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Sunday, May 10, 2015

The insanity of six seconds

Several months ago in London, I saw a Renoir that captivated me. The gallery was lightly patronized that day, and a chair was ideally positioned to allow me to view the painting for half an hour in reasonable comfort. The more I looked, the more I saw. I could have sat there all afternoon. In fact, I believe that if I could look at it for days on end, I would still find things new. Good art, good music, and good literature are like that.

With that I mind, I offer this critique of how the big art museums are run. No doubt the critic will be attacked for his views, but I believe he is on target. In particular, note what he says about the "six second" phenomenon — the presumed amount of time when museum patrons actually look at a specific work of art.

Today I'm in London again, and I went to a splendid exhibition of Impressionist works. I walked through them at a much slower pace than 10 per minute. Twice I was able to take a seat and look at Renoirs for long periods. But for the most part, propelled by the masses of patrons and the lack of anywhere to sit, I didn't spend as much time with these master works as I would have liked.

Is this any way to view art? A few of the works today were en plein air, but even those took hours to produce. Most of the works took weeks of careful observation, planning, and execution. Maybe a few highly gifted people educated in art can assimilate everything worth observing in these works during a minute or two, but I certainly can't.

When I go to the symphony, I don't hear a 20-minute work of Haydn compressed into 2 minutes. When I read a widely commended novel, I don't turn to the Reader's Digest abridged version. When I want to see an Oscar-winning film, I don't satisfy myself with the trailer. Those three are examples of art that is easily reproducible, but I still wonder why art museums must be designed to coerce drive-by viewings.

The best art is priced at millions or tens of millions of dollars per work. I'm not likely to be able to hang one of those in my bedroom. Online viewing of art doesn't provide a good alternative because the process of rendering colors electronically is so fundamentally different from reality that fidelity as perceived in the human brain is impossible. Museums are the only resort, yet they defy the deep experiences that the master works deserve.

And to make things worse, as the critic explains, a tremendous number of art works are stored by museums and rarely exhibited. Even the North Carolina Museum of Art has less than a third of its permanent collection viewable at any time despite the 2010 addition. This article in The Economist warns of the dangers when museums are run for the convenience of donors.