41 thoughts on “The art of slowing down”

  1. I agree with the author of the article, people have to be able to feel comfortable about sitting down in front of something that has some kind of resonance, and have an internal conversation with themselves about what it means and what it is. There should be more seats to enable this to happen. The big name exhibitions where you have to book and are only allowed a specific time slot, are killing this kind of thought process (I’m looking at you, National Gallery and your late Rembrandt show). Though I was in the National Gallery (London) not long ago and a curator was speaking to a group of primary school children, about Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. I hung around and eavesdropped. He asked the kids how much they thought the painting was worth, the guesses ranged from £5 to £20,000 or ‘as much as a car’. I can’t remember the answer because the next question was, ‘who does it belong to?’. The first kid to put his hand up said David Cameron, which says a lot about our society. Other options the children offered included the Queen, Nelson Mandela, the curator himself. He let a few seconds pass, then pointed at the first boy and said ‘you do’ – then pointed at each child, telling them that they own arguably the most famous work of art in the world, and never to forget it. He told them that the Queen has no more rights over that work than they do. I wanted to cheer. I want ore of this kind of thing

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  2. I thought of Mom who spends the entire day at the museum and takes her time to look at and read and ponder every single piece, which of course, requires multiple visits over years to take in all the exhibits and the visiting exhibits as well. As a child that meant that after I did my thirty-seconds worth of tour in a room, I had to sit and wait for the next hour or two or three as Mom took in each item. I grew up in the days where there was no rushing around and playing while waiting. There was no hanging on Mom and begging or asking to drift away. We were in the museum to look and learn and it wasn’t a choice so while we were there we were forced to observe. If we weren’t going around and looking and reading everything, or having Mom read it since she started taking us to museums before we could read, we had to sit and study one ot two paintings or pieces.

    It was not my favorite thing to do as a child but now I am grateful because she turned my sister and I into art ponderers and we look at art in the way the article’s author describes. And now, as adults we too take our time as Mom does and my sister’s children who are teenagers do the same as we did and quietly head for the seating in the room to hunker down for the hour at least that it will take Mom, my sister, their dad, and me to look at everything. Here’s the pay off: in the car on the way home and during the inevitable meal afterward, there is conversation about what we saw and wonderings about the scenes and artist meanings, and we all know what the other is describing because we really saw it.

    Great article. As a sketchbook artist it also urges me to slow down as I produce my own work and to make meaning through color, and line, and composition. Thanks for sharing this article.

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    1. Thanks Danny for directing me to this article, and thanks Diana for your description of your Mother and your childhood visits to museums. Now I have another thing to do with my grand kids. Even though I live in a city with a good art museum I’ve never walked it like this and I cringe to think how much time I’ve wasted by racing through without paying attention. Thank you for describing your museum days in such detail. It resonates.

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  3. I like the idea of viewing a work of art as a form of meditation. You can discover more about yourself, and more about the painting. I think if you approach the painting in a meditative way, even if there are crowds and distractions around you, you won’t notice…

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  4. Such an affirming article that strengthens my faith in Human beings. Despite this period we live in where it seems everything demands our “consistent partial attention” we remind eachother to slow down and the scientific study of positve psychology is created. Connection is critical. Thanks Danny!!!!

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    1. I love your comment “consistent partial attention” Barbara – so true. I had the privilege to drive my 8 year old niece to the movies this past weekend. I was able to give her most of my attention (I was driving after all ;-)) We connected in a way that we have never before. She is an amazing young lady. It was a total delight.

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  5. I could feel myself relax just reading the article, Danny. That is how I travel, too. My brother and I were doing some long term, solo travelling this past May. He met me in Greece half way through his “walk about” and for two days crashed from exhaustion. It made me tired just listening to his frenetic adventures. I, on the other hand, stayed in one place. It was my third visit – 7 weeks in total among the three visits. I have budding friendships in that location, now, I “know” the area, I relax there. I understand my brother’s desire to “see it all” and I have come to terms with not doing so – differences.
    While drawing, I get into that relaxed, meditative state so it makes sense that if I slow down to really look at someone else’s work that I would be able to connect with their energy as they created. Loved the article. Thanks for sharing, Danny.

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  6. What a great article (one I wish I’d have written!).

