13 Seconds and The Art Experience
Recently I decided to visit the de Young museum in San Francisco to see how much time people spend viewing famous artworks.
Why? I had a sense, a hypothesis, that the time spent was minimal, almost negligible. Somehow this leaves me unsettled and thinking we don’t have a real experience when we view art. A real experience, equal to the joy of a stirring song.
We process images quickly, almost instantaneously according to most studies, but just because we “process” it does not mean we’ve had an experience and absorbed meanings and ideas from the piece... So were my misgivings accurate?
The de Young was packed, perhaps due to a Keith Haring exhibit in the basement. More on that later, I wanted to view renowned pieces in the permanent collection first. Luckily the de Young makes that easy. They provide listings of the most important works for those who have only One or Three hours available. That made my challenge of finding the “most important works” much easier, since they list them directly on the viewing pamphlet. The de Young is the 5th most visited museum in the US, despite it’s smaller size than what I’ve come to expect from museums in New York, DC, or Chicago. And it’s beautifully set in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, leaving you enjoyable time outside before or after a visit.
So what were the two American paintings listed to view if you only have 1 hour? After the Hunt by William Hartnett from 1885 and Rainy Season in the Tropics by Frederic Edwin Church from 1866. First, I sat and had a double espresso in the cafeteria before meandering up to the second level. The de Young cafeteria is an only-in-california affair, with Kale Salads and gluten free options, it’s a culinary lunch destination in its own right, at least relatively.
Despite activity in the cafeteria the second story was calm. It was easy enough to find my way toward the stated paintings since the museum is small, and upon seeing the map spread across my face, a few guards offered assistance.
Rainy Season Is in room 26, Art in America until the 20th Century. The paintings have that classic, masterpiece feel and a heavy leaning toward landscapes. Many of the hues are muted though, leading to a general feeling of grandeur with age. It’s easy to spot Rainy Season, which is given a position of prominence, front and center, in the hall. You’ll see it below.
Before attempting to fully process and interpret the piece, I was eager to begin timing. I had been thinking about this exercise for weeks. Interestingly, despite ample space, there is not even a bench in Room 26, or 25 for the matter, which contains After the Hunt by Hartnett. Few benches exist in the de Young, existing more like oases than a regular part of the geography.
With journal, stopwatch, and pen in hand I hit start when the first person was pulled into the Rainy Season’s visual field and was clearly focused on that piece. The exact second count here was an unscientific process but it was good for trend lines. The man walked up to the piece, nodded his head slightly in acknowledgement of verticality, and moved on. Three seconds. Surely this wouldn’t be the average time, and indeed it would not - quite.
I had already written lines and columns in my notebook so only needed to stand awkwardly without viewers noticing that they were also part of the show. If only there had been a bench it might have appeared that I was studiously sketching a master copy. Standing, walking, faking interest in other pieces - especially the immediately neighboring pieces, walking into the other room and coming back - this was a long 30 minutes. I was on a head-nod basis with the guards, not because they seemed suspicious, but because I think we had a moment of empathy connecting about how slowly time passes when you’re watching the watchers.
As expected, people spend sadly little time viewing masterpieces, at least this masterpiece on this day (although I also viewed others). The average time was 13 seconds. I’m not sure how much to lament 13 seconds, given that we do process visuals quickly, and we’re constantly scanning hundreds of Facebook and Instagram photos, and Tweets as well. But it seems that we could learn more from a pause and from engaging with the piece. Simply ask yourself what it means, why it’s a masterpiece, what you love about it? Entire volumes have been written about how to view art, and we’ll cover that here later, but artwork, especially masterpieces, deserve more, and so do you.
But during the investigation something even more troubling occurred. While counting viewers there was a pause, a gap without anyone viewing the piece at all. And then it happened again, and again. During 30 minutes there were 8 entire minutes where I was the only person viewing Rainy Season. This was even more true of After the Hunt, which is why I couldn’t even use it for my investigation. And remember, the de Young is the 5th most visited museum in the United States, so it’s not for lack of bodies in the halls. But in many cases that’s all it was - bodies in the halls. I read in the Museum 2.0 Blog that most museum visitors cannot recall a specific piece of artwork after their visit.
Keith Haring was downstairs, and he was my ace in the hole. But first, a few words about Rainy Season: The painting is full of hope. Dual rainbows sit above jagged peaks, with the sun shining through passing clouds. You get the sense the clouds are clearly passing rather than arriving, and the horizon is becoming clear. Mist is dancing every direction and melds into and out of river spray in the center of the image. A finer student of art history could spend an afternoon explaining the piece. Apparently Church visited Jamaica in 1865 after two children unexpectedly passed away, and this painting what a cathartic return to positivity. You see and feel this, and maybe you only need 13 seconds?
I tried to replicate this experiment in a room with seating - the Impressionist Gallery. Then in front of Dali, a painter that has captivated so many people’s attention through their lives. I couldn’t find one piece that struck a powerful chord in the Impressionist Gallery, despite decent passing foot traffic. As for Dali, I’m doubtful that many people even know the de Young has his artwork.
Downstairs, Keith Haring was a raucous celebration in comparison. And indeed, even from an absolute perspective, the exhibit was hopping with energy. I was frustrated that after paying $29 the attendant told me there was no brochure, and that I had to buy the guided tour, but that’s another topic.
When you think of a rockstar exhibit, this is it. The show contained over 130 artworks, on mediums ranging from tarps, canvas and sculpture. The exhibit was covered extensively by local media, such as SFgate, here, so there’s no reason for me to recreate the analysis. Suffice it to say, his classic motifs of dogs, penises, and stick figures are burned into my memory, along with the vibrant community activism that made his mindset so attractive.
For our purposes, this is where the viewing got interesting: The average viewing time in the Keith Haring’s grand hall was 2 minutes and 11 seconds. This is the time a person took to begin walking across the 50+ ft. room until they turned to a separate wall. The position in question consisted of over 25 pieces from floor to soaring ceiling (at least 30ft high) and wall to wall. The room had a celebratory energy and people were chatting, smiling, giggling at penis drawings, and dropping Andy Warhol references with abandon. This was arguably the show’s focal point, including the show’s signature image, below. Although just a few seconds per piece on average, 2 minutes and 11 seconds is a deeper experience. The question is if that’s the time that the best rooms deserve.
I leave you with a quote and thought on viewing time: One of my favorite artists, Julie Mehretu, speaking on Tate Art Talk, describing why she chose the style and scale of a recent exhibition, “Because I was also frustrated with the desire of trying to decipher these paintings...it became such a hinderance to the ability to just be immersed in the painting and have a physical experience or a really time-based, slow experience. To think painting is very slow, it takes time, and we consume images so quickly, and our ability to really stay in front of a painting for 10 minutes is almost-- you rarely see someone look at a painting that way, and paintings operate over such a long time, so a lot of what I was interested in in these paintings in the use and amount of information that goes into them was to participate in this other kind of experience that could happen and I wanted to move away from the desire to try and read them or decipher them.”
Proving my hypotheses leaves me asking where to go from here. The premise was that people spend scarcely little time experiencing artwork live. But how much is “enough?” I’d invite comments on that question. Whatever the number, we’re searching for an authentic experience - something that allows us to to enjoy and contemplate the resonance of a piece. Whether it’s 13 seconds or 2 minutes and 11 seconds, I think another option exists to spend more time with high quality art. The Art Circuit is one small attempt to support that, albeit without “famous” artworks - for now. That is something we might be able to change though in the future, working with museums and galleries.