Most people, when they see a painting for the first time, spend a few seconds appreciating the artwork and move on. When Arden Reed, a professor of English at Pomona College, saw Édouard Manet’s Young Lady in 1866 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan for the first time, in the year 2000, he ended up thinking about it for eight years.
“It was really a source of amusement to me to see how the painting, which at first seemed perfectly straightforward, got more and more complicated and intriguing the more time I spent with it,” Reed says. “So I ended up deciding that this was a painting not about the mystery of something hidden, but about the mystery on the surface, the mystery of the visible.”
Young Lady in 1866 was the source of inspiration for a book, Manet, Flaubert, and the Emergence of Modernism: Blurring Genre Boundaries (Cambridge, 2003). And to further demonstrate the profound possibilities of a work of art, the painting is the starting point of a second effort, Reed’s forthcoming Slow Art: From Tableaux Vivants to James Turrell, which he’ll discuss tomorrow, November 11, at 11:30 AM as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Years after seeing the Manet for the first time, Reed revisited the Met and had a different experience.
“I was made conscious of the fact that I had spent so many years I had been living with this one object, and just how obsessive and crazy that was,” Reed says. “And then, I guess by way of compensation, I started thinking about what that experience was like in the age of the Internet, how this is something that nobody does. And that led me to think about the nature of visual artworks and the amount of time that people spend looking at artworks, and what kind of satisfaction they can draw from it.”
Slow Art explores how engaging with art slowly can shift the viewer’s experience in myriad ways. Reed cites the artist James Turrell’s experiments with light and space as examples of artwork that has slowness built into it. But he acknowledges that taking in art slowly and patiently is a shifting and sometimes adversarial process.
“One of the things that I had to do in this book was delve a little bit into perceptual psychology,” Reed says. “And psychologists use the image of a spotlight to help us understand attention. So when we look at something, we shine a spotlight at it. What that means is, as you are perceiving something, you are automatically not perceiving what’s around it. So with attention comes a double-edged sword. It means noticing some things and not noticing others. So when I look at a painting, I need not just to do a one-second scan, but I need to keep going back. And it changes the experience. And painting becomes, as it were, a moving picture.”
The concept of “slowness” is analyzed outside of the art world as well—the slow food movement is the most well-known, but there’s also slow journalism, slow money, and slow sex. Like those movements, Slow Art is not just an intellectual inquiry but an ethical stance. “I am advocating for slowing down,” Reed says. “Then the question becomes: How at this moment do we find strategies for doing so when the world conspires against us?”
One strategy that comes to mind are audio tours, something that Reed acknowledges are helpful for slow art. He mentions a widely circulated factoid: Way more Americans every year visit art museums and galleries than attend professional sporting events and amusement parks. But then what happens once casual museumgoers are inside the building? “I think that everyone is not just entitled to have meaningful experiences, but already equipped for them,” Reed says. “One of the things that an audio tour can do is simply connect things for people that they wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.” Yet he points out that audio tours become problematic when they front-load information; oftentimes, it’s better to first engage with an artwork unassisted, then to look at it with the aid of secondary information. “If I put you in front of that image, and I don’t say anything about it—not the title, not the artist, not the date—when you look at it, you’re going to start to ask questions,” Reed says. “And it’s then, when you’re hungry, that you’re ready to absorb information.”
As for the Internet, Reed’s feelings are somewhat mixed. He references a passage from Kurt Andersen’s novel Turn of the Century: “Coping with delayed gratification is—was—a definition of maturity. . . . The powerful appeal of the World Wide Web is not, as its ideologues claim, the ‘community’ it provides but, rather, its instantaneity: you can send a letter now, get your question answered now, pick your airline seat now, buy anything you want right now. The Internet . . . finally and fully satisfies our inner child—the impulsive child with zero tolerance for delay.” But Reed also acknowledges that the Internet’s ability to allow people to find art quickly and zoom in on specific details is something that was never possible. Ultimately, Reed says, “Technology—it takes away and it gives.”
“Slow Art: Looking Long and Hard in the Age of Instant Everything” Sat 11/12, 11:30 AM, Art Institute of Chicago, Fullerton Hall, 111 S. Michigan, 312-443-3600, chicagohumanities.org, $12, $10 members, $5 students and teachers.