    The obsessive compulsive in me can feel overwhelmed at museums and galleries, feeling that I have to read/see EVERYTHING!

    Whenever I’ve “followed my heart” at such places, however, I’ve always enjoyed the experience infinitely more.
    I wonder if sometimes we dash here and dart there merely so we can “cross it off the list”. Not much therapy in that, me thinks.

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  7. I think the piece at a museum I have spent the most time with is The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago at the Brooklyn Museum.It is a piece I wish I lived near so I could visit and study weekly. Every time you change your focus in that exhibit there is something new to see. I only wish I was sketching when I saw it, though I know that will be a sketch destination some day on a future visit to NYC. When we were there that day, I also spent some time in the Keith Jaring exhibit which sort of just blem me aeay in a totally different direction. I know I missed a lot of other art that day and I am glad for it!

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  8. I love to sketch in museums. Often with paintings I enjoy reducing the work to simple shapes studying the composition and color palette. I love 3 dimensional pieces ti sketch like sculpture or artifacts. So much fun and it helps me remember what I saw and slows me down. I put in color notes and add watercolor later. Thanks for sharing this article!

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  9. Thanks for the heads up, good stuff.
    I just had a small, quiet, yet transformative experience viewing a Calder exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem MA. I went in thinking, “Yeah, yeah, we all know Calder…been seeing his stuff in museums for years..” Wrote it off before even entering. However, the show was set up beautifully, with each piece given proper space and lighting and great music in the background. (Music for the Works of Calder by John Cage) We ended up sitting in the chairs provided in front of one of the pieces and just watched. It was incredibly meditative and not only did the beauty of the piece resonate, but the viewer gained real appreciation for the precision and balance of the forms in space.

    That said, I know it is hard to replicate that sort of experience when I am traveling and feel the crush of time, though I am getting better at picking and choosing where to focus attention.

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  10. Reminds me of one of my favorites essays that I often assign students on both my visual arts and rhetoric classes – “Art Objects” by Jeanette Winterson. The word “objects” can be read either way. If you haven’t read it, I think you would thoroughly enjoy it.

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  11. I love to spend time with particular pieces of art and hate having to fight to see a painting I love. some artists in particular need time – Van Gogh for me. I want to admire and meditate over his work. I’m part of an access group at my local museum which works with the curators to make the artwork as accessible as possible to the whole community, and that can include having objects that can be handled – touched and smelled – as well as looked at so that a museum experience can be fully immersive for everyone.

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  12. Lovely essay. Thank you for directing us to it. It pinpoints what I find frustrating about contemporary museum-going….. treating it like it’s an item to be swiftly crossed off one’s to-do list. Planning a big museum visit to DC in a few weeks — this will be a helpful companion.

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  13. The article reminds me that I need to slow down EVERY part of my life! Despite the fact I subscribe to the idea that a slow life is a better one I still find my self battling the anxiety that I have not done enough, seen enough, read enough, travelled enough… So often I find myself only half attending to a task because I am simply anxious to get it done and move on to the next. Looking and taking time to ponder are so important, thanks for posting this.

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  14. I completely agree with slow viewing of limited pieces. I remember my first visit to the National Gallery as a child and not wanting to leave the Renoir I was seeing. As an adult, sometimes a painting has brought me to tears.
    The part I can’t grasp, is the selfie as art appreciation. I don’t see people really interacting with the paintings when they’re focused on their poses or expressions. Their backs are to the paintings! I often wish that they’d just photo shop themselves into a google image instead of blocking the view and the contemplative mood. My crabby old person side prefers it when photos and videos aren’t allowed. I like it a lot better when museums encourage sketching instead of taking pictures.

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  15. To me it is a slow process. I’d choose to spend time…to go deep into the experience of looking and wondering and you’d bet I better have a sketchbook handy. In fact if allowed I’d have someone roll me around on a cot. I’d linger in front of a painting, stare, imagine and fantasize until I fell asleep from all of that work. When I’d wake I’d have wonderful ideas for writing and painting.

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  16. Recently I went to a museum where the accepted behavior was to file past this one painting at about 12 feet away, so as not to block others’ view. I tried to get close enough to see the brush strokes, but got disapproving looks. That kind of spoiled it for me. Yet in another gallery a few steps away
    I stopped to copy a vase and an attendant offered me a stool!

