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  • Writer's pictureMarta Grabowska

The Art of Slow Looking, an article for Toolbox Type

The following article was originally published by Toolbox Type and written for the occasion of the Slow Art Day celebration.


Do you remember your last visit to an art gallery or a museum? No matter where in the world you are situated, it usually starts with a long queue, expensive tickets, an exhibition leaflet that you push inside your pocket; never to be read. Your previous excitement and anticipation are now tainted with frustration. The rooms are huge, most likely white-cube type. You walk through the first, second, third one, forcing your body through the crowds. Every now and then, you manage to glimpse through someone's back, their camera or selfie stick, onto the wall or the plinth showcasing the “must-see” artwork made by the current “must-know” artist...‘Click’, you capture the image of the artwork and move on to the next one, and the next one and next.

Louvre by Guia Besana for New York Times

But do you even know what you are looking at? Do you register the nuances of each piece, their essence? Do you think about the artist’s intentions, the formal qualities of the medium they used? Do you allow yourself to really experience?

The study conducted by Lisa F. Smith and Jeffrey K. Smith and published in an article ‘Spending Time on Art’ concluded that the average time we spent viewing artwork is less than 30 sec, including reading labels and taking a photo. We live fast and look fast, without really seeing, without focusing on anything. This constant FOMO, a futile race, a need to be better, go further, who are they supposed to serve?

Barney Tobey for The New Yorker

I propose, after Arden Reed, Svetlana Alpers and many others, to break away from passive spectatorship and become an active agent in the art viewing process. Let’s look slowly! This act of slow looking is the main premise of Slow Art, which likewise other ‘slow’ movements, sprouted as an antidote to the constant blitz of images, the fast-paced life that resulted in complete disregard to artworks and their creators. Slow Art is not any type of art or artistic movement, it goes beyond names and styles; it is an experience and art must be experienced on many levels; emotional, spiritual and sensory as well as cognitive. Neither of them is more important than the other. Michael Findlay, in his book ‘Seeing Slowly. Looking at Modern Art’ proposed a schema for that viewing, he requests to look at any artwork like nobody has seen it before, that is disregarding all the knowledge, prior agreements and cultural importance of the artwork. It doesn’t matter that you are looking at ‘Mona Lisa’ by Da Vinci or ‘Fountain’ by Duchamp.

Here are 7 steps to follow that will help you look slowly, the Slow Art modus operandi:

1. Schedule time and place: choose a museum or an art gallery and allow yourself the time to contemplate. Don’t rush! Wander the exhibit without pacing and checking your watch!

2. Bring supplies: use them to enhance your looking. Record shapes, colours, textures and sizes – all that will help you focus on other details of the artwork.

3. Choose one artwork: don’t assume you have to see it all. Be selective. It is more important to really focus and contemplate one artwork than run through a gallery and remember nothing. Quality over quantity!

4. First look then read: do not assume that you must read the label of an exhibition text to understand the artwork. There is a difference between interpretation and understanding. Connect with the piece and initiate a dialogue! Art must be experienced on many levels; emotional, spiritual and sensory as well as cognitive. Neither of them is more important than the other.

5. Spend at least 15 min with the artwork: Immerse yourself in the work of art and look at it like nobody else has ever seen it before. View it disregarding your previous knowledge and engage in sensory experience. Write down your observations. Use descriptive rather than prescriptive vocabulary.

6. Ask questions: time yourself, that will help you see how long it takes to really see certain parts of the artwork.

7. Get informed: now you can read the label and find out more details about the biography of the artist, the price of the artwork, research the meaning of the symbols and obscure allegories included in the piece. Maybe even go as far as chatting with the gallery assistant or joining a curator talk?

Artist Peng Wu in front of Julian Stanczak’s Forming in Four Reds, courtesy of the WAM galleries.

Slow looking brings a plethora of benefits to your life, as an art lover and in general. It starts with mindfulness, meditation and the therapeutic values of art and ends on the development of transferable skills, such as focus, critical attention and attention to detail. When you interact with a work of art slowly you learn more about the artwork, the artist and the socio-historical background as well as formal qualities of the artwork. You cultivate patience and open-mindedness and allow yourself to experience something on a deeper spiritual level.

Most importantly, slow art is for everybody - no matter the socio-economic status, demographic, technological skill or level of education. You can go to a gallery or spend some time looking at a postcard or an illustration in a book or watch a video online. Now, imagine this scenario: Next time you go to a gallery or a museum, you choose one artwork, look at one painting or sculpture long enough to contemplate, ask questions, get informed and understand. You look slowly. How did this change your perception?

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