“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.” —William James, Principles of Psychology
I did something crazy—although it only came to look crazy in retrospect. Without initially intending to, I spent roughly eight years dwelling with the same painting—whether in person or in my imagination. A simple looking painting at that, Edouard Manet’s Young Lady in 1866.1 Afterwards, I began to wonder whether my end-of-the-bell-curve expenditure might offer anything to museumgoers with less time on their hands.
What makes this question relevant is that most art worth its salt only reveals itself gradually, as we dwell with it. Take Ad Reinhardt’s famous black paintings. At first they look like solid monochrome five-foot squares until, after several minutes pass, you begin to perceive a subtle checkerboard pattern with differently-hued squares. Yet Americans on average spend no more than ten seconds with individual artworks. Writing Slow Art: the Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell2 arose out of my desire to share the intense scopic pleasures I’d taken. But equally out of my belief that everybody—given no more than life experience and a set of eyes—can and should have meaningful aesthetic experiences. Which, of course, depends on how we use our eyes.
This new aesthetic field that I call “slow art” encompasses multiple practices, including photography, film, video, digital art, painting, sculpture, fiction, installation, and performance art—even tableaux vivants (“living pictures”). But rather than a group of aesthetic objects, “slow art” names the dynamic, intimate encounter between object and observer, as dramatized by Thomas Struth’s photograph of an old man contemplating Rembrandt’s portrait of an old man. Artworks wait mutely—patiently—for us to animate them. As beholders, we actually perform artworks, as though they were musical scores. Then (dead, static) images become events. Observed over time, paintings behave like slow-motion moving pictures.
But “slow art” benefits observers equally. Over roughly the past 200 years the pace of everyday life has quickened exponentially. The trauma of speed culture intensifies our need for downtime—the kind of retreats that religion used to offer. At the same time, such opportunities have diminished. The option of worship (like contemplating icons) shrinks in secular societies. We are left speeding along the Autobahn of modernity, searching for rest stops and finding them shuttered. Might experiencing art at a different pace reclaim social spaces evacuated by religious gazing? Could “slow art” be a modern, secular displacement of old sacred practices?
Associating contemporary art with spiritual matters is widely regarded as retrograde and in bad taste. Critic Rosalind Krauss decreed “we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.” “Embarrassing” is a strong word, signifying some “indescribable” emotion that lies beneath language. Why embarrassment? Is there some unacknowledged threat against which we must (consciously or not) defend ourselves?
Thinking through “slow art” raises several issues that the following essays engage.
1. Our sensation of slowness is inconceivable without some corresponding experience of speed. One cradles the other. How does that interdependence play out in encountering artworks? Christian Marclay’s 2010 video montage The Clock is anything but fast—running time 24 hours—until you consider its highly original composition. Marclay spliced together thousands of tiny film clips, each containing somewhere on the screen a clock or watch that displays a different minute of the day. In sequence, synched to the viewer’s actual time. The Clock is rapid-fire and its scope surpasses viewers’ endurance. Marclay both compels and frustrates contemplation.
2. Does slow art have a political dimension? In a culture regulated by presidential tweets, might slow art offer forms of resistance? Since classical times, the act of seeing has offered a privileged way of knowing—hence a privileged access to forms of power (and resistance to power). Can slow art contest the contemporary acceleration and automation of seeing? Can aesthetic ways of seeing jam instrumental ways of seeing—like automated vision systems, drone warfare, facial recognition, and related surveillance systems? Today, resistance to speed becomes more pressing than ever in issues of warfare and diplomacy. Says Paul Virilio, “Today, speed is war, the last war, instantly televised…heads of state have no time to negotiate, technological advances having reduced the warning time for nuclear war to a matter of seconds.” (Which estimate now appears dated.)
3. 18th-c philosophe Denis Diderot proposed that authentic artworks call to us (appeler), make us halt (arrêter), and then secure our attention (attacher). That was then. Accustomed as we are to immediate gratification, what do we now require to capture our attention? Consider that slow-art experiences can be sparked by either viewer or viewed. But if we can’t count on distracted viewers to decelerate on their own, then the burden falls on artworks. Danger lurks down that way—the risk of bread and circus, bells and whistles. At what point does art’s attempt to buttonhole us ironically vitiate the pleasure or consolation we seek? When does the spiritual morph into spectacle?
The contributors range in age from their early twenties to the cusp of eighty, from undergraduates to emeriti. Their topics spread out from new Asian cinema to Luminist paintings at the National Gallery; from a grandfather’s Communist political-resistance theory of speed, to the strange propensity of ancient statues to flicker between the quick and the dead; from American stain painting and the one-shot aesthetic of the 1960s, to early cinema’s decisive influence on Cubism; from Amazon’s ability to deliver products to our doorstep before we know we want them, to glacially slow musical compositions; from painting’s inherent resistance to discourse, to a blow-by-blow narrative of watching Andy Warhol’s seven-hour movie Sleep; from an electromagnetic railgun firing hypervelocity projectiles at Mach 7.5 with the motto Velocitas eradico (I, [who am] speed, destroy), to Darwin’s Journal recording his years on the HMS Beagle; from a multi-media artist contesting the very idea of “slow art,” to young goddesses who’ve lived for centuries as statues before appearing in the flesh; from sublime boredom and the drowsy reader, to endless but unsettling Russian summers in Chekovian dachas; from Aristotle on the distinction between deliberation and action, to René Clair’s 1924 film Paris qui dort with its vertiginous aerial views of the metropolis, to 19th-century French photographs that capture the remnants of place, moments long gone, encapsulated in the bittersweet blur of slow time.
I’m grateful to them all for detaining us.
- Metropolitan Museum.
- University of California Press, 2017.