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  17. Once I went to an exhibition of an a local artist. People saw the artwork in a hurry so they could socialize, few number of persons were actually seen the artwork. I, on the other hand, stopped and studied a piece that made me gasp, then I took my time to observe that piece, the composition, the colors the author chose, trying to figure out why did the artist chose this. In my opinion, you have to have a little knowledge to enjoy a piece of art, otherwise you just go and snap a photo and leave the facility.

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  18. Reading the article : “You can’t really see a painting as you’re walking by it.”said Professor Pawelski; Sure, but they just want to checkmark it on their list, not to see it, to take a pic or just brag to friends that they did it…you know like that collection of books about 1000 things to do before you die; how you see doesn’t matter for them…

    In NY I did something similar: I focus the 2 hours i had available on portraits/figurative art only. It was perfect in compare with the Van Gogh museum some years ago; from that …i remember just the hunger, exhaustion and the machine in the hallway at the end that you can e-mail messages to friends…what an waste, right ?

    Its funny, in NY I had in front of couples of pieces moments like Dr. Haizlip had, but only now i’m taking them seriously because back then i thought my imagination and connection art-pshichology-my life might be over flourishing in such an artistic environment and i need to “tone it down”:0) i guess i was wrong, since there are other people having similar experiences.

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  19. Perhaps the most universal bit of wisdom ever and applicable to ALL things: slow down. Indeed. Apply it to the food you eat, the conversation you have with a child, spouse, or grandparent, the book you read, the letter you write, hell, even the sex you have! It’s not so much the mandating of a period of time (20 minutes in this case), but rather the search for those things that you will love inexhaustedly and appreciate for an entire lifetime.

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  20. I did slow down once, at Phillips collection in Washington DC Museum practically empty, when I got to the Rothko room there was nobody around and a flat bench. I lay down on the bench and was enveloped by Rothko’s color and movement…amazing experience

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  21. Danny, I totally agree with this article. I give you an example: About 1978 I made a cycle-tour to Amsterdam. I visited the Van Gogh-Museum, don’t ask me, what I’ve all seen there – but I sat in front of THIS painting – http://www.philipphauer.de/galerie/vincent-van-gogh/werke-gr/ansicht-der-ebene-crau-bei-arles-mit-mont-majour.jpg – maybe one hour or two….dreaming, meditating, it was like a “trance”, I hardly could separate from this painting (nearly until today…it follows me 🙂 …maybe, this is it, what the author of the article means?
    -Matthias

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  22. I totally agree with this article. Since I have become an artist, I really enjoy looking at watercolors and seeing the brush strokes. How was this painting made? It can really take a long time to fully look at and absorb a painting. I have noticed lots of other patrons don’t like it when you look “too long” at a painting like you are hogging it as they want to look at it without someone else looking at it at the same time. So it can be kind of a dance with other patrons. Nothing is ever said, just with looks. I go back to the paintings I want to observe for a longer time. Even the guards can get antsy, like they think you are trying to steal it or take an unauthorized photo.

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  23. Interesting post. Glad to know there is nothing wrong with my limited capacity of taking art in. Besides the general shortening of attention spans, people taking pictures and ticking bucket lists and blah blah blah, maybe the availability of art today touches the point where our sense of wonder gets saturated and we can’t enjoy it anymore? I often wonder if people working with an orchestra still enjoy music as much as I do. Too much of a good thing…Worst museum experience ever : Hieronymus Bosch exhibition in ‘s Hertogenbosch, years ago. Two hours queuing on the pavement, one inside, even though we had booked tickets for a specific time slot; plus a line in front of every painting! 30 sec indeed to take it all, at most, with people pressing behind me. Best experience: dark church or cloister in Italy, only me and a friend as a guide. Slid coins in a money box, light illuminates a Caravaggio. I tend to prefer smaller museums, collector’s homes, minor towns; or, when visiting a “star exhibition” use the technique the teacher recommands in the article: half the time for a quick round spotting a few works, then spending time with each of them. I also try to do the round backwards so as not to be distracted by the too-often chronological display. The Louvre and so many others are overwhelming, even if you choose one specific aisle you want to see, your senses are dumbed by all the masterpieces you see on your way there. On the other hand, some curators are experts at making you look at, enjoy and even rediscover every single piece. One hour drive away from home (Brussels) the MAC in Grand Hornu has a genial curator (Laurent Busine) who juxtaposes contemporary artists, ancient masters, natural beauties, humble craft pieces, all around a theme, often poetic. At the Matisse expo in London lately, one room was so beautiful people stood gasping at the door and parents had a hard time keeping their little kids from trying to touch the collages. These happened to be displayed exactly the way they had been on the walls of Matisse’s bedroom, where the bedridden old man used a stick to point his directions to his assistants.

