Beethoven and Picasso – and the Contemporary Art of Looking?

As the year winds down, Professor Katy Siegel reflects in Frieze on recent changes in the way art is being made and studied. Interestingly, she suggests it’s like the way music was made in the 17th and 18th centuries – and unlike the way it’s made today. And all of this, in my opinion, has something to do with Beethoven, Picasso and the new art of looking. Let me explain.

In Siegel’s article, she discusses how contemporary art is more becoming more specific and local, and how room is being made for more idiosyncratic and independent artists. I agree and think it’s a important shift.

She then draws a parallel to moments in music history – saying that what’s happening in the art world today reminds her of the 17th and 18th century when music was made locally and to be performed for specific, local audiences. She contrasts that scene to today’s where the same Beethoven symphonies are performed by orchestras all over the world. The implication is clear: classical music in the early 21st century is bland and homogeneous.

I agree and I’ll add this – while a good Beethoven symphony may bring in the audience in the short term, the lack of local, varied and contemporary classical music may be hurting the audience in the long term. It just simply becomes boring no matter how good Beethoven is (and he’s undeniably excellent).

Siegel’s article makes me think how art audiences, like their musical counterparts, are bombard by the same globe-crossing blockbuster exhibits of the same art and artists – Picasso, for example. So, Picasso, whose art I very much love, becomes our art world analog to Beethoven.

These same or similar art exhibits mean that audiences in many major metropolitan areas are looking in the same way at the same art – and while a good blockbuster exhibit may bring in people today, this bland approach may be hurting the development of the art audience in the long term. 

But, there’s a problem. While the same blockbuster Picasso exhibit over and over again may become bland – it not only brings in many people today (and museums need exhibits which bring in large audiences), but it’s easy to look at. People have learned how to look at Picasso. It’s one of the reasons his exhibits are so popular. And, they do not know how