Slow down, you see too fast Arden Reed on art and perception
YOU SEE TOO FAST
Members of the public tend to race through art museums, never taking enough time to really experience the artworks. If you are only spending an average of six to 10 seconds viewing a work, as author Arden Reed observes most people do, how much of what you see is actually taken in? One can’t do any justice at all to allegorical Renaissance paintings or history-inspired paintings whose compositions reflect entire narratives. We have abandoned, it seems, the ability to look long and to effectively listen with our eyes, especially in an age of information overload. Reed’s new book — and regrettably, his last — is titled Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell. In it, Reed makes a case for applying a more thoughtful, meditative, and contemplative consideration to see time passing in a work of art.
Reed, the Arthur M. Doyle and Fanny M. Doyle Professor of English at Pomona College, died of cancer on Dec. 20, 2017, and the world lost one of its most prescient culture critics. Few writers, particularly those who write about art, are able to take such a plethora of seemingly unrelated ideas as those presented in Slow Art and craft them into a cogent, intellectually stimulating narrative, engagingly and with eloquence. Reed was among those writers possessed of the broad view necessary for such a synthesis.
The impetus for Slow Art was Reed’s longtime engagement with Édouard Manet’s enigmatic portrait Young Lady in 1866, which he first encountered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and returned to again and again, taken in by its mysteries and its secrets. “How could I have predicted that I would spend some eight years contemplating a single artwork?” he writes in his introduction to Slow Art. “I found myself drawn to the picture, resisted by it, and then drawn back. How long, I mused, could I sustain this conversation? I hardly thought about where I was being led, and certainly never imagined how often I would return to the spot, whether in my imagination or in fact.”
TIME AND THE IMAGE FLOWING
Slow art, as Reed describes it, is not a type of art defined by any one particular medium. In fact, he approaches slow art both in terms of how we see and also in reference to various kinds of works. Regarding the latter, for instance, he talks of paintings as works of slow art in a certain context — especially historic paintings, because they were often crafted slowly, sometimes over years or even decades. But an action painting need not fall in line with that defintion. The live model for a figurative work also experiences slowness, sitting or standing, posed and unmoving for hours on end. The passages of time are woven, so to speak, into the very fabric of a work’s creation. Reed cites opera and theater director Peter Sellars’ remarks on Vermeer and how the Dutch painter’s weeks-long attention to rendering a small corner of a painting took on the characteristics of a ritual meditation. This mention of ritual and meditation introduces Reed’s major argument; he makes the case, using Sellars’ ideas as a springboard, for the artist as a kind of shaman involved in the act of calling and recalling — the two things, Reed states, that his book is about.
In the first chapter, “What is Slow Art?,” Reed broaches the topic of direct experiences with works of art and the fundamental principle that no viewer can ever really be fully present with art due to mediating factors. He does not propound on all the mediating factors other than to cite Marcel Proust. “In his novel Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27), artworks tend to mediate experience, as when a character is first attracted to his mistress because she resembles a figure in a Sandro Botticelli painting,” he writes. Reed suggests that, in order to be “fully present,” there must be no distinction between object and viewer. One of the things that makes looking at art slow, he argues, is the protean nature of art as it exists in the imagination long after we first encounter a work, lingering there in long conversation with the viewer. “But slow art lets us imagine, for a spell, that we could taste pure presence,” he writes. “In fact, one way to gauge slow art is its power to persuade us momentarily that our experience is all-consuming.”
Reed further divides his definition of slow art into three overlapping contexts: the logical, the historical, and the psychological. In the first of these contexts, he discusses slowness as something that is only perceived against a backdrop of either stasis or perceived motion. This aspect of slow art suggests that it can have actual movement, which Reed discusses more fully in the second chapter. In the historical context, he discusses our engagement with works of art as products of their time and also as something experienced in time, noting “each age has its characteristic rhythms,” and that these affect how we see what we see. He presents an intriguing viewpoint, when, in citing the work of visual-culture scholar Jonathan Crary, he notes how the very act of seeing changed in the early 19th century from an objective, reliable marker of the reality we perceive, to an act tied more to one’s subjective experience. This brings us to the psychological context, and to Reed’s major point, which is how neurological conditions distort our experience of time. It’s difficult to read a book like this without doing so — as befitting its subject matter — slowly. Reed presents so many intriguing ideas to mull over that it makes one’s head spin.