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  24. Good article. I definitely need to slow down, especially when drawing. In her web-site, Melanie Reims talks about challenging herself to do 100 sketches of “Haystack Rock” in Oregon. I think that is the type of thinking that allows one to fully appreciate whatever one is doing.The article encourages me to take the time to think about what I want to accomplish when I go to a museum and to allow myself the time to do it. Instead of going along with everybody else and doing what everybody else is doing.

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  25. So often, I feel the pull of the crowd when I’d really rather sit or stand and ponder. Thanks for brnging this article to my attention. I feel somehow I’ve now got permission to slow down.

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  26. A great article. I think people find it easier to take their time if they are able to return to a place, museum or otherwise, over and over. When I lived in the States I would visit the MOMA regularly and wander around with a sketchbook making notes, listening to the audio tapes, doing sketches and so on as I knew I’d be back. The same with the Met. I’d visit the costumes with my daughter one time. The Egyptian section another. I regularly enjoy gazing at Pollock’s Blue Poles when visiting the National Gallery in Canberra. What makes it very difficult it the block buster exhibitions, that are expensive to attend and you can only get there once, with the crowds. I still take a notebook and make notes from the labels or listen to the audio, but the crowds make it more challenging to take one’s time.

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  27. I think we live in a world of excess. We can have it all but we appreciate very little of what we get. We rush from one thing to another under the guise of efficiency. Slowing down and appreciating things like works of art only makes sense when you think of it. No doubt the painting you are looking at took longer than 30 seconds to paint, so taking your time to appreciate something someone put time into it is only logical. Would you not be offended if someone glanced at something you had slaved over for months and said,”Lovely.”? Then checked it off on their list? LOL. I know I would be livid!

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  28. This makes sense! I get overwhelmed very quickly and need a break after half an hour. This helps a lot! I love the idea that art belongs to everyone.

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  29. Hi Danny, I also read the article in the NYT ( I didn’t understand why it was in the travel section). It is so very true about the feeling one has when absorbing in ART . I’ve always have wondered why every time I come out of an art show I come out with such a wonderful feeling, I called it having fed my spirit but I think it goes with what the articled said about the effects of meditation on the brain, but besides repeating a Mantra as one does when meditateting one also is imbedded with form, rhythm,color, size, depth, and many other elements that take us to a special place.Everyone should experience that very fulfilling experience when looking at art, they just need “to slow down”.

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  30. I was alone once in the Picasso museum in Madrid, there was an exhibit of a series of his drawings about the relationship between the artist and his model, and the model and the artist. I entered the museum around noon, and finally left as t hey were closing. It was a peaceful experience. VanGogh paintings also enchant me.

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  31. I learned this while walking in the woods this summer, began walking very slowly, sometimes just stopping & looking & have noticed so many plants & creatures that I wouldn’t have when walking fast. And a similar feeling to what is described above when looking intently at a flower or leaf or creature who sits long enough for one to just look and really see it. Very meditative.

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  32. The older I get (being the ripe old age of 52 at the moment!), the more the idea of slowly savouring experiences is becoming more appealing to me. I enjoy travelling back to cities I have visited before, like Paris, again and again – each time, you discover new areas to explore and feel less compelled to rush about and see all the big touristy spots. The same goes for museum or art gallery visits. The past few years, I’ve treated myself to annual memberships. Just knowing I can go back over and over again enables me to take my time and enjoy one room per visit, or one floor or what have you. I also enjoy taking guided tours. The shorter time periods (usually one to two hours) mean you don’t get too overwhelmed with sensory input and you learn things you might not have otherwise. Docent tours are especially interesting, because they often pick their own favourites to show the group, rather than taking you to see the more obvious choices. I love the idea of spending 20 minutes with one painting, must try that on my next visit!

