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Art for All: Slowing Down at the Museum

Arden Reed

This summer vacation season, countless Americans will pass through museums and galleries — but most works of art will hold a visitor’s attention for only a few brief moments.

In his new book, “Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell,” Pomona College English Professor Arden Reed offers an antidote for those millions of missed opportunities. He provides reflection and strategies so that an everyday museum visitor can have a transcendent experience — an encounter — if they trust themselves. The book covers works from the Middle Ages to the present: video, film, performance art, sculpture, painting, literature and music. The Wall Street Journal calls Reed “an enormously erudite writer,” and his book, “a lively ramble through high and low culture.”

Too often, Reed says, people don’t really connect with the art in front of them. He notes that more Americans visit museums than pro sports events or amusement parks. But unlike an entire day (or more) spent at Disneyland or the like, most spend more time at museums or galleries reading labels rather than taking in the actual work of art, Reed says. People aren’t sure how to navigate or where to look.

“[Those few moments aren’t] enough time…That started me thinking about the question of art and attentiveness and the way that museums are organized to house blockbuster exhibitions, to get as many people in and through as quickly as possible, which seemed to me a kind of terrible irony,” says Reed.

In a social media-soaked society, where we scroll for instant gratification, someone could call that speed-up method, Insta-art. All that rapid eye movement is an outcome of modernity and an increasingly fast world, he says.

Reed notes his own lack of connection and drive-by viewing habits — until 30-odd years ago when he gazed at German expressionist Max Beckman’s triptych at Harvard, “The Actors.” He was on a trip to Boston with art enthusiast friends Will and Molly Jones, then a Caltech humanities professor and emerita professor of psychology at Scripps, respectively. The painting that captivated them is filled with symbolic figures: prostitutes, net stockings, a big fish, a little boy on a rocking horse with a paper crown and musicians underneath a stage, with what Reed says are “weird spatial relationships that don't quite compute.”

Watching his friends slow down and analyze the painting made Reed uneasy, because he understood the intellectual stakes of that moment: the teacher was now the freshman, and Reed didn¹t want to make a fool of himself. The Jones kept talking, he realized, in order to give him time to gather his wits. Finally, Will Jones asked,  “My dear Arden, what do you see?” His answer, now long forgotten, pleased the couple. So much so that they invited Reed back to the museum the next day, and over the years the three traveled the world contemplating countless more artworks.

In “Slow Art,” a book a dozen years in the making, Reed argues that the untrained eye is every bit an eye worth trusting. He likens slow art to the medieval Benedictine devotional practice of lectio divina, which treats scriptural texts as living rather than static. In this tradition of reading, meditation expands meaning so that even a layperson can have an intimate and experiential relationship with the words — not just a priest or scholar. In the Catholic Church, there are testimonies of worshippers contemplating an image of Christ with the crown of thorns who then saw blood dripping, or looking at a sorrowful Virgin Mary until they saw tears coming down, says Reed. For many people, these old sacred practices are no longer woven into daily life. Slow art might offer a replacement, a kind of secular spirituality, a collection of encounters, he says.

Slow art is ultimately a practice of presence. A practice, Reed believes, that everyone can engage in, even without a technical vocabulary or art history education. He tells his students:

“You're all at least 18 years old. You had 18 years of practice using these eyes, but maybe there are ways to use these that you haven't thought of before.”  

Putting those eyes to good use will repay your investment, Reed says. 

“By slowing down we can actually experience paintings as if they were moving pictures: ever so subtly, or not subtly, they keep changing, keep moving and keep moving us. If you can give an artwork time, it will give back,” he says.

But how do you decelerate? Reed offers some advice:

First, a single visit to an artwork is not enough, Reed maintains. Second, don’t look for too long at one sitting. Forcing yourself to sit still in front of a painting is an invitation to distraction. You’re as likely to look at your watch as at the artwork, he says. Instead, feel free to come and go. We’re not talking about a marriage but an affair, says Reed. Be faithful and unfaithful. Finally, let yourself be disappointed, knowing that not every encounter will bring pleasure. But trust that, generally speaking, slowing down benefits both the artwork and the observer.

That museum visit with friends long ago, when Reed was untutored and a little intimidated, elicited a remark from his companions that perhaps encapsulates what he is making the case for in his book: that understanding art is an equal opportunity undertaking. 

“Arden,” his friend said, “We’ve been looking at this painting for 30 years. We've never seen that. That's splendid, Arden, go on.”