Slow Art Movement Promotes Patience, Reflection for Understanding

“No, no. Turn around.
Do it doucement. Do it very slowly.”
— True Lies, 1994

The word “slow” has many negative connotations. Who wants a slow watch, a slow car or slow service? Being called “slow” is an insult. Our age is all about speed and instant gratification. People want action-packed movies, cars that accelerate to high speed in seconds, instant communication via Internet…. Slow-going things are often perceived as boring; in any case, who has the patience to wait for something good to happen if it takes too long?

A Norther in the Gulf of Mexico

Thomas Moran (1837-1926), A NORTHER IN THE GULF OF MEXICO, 1884, oil on canvas, 25 x 51 inches,
Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, 2007.1.1

However, important things may and do get lost in out relentless quest for speed. Just like our palate becomes desensitized to subtle flavors of gourmet foods after a prolonged exposure to fast food, our ability to savor the world diminishes as we try to make it to the finish as soon as possible instead of taking time to enjoy the process.

Julian Treasure, the chair of the Sound Agency and a renowned sound expert, described the increasing inability of people to listen and, as a result, the loss of the art of conversation, as a very serious social problem in today’s world. In his talk on TED, “Five Ways to Listen Better,” Treasure said: “Listening is our access to understanding. Conscious listening always creates understanding…. A world where we don’t listen to each other is a very scary place indeed.”

He commented that, instead of listening, we resort to recording information or to isolating ourselves with our selective “channels” by using headphones, thus turning the shared soundscape into individual “bubbles.” Consequently, we do not hear the subtle and the understated; media has to scream at us with catchy or foreboding headlines. To improve one’s listening skills, Treasure suggested to take time each day to savor our sound-filled environment, or, in his words, “the hidden choir” of the world, and to try to discern different “channels.” His other advice is to practice a three-minute silence.

What Treasure said about listening can also be applied to looking. This vital skill is equally threatened by our quickening pace of life. Our visual world is as “noisy” as our soundscape, and we depend on our ability to process information quickly. As we drive on the highway, we make instant decisions based on reading the signs which we see for a split second. We follow effortlessly a story by piecing together a rapid succession of scenes on a movie screen. We efficiently navigate between several pages that are simultaneously open on the computer monitor.

Are we losing our ability to see “the subtle and the understated” in the visual culture as we become better and better in responding quickly to the information conveyed in succinct video bites? There are indications that we are. For several decades, art museums have been conducting studies in regards to how long visitors look at works of art. According to one study, museumgoers spend an average of 17 seconds looking at individual painting – and that’s a generous estimate. Most visitors succumb to the “museum shuffle:” they read the wall text and, after a brief scan of the work of art, move on.

A world where people are too impatient to spend time in order to connect with a work of art on emotional, intellectual and aesthetic levels is no less scary that the one where people do not listen to each other. The loss of listening and looking leads to the intellectual impoverishment of modern society since these abilities are germane to the appreciation of culture.

Art museums always have been the biggest advocates of looking and listening. Both are important parts of the art appreciation process: individuals sharpen their observation skills in the process of sharing their reflections about works of art. Recently, a new movement, dubbed Slow Art Day, has swept through museums around the world. It has become a popular annual event during which visitors are encouraged to spend no less than 10 minutes looking at one work.

Judy Taylor ponders Nicolai Fechin’s “La Abuela,” left, during the Slow Art event at the Stark Museum of Art.

Ironically, the idea of Slow Art Day belongs to a man who is neither a museum curator, nor an artist. Phil Terry is the CEO of Creative Goods, a consulting firm that helps corporate executives to relate to their customers. “My wife kept dragging me to museums,” said Phil. “I did not know how to look at art. Like most people, I would walk by quickly.”

The program officially launched in October of 2009, when 16 museums and galleries in the United States, Canada and Europe committed to host Slow Art Day in spring of 2010. Three years later, on April 27, 2013, 274 museums around the world engaged their visitors in looking at art slowly and sharing their experiences at a social gathering after the viewing.

The process is simple: interested individuals sign up to participate in the event and on the chosen day come to the local museum where they spend no less than 10 minutes looking at each painting and maybe sketching and taking notes. There are no particular rules or instructions other than straightforward tips suggested by Phil Terry, such as “look closely and back up,” “there is not a right or wrong way,” “be naive, be patient, allow the experience to unfold” and , most importantly, “breathe.”

Some museums prefer to provide participants with a list of works, while others let visitors choose works on their own. It appears that the majority of museums encourage visitors to look at about five works during the event, which makes the total viewing experience about 50-minutes long.

The organizers of Slow Art Day recommend that the discussion that follows the viewing take place outside the galleries — in a cafe or a museum lobby. It may seem strange at first glance, however, there is a reason. When the participants do not have the work of art in front of them, they have to rely on their memory and their notes, which makes them more focused during the observation process.

After the latest Slow Art Day, the internet exploded with emails from event hosts all over the world. As a museum professional, I never felt more a part of the museum community. My colleagues excitedly reported on the day’s progress in their museums using more exclamation marks than any style manual would recommend. What happens when people are looking at a work of art for an extended period of time? Obviously, they notice details which escaped them during a regular visit when they looked at many works in a cursory manner. But this is not all. Visitors often comment on how completely different their experience was when they gave themselves time to look at every square of a painting or every angle of a sculpture. Some compare it to a treasure hunt, some emphasize the increased emotional involvement, some experience a surge of a creative energy which compels them to write a poem or make art.

This spring, the Stark Museum of Art hosted its first Slow Art Day. As the coordinator of this event, I can testify that it was an unforgettable experience for both the visitors and the museum staff. We had a highly motivated group of thirteen people who had great observations and reflections to share about the five chosen paintings. The list included a romantic landscape of Yosemite Valley by Albert Bierstadt; a stormy seascape by Thomas Moran; a genre painting featuring a group of Indians riding on a buffalo hunt across a snow-covered plain by Henry Farny; a modernist painting of a canyon by Emil Bisttram; and a portrait of an elderly woman by Nicolai Fechin.

During the discussion that followed the viewing at Star and Crescent Moon Cafe in Shangri La Gardens, I asked our group what painting they liked the most. The majority voted for Fechin’s portrait titled “La Abuela.” A deeply emotional response to this portrait is summed up in this poem written by one of the participants:

Strong mouth
Penetrating eyes
Eternal face
Temporary clothing
Many smiles in the lines around the mouth
Much sun on the skin

Emil Bisttram - Canyon

Emil James Bisttram (1895-1976), THE CANYON, 1950, oil on canvas, 40 x 25 inches, Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, 31.223.1

The most controversial painting was Bisttram’s “Canyon.” Unlike the more conventional landscapes by Bierstadt and Moran, Bisttram’s painting is composed of flat, angular forms which convey an idea, rather than portray a true-to-life image, of a rocky, confined space. This is how one of the participants commented on the group’s heated conversation about this work: “I loved the reaction during the discussion. This piece was polarizing and the volume went up a notch. As a more abstract painter, I loved the fact that this painting seemed to force the most visceral response.”

I also experienced a surge of creative energy as Slow Art Day came to an end. No, I did not write a poem, nor did I pick up a paint brush.

I kept thinking about the many ways I can incorporate looking at art slowly into educational programs for all ages.



Issue Magazine – June 2013
Story by Elena Ivanova