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  33. Several years ago I made a deal with myself – to try to get to a fine arts museum in every city I visit, so far I have visited the Museum of Fine Art in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the Honolulu Museum of Art in Hawaii and the Winnipeg Art Gallery in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I am thrilled to be able to see the wonderful works of art in real life. It is an amazing experience! However, each time I go I try to go by myself as the people I travel with are not interested in art. Therefore I feel I need to rush and see as much as possible as quickly as possible. It is exhausting. Maybe I should, as this article suggests, slow down instead of trying to “see it all”. I missed the Vancouver Art Gallery when I was there because of limited time but hope to get back on day. Soon I will be heading to Cuba where I hope to visit the National Museum of Fine Art in Havana. Again I am travelling with non art people so need to make the most with the short time I have. I am going to research as the article mentioned and see if a slow visit will make a difference to my visit. Thanks Danny for pointing out this article. I think it will improve my museum visits!

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  34. A couple years ago I visited a small exhibition at the Kunsthal (art hall) in Rotterdam titled ‘Museum Minutes’. They claimed that the average time people look at each work of art during a museum visit is actually only 9 seconds. The exhibition combined artworks with all kinds of experimental methods that invited visitors to spend more time with each of them. There were comfy chairs in front of them, and exercise equipment. Some of the artworks, for instance, had been given a voice and told their story if you put on a pair of headphones. Writers had written stories about some of the works, and others were explained by art historians.
    http://www.kunsthal.nl/en-22-712-Museum-Minutes.html

    The Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven is also encouraging visitors to experience in all kinds of ways to look at art, to shake things up and engage with it. Not sure how it is now, but last year they offered different options, like a tour suggesting to try out different angles and poses when looking, listening to music, an audio tour in which children tell you their views on an artwork, and so on. Visitors were encouraged to come up with their own suggestions for such tours. And currently the museum offers a course ‘take your time’ in which some artworks get in-depth attention.

    Philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer said that experiencing art means engaging in a dialogue with it, a fusion of horizons. Yours, and that of the artwork. Only then, the artwork becomes complete. And each time someone engages with it, the outcome of that process is different, because it’s a different person, or the same person at another time, and the artwork speaks differently to them, and they engage with it in a unique way. Each time, both the artwork and the person experiencing it come away slightly altered by the experience. But for that to happen, you need to take your time with pieces you are drawn to, in stead of running around snapping photo’s.
    I like to do both, picking a limited amount of pieces (either by reputation, relevance to my line of study or because I walk past and get drawn into it) to spent more time with, and get a quick impression of the rest of the museum. Spending more time can mean one or two minutes, but with certain works it can be up to half an hour. I like to bring a notebook and jot down what I see (in writing), this helps me to focus and notice more details. I imagine bringing a sketchbook will work even better, if you take your time. But don’t for get to just look for a while, as well.
    The example of taking a selfie while posing like the subject a the painting or sculpture is also a form of angaging with the artwork. It encourages you to look closely at the artwork to be able to get the pose right, and in that proces you might spend more than 9 seconds looking at it and you might notice other details as well…

    Perhaps only when you spend time with art in such a deliberate way, you get a full aesthetic experience. That might be a factor in improving your state of well-being. And, according to Gadamer, a fusion of horizons with a work of art makes you feel like you step out of ordinary time for a short while, together with the artwork. In an age where people are always busy and in a hurry, that might be a big destressor.

    And when it comes to a relationship between meditation and museums; I work as a volunteer at a museum and once every week an elderly couple comes in to meditate in one of the rooms. A friend of mine does the same thing sometimes, when we’re visiting a museum and he finds the right atmosphere to do so. For me, personally, museums are my happy place. I fully agree that museums can serve as restorative environments.

    And p.s.: did you know that in a corridor right next to the room that holds Mona Lisa, there are other works by Leonardo da Vinci? I actually prefer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_belle_ferronnière , and in stead of having to stand on your toes and stretch to catch a glimpse of her on the other side of the room inbetween all the heads and held up phones and camera’s, you can actually take the time to get to know her up close.

    Thank you for pointing out this article!

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