Indulge me for a moment.
All together now, let’s gently close our eyes and conjure in our collective imagination Leonardo da Vinci’s exalted Italian Renaissance painting, Mona Lisa. I suggest this particular art megastar for its wide recognition among readers, and for the purpose of discussion.
Imagine first, the sitter’s three-quarter profile pose. Let’s visualize her eyes; that enigmatic gaze, which lore suggests follows you around the room. Now visualize her mouth; a benign, sensible smile that renders observers curious and slightly uncomfortable.
You may also recall the centre part in her hair, or that she is nearly devoid of eyelashes and eyebrows, and how she sits serenely with hands crossed in calm repose.
Apart from these much-critiqued features, could you also describe the background? Can you recall an imaginary landscape receding from the sitter high on her perch, depicting a winding path, rugged terrain and foreboding distant mountains? What colours come to mind?
And ahhh, here’s the thing: how did the experience of seeing this painting make you feel?
It’s a tricky task to be the viewer, the audience of art. There are as many ways to experience the interchange as there are artworks in the world. I once stood in front of Gustav Klimt’s monumental ‘The Kiss’ at the Neue Gallery in New York City, and promptly burst into sobby, snotty tears upon seeing it for the first time. My reaction was so deeply visceral, so utterly non-rational, that all the descriptions, reviews, critiques, statistics and statements in the world were mortally defied by my spontaneous, rapturous response.
The general tendency to look quickly at art, to move along from piece to piece in a museum or gallery, deprives us of the opportunity to fully engage with what we are seeing, to process feelings effectively, and to better understand the essential relationship we as viewers have to art.
In her article ‘On the Brain’, (Canadian Art, Winter 2019) Sally McKay contends, “For people who are new to looking at art, the fact that they might not be deeply moved or emotionally gratified while experiencing an art museum can feel like a failure – of the artist, or, worse, a failure in themselves for not ‘getting it’.”
As laypeople and casual observers, the pleasure of looking at art is not derived in “explaining” a piece, but wholly in allowing oneself an “impression”, without the distortions or preconceptions that exist in our minds. Rather than attempt interpretations about content, which helps make art manageable, we can opt for, as Susan Sontag urges, an emotional instead of intellectual interaction.
Care to give this new approach a try? You’re in luck.
April 6, 2019 is International Slow Art Day, an annual worldwide movement to encourage looking at art s l o w l y .
Find a participating venue in your area at slowartday.com and register (free) online. Rather than racing through the Uffizi, or LACMA, your new assignment is to select only 5 works of art, and then spend five to ten mindful minutes looking each one. You’ll be amazed at the transformative power of the exercise.
Wellness experts around the world increasingly recognize the indisputable health benefits of spending slow, personal time with art – to the extent of even prescribing museum visits to thwart illness.
So the next time you find yourself wandering through a gallery or art institution, make a promise to engage with intention, take more time with a few select works, check in with your reaction and feelings, and observe without judgement.
You just may be happier and healthier for it.
Shape/Shift Report for Matte Black, Los Angeles
February 2019 - Issue #51