Books

Is There a Right Way to Look at Art?

Is looking at a work of art for up to fifteen minutes with no context the best way to appreciate and understand it?

Crowd of tourists trying to see the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci at the Musée du Louvre, Paris.
(photo: Iain Masterton / Alamy Stock Photo, courtesy Prestel)

I — like you, dear reader — am no stranger to museums, often excited to trek to faraway places, like Western Massachusetts, to see the latest exhibitions. Yet sometimes, like when I find myself sprinting through a gallery of Franz Kline paintings, I wonder if there’s something I just don’t understand in the works I so hurriedly run from. Call it imposter syndrome, but I’m always searching for guidance on how to really “see” art, particularly in cases where no amount of background knowledge proves sufficient. I’ve always enjoyed the philosophical ponderings on art of people like Walter Benjamin, John Berger, and Charles Baudelaire, but maybe it was time for something a little more concrete. This was my reasoning in picking up veteran New York art dealer Michael Findlay’s Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art.

Cover of Seeing Slowly: Looking At Modern Art, Prestel, Munich/London/New York (image courtesy Prestel)

A follow-up to his 2012 book, The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty, Seeing Slowly is what the author himself calls a “self-help” book. Written in a very casual way and peppered with personal anecdotes, the book takes us through the basics of what art is exactly (which isn’t really that basic), the art market and the real value of art, the differences between “looking” and “seeing,” the importance of being present and undistracted, and the dilemma of connoisseur vs. snob.

Many of Findlay’s arguments stem from the pitfalls of technology and decreased attention spans. As he writes early on, today “we collect experiences rather than engage in them.” We all know that snapping a selfie with the Mona Lisa is to art appreciation what loudly chatting at a jazz bar is to music appreciation — and there are plenty of people who do both — but Findlay also encourages us to never get the audio guide (check, I never liked it anyway), and furthermore, to never read the wall labels. Instead, he tells us to let the work choose us: see what catches our eye while standing in the middle of the gallery, then walk up and just stand in front of it for a minimum of three minutes (ideally 15), soaking it all in before moving on.

While I’m certainly a fan of the middle-of-the-room strategy, and have often found myself mesmerized for minutes on end by the works of Egon Schiele and El Greco, spending a full three minutes — not to mention 15! — staring at a Rothko is the last thing I’d ever do. So I decided to take a trip to MoMA’s permanent collection and see if Findlay’s advice actually helped me to appreciate artists and works I’d always passed by.

But before I get to the results of my experiment, I want to point out that I realize I’m not the target audience of Findlay’s book, a fact that muddles its scientific rigor. Time and time again, the author argues that background knowledge is not only unnecessary, but even hurtful, to truly appreciating a work of art — hence the advice to ignore wall labels and audio guides. Findlay accurately points out that many people are intimidated by art, because they feel they don’t know enough to understand it, so if they could just look at it for what it is, they’d appreciate it more than if they’d known the whole artist’s biography.

This may be the case for painters, but what about someone like Joseph Beuys? Can someone unfamiliar with his life and his politics really appreciate a photo of the artist with face covered in gold, holding a dead rabbit? Art has never existed in a vacuum, and contemporary works especially often require at least a little bit of background information. On the other hand, my high school obsession with Schiele led me down a dangerous biographical path, so now, I can’t look at his paintings and drawings of young women without thinking of Wally Neuzil, his most loyal and oft-abused muse.

But back to my non-scientific experiment. I set my phone timer and proceeded to stand in front of several works for three minutes each, and I have to say, it didn’t help. At the end of the allotted time, I still lacked appreciation for Rothko, and the extra time failed to add anything to my appreciation of Matisse. The three-minute rule didn’t help me much in terms of art-viewing, but it did serve as an interesting method of observing how other people came up and looked at the same work, sometimes just taking a photo and sometimes sticking around for longer than at the other paintings — maybe they saw me looking at a specific work for a long time and decided they should do the same?

Regardless of my experience at MoMA, Seeing Slowly is a rather enjoyable read, and I would definitely consider gifting it to the next friend or family member who tells me they don’t “get” modern art. As for me, for now I guess I’ll just stick with the uppity philosophers, where I’ll certainly find myself in good company.

Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art is out now from Prestel.

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