the scale of the piece, the material it’s made from,” said Colleen Sheehy, executive director of Public Art St. Paul. “Starting with real, physical details leads to greater insight into what the artist might have been going for.”
The former director of the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, Sheehy is a self-described “art addict” with a doctorate in art history and years of experience as an art educator. But she chucks all that when possible. “I always like to know when it was made, where, and who made it. So, if there’s a label, that helps me put it in context. But things like, ‘What does it mean?’ ‘Is it good?’ Those questions should come later.”
Museums, of course, offer all sorts of look-and-learn aids — audio guides, multimedia, wall labels. “I like to encourage people to read labels, because it is work for us to write them,” said Andreas Marks, curator of Japanese and Korean art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “But at the same time, look at the work first and, if it speaks to you, then read the label.”
And when he’s not interested or pressed for time, he, too, moves fast. “I like whizzing through until something catches my eye and I stop there.”
So you behave like everyone else?
“Yes, I act like a normal person. That’s the point exactly,” Marks said.