In this age of smart phones, social media and "Instagratification" (not my term, but I like it) it's not surprising that, as a culture, we continue to spend less and less time connecting with art. Art, in all its forms, is meant to be enjoyed, contemplated, and interpreted in a relaxed environment and with our undivided attention. I volunteer as a docent at a local art museum and over the years I've observed this decline in concentration first hand. Most visitors today wander the galleries with one eye on their smartphone and rarely do I see a habitué sitting at a piece actively forging a connection.
There are plenty of studies that support this observation with some reports calculating the average time spent in front of a piece at under 30 seconds. That's crazy. Museums aren't meant to be conquered. "It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see." ~Henry David Thoreau.
In 2009 a guy by the name of Phil Terry started the Slow Art Day movement. What started with a personal experiment and then just 16 museums that first year is now an international phenomenon with annual participation at 194 museums (in 2016) around the globe. The idea is for a volunteer host to select a few works of art and have participants spend significant time (10-15 minutes) with each piece in order to nurture a connection. Here's a photo from Slow Art Day this past Saturday that I hosted at Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (VaMOCA).
Connecting with art isn't an activity to be performed once a year and/or only by art professionals. Everyone should take time out of their hectic schedule on a regular basis to appreciate art in some form. It's relaxing, its a great mental exercise, and best of all it's easy. Here's what I tell folks that are new to the experience of connecting with visual artworks.
- What do you first see? What's the main subject of the piece? If it's abstract what things could it be?
- What else do you see? Besides the main subject, what else is going on? How do these supporting elements add to the story/context?
- What do you suppose is the artist's intention? Is it a message? Is it designed to evoke an emotional response? If so, what emotion(s) does it stir in you? Explore what about the piece is stirring your response.
- Does this piece resonate with anything in your life? Does it remind you of a time, place, person or experience?
I encourage visitors to contemplate these questions before jumping to read the artist's statement. Sometimes your interpretation will closely match the artist's explanation but it's perfectly fine for your connection to be something completely different. That's the nature of art.
The Austrian art historian, and student of Gestaltism, Alois Riegl postulated that art requires three critical elements. There's the artist who envisions a concept and instantiates that vision in the second critical element, the art piece. But the art isn't complete until the third critical element, the observer, experiences the piece and interprets the artist's vision. Later, Ernst Gombrech coined this phenomenon as "The beholder's share."
So go complete some art. Be part of the process. Carve some time out of your schedule and visit a gallery or museum near you on a regular basis. You will come away relaxed and refreshed, your brain will enjoy the exercise and you'll be a more complete person for it.