TABLEAUX FOR TWO In the second chapter (“Living Pictures”) and in later ones, Reed introduces some fascinating examples of slow art in the form of a little-discussed art form, the tableau vivant — staged recreations of historic works of art by live models. Reed writes that this art form is often dismissed by cultural historians as a pale imitation of the original paintings on which the tableaux are based. His in-depth elucidation of the form takes slowness beyond the realm of what a viewer experiences while looking at art and into that of the participants.
The tableau vivant had its heyday in the 19th century but was revived in the 1960s. Reed discusses the Pageant of the Masters, a yearly festival of tableaux vivants that began in the early 1930s in Laguna Beach, California, and continues to be held there annually. In describing what makes these tableaux “slow,” he points to how the art form accomplishes the same tasks that Denis Diderot believed were necessary to make a painting successful: first, capturing the beholder’s attention, then arresting attention, and finally holding it. One aspect of recreating a painting, the use of real people and props, is paying strict attention to detail, which requires time spent really looking at the original. However, the presentation before an audience might last no more than 90 seconds. Still, that’s longer than the average time spent looking at a painting in a museum, Reed argues.
Ideally, the participants in the tableaux vivants as well as the audience members experience a “pageant moment,” a description Reed takes from choreographer Richard Gray. He cites Gray as instructing his performers not to simply hold a pose but to embrace it, to “achieve” stillness rather than merely assume it. He writes that “performers appear to morph into marble or pigment, even while signaling their sentience. Pageant moments likewise suspend spectators — between knowing and not knowing; buying in and holding back; sustaining the illusion, but as an illusion.”
Reed’s tome makes the case for an art experience akin to a spiritual one, something that transcends time. One loses oneself in artwork just as one loses oneself in the thrall of religious experience, and in such moments the passage of time goes unnoticed. Reed doesn’t get hung up in labeling individual pieces as fast or slow. The tableau vivant, he argues, is ephemeral and lasts only a short period, suggesting that it is more an example of fast art than of slow art. But in its propensity to evoke stillness, it approaches sculpture. This “seeming,” however, sets the art form apart from artistic recreations such as wax displays. When it comes to the tableau vivant: “We are as absorbed in watching for fractures in the illusion as we are in appreciating the illusion, engaged both by the resemblance of tableaux vivants to aesthetic objects and by their deviation.”
WAXWORKS AND EARTHWORKS
In a later chapter Reed devotes more attention to wax replicas. He asks us to imagine looking at a painting in stereoscope, noting that it would look similar to a tableau vivant because the stereoscopic lens produces a three-dimensional effect. Wax replicas can do something similar for a painting, using actual sculptural forms. Reed considers wax mannequins at venues such as Madame Tussaud’s in London and the Musée Grévin in Paris as objects that fascinate precisely because they are so lifelike, feeding into our desire to simulate real life — like Pygmalion fashioning his statue of Galatea (an example Reed uses). They conform to his notion of slow art because of the malleability of the wax medium — which, over time, can bend and move and degrade if not cared for.
Visitors to these museums sometimes have a taste for the exotic and macabre. Reed includes images of the Musée Grévin’s wax displays of Javanese dancers, a Cairo street scene, and one titled Human
Sacrifices in Dahomey. “There is a grim follow-up to the story of the wax tableaux: in the later nineteenth century, certain impresarios replaced wax figures with living bodies, neatly sidestepping the difficulties of producing mannequins,” he writes. These live displays were ethnographic variants on the tableau vivant, and were marked by the exploitation of ethnic minorities who were brought to Europe and made to perform like circus animals. Reed notes such exhibitions were known as “human zoos.”
Reed also discusses James Turrell’s Roden Crater, a massive earthwork in northern Arizona. Turrell, a pioneer of the Light and Space movement, began his project inside the distinctive volcanic cone in 1966. The project is ongoing. Roden Crater is located near the San Francisco Peaks. “There, against staggering financial and technical odds, against the grain of most contemporary art, and against the ticking clock, Turrell is fabricating a monumental installation of slow art — slow to create, slow to reach, slow to experience,” Reed writes. The piece is also slow in terms of geologic time. The dome itself is approximately 380,000 years old. Even the longest-held tableau vivant would be fleeting by contrast, but Reed does draw a parallel between the earthwork and the live model displays, calling Turrell’s project “our grandest tableau vivant, in the extended sense.” As Turrell told Reed in conversation, “Roden is the stage that performs itself with you as the central character.”
Reed seeds his profundities throughout Slow Art in example after example, weaving them into compelling histories that get you thinking about art in new ways. He achieves nothing less than a glimpse of time itself unfolding, like an accordion, where nothing is disconnected.
“Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell” by Arden Reed was published in 2017 by University of California Press.
The New Mexican Michael Abatemarco