Sep 11, 2009

Looking at Art


Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times Visitors at the Louvre: some engage directly with the art while others take pictures of pictures.

Back in August, Michael Kimmelman wrote a piece in the New York Times titled At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus. In it, Kimmelman argues that few people look at art slowly any more. He observes:

"Almost nobody, over the course of that hour or two, paused before any object for as long as a full minute."

He then goes on:

"At one time a highly educated Westerner read perhaps 100 books, all of them closely. Today we read hundreds of books, or maybe none, but rarely any with the same intensity. Travelers who took the Grand Tour across Europe during the 18th century spent months and years learning languages, meeting politicians, philosophers and artists and bore sketchbooks in which to draw and paint..."

Needless to say, according to Kimmelman, today we have lost something compared to earlier times. But his comparison is bizarre. He compares an earlier "highly educated Westerner" with today's general readership ("we"). His highly educated Westerner can only have been an ultra-wealthy gentry, since in Victorian times high-brow books cost far more than most could afford. One book of Wordsworth's poems cost as much as 100 pigs, for example. Meanwhile, we (the rest of us) read voraciously even then. Miners in the 1920s are documented reading 80 books a year on average. Not the 100 classics that Kimmelman refers to, but far more populist fare. In other words, plus sa change...

What irks me most about Kimmelman's article is that his main claim is that we don't look carefully anymore - but what he actually demonstrates is that journalists don't report carefully any more. Kimmelman makes no attempt to back up his opinion with any scientific research, cultural or social studies, consultation of experts, referencing of scholars, citing of statistics etc. In short, he practices precisely the kind of intellectual skimming he derides in art lookers. This is simply journalism on the fly. The difference between Kimmelman and his target, the lazy art tourist, is that he is writing front-page articles for the NYTimes.

(As an aside, many of the arguments from Krugman's article on Horse Race Reporting apply here).

Do people look at art more rapidly today? To answer that, we would need to know how long the average art goer spent in front of each artwork in previous decades. As far as I am aware, this data does not exist. They didn't use closed-circuit TVs in museums 100 years ago. Anything we say must be speculation.

There is a deeper problem. The "we" that we are talking about has changed. Art audiences have risen dramatically in the last few decades. For example, the Tate Modern is the second most visited destination in England today. That is a lot of eyeballs. Do we look at art differently? Or is it instead that different people are looking? What was a fairly self-selected group of serious art lovers has become "diluted" by a more diverse group of people visiting museums for many reasons. In other words, perhaps the apparent increase in people wandering around museums casually is not a cognitive change in our visual attention, but simply a reflection of a broader and more diverse population of artgoers.

These questions are beyond Kimmelman, who prefers unsubstantiated statements. He writes "Cameras replaced sketching by the last century." Which is like saying "TV replaced radio by the last century." It sounds good. So does my radio, by the way, which works great today. Sketching is still with us. Is it any more or less "normal" than it was 100 years ago? Again, answering that question in a meaningful way requires far more of an investigation than Kimmelman provides.

Kimmelman identifies the digital camera as the enemy of looking. Is that really the case? Why not target postcards, also? After all, they too enable art visitors to think "I won't bother looking, I can always buy a postcard." The argument about digital technology is inconclusive at best. Clive Thompson in Wired Magazine recently wrote a profile of Andrea Lunsford. Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford. She recently conducted a survey of over 14,000 writing samples and concluded that, rather than killing writing, technology has created "a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization." I can think of no reason why Lunsford's observations would not also extend to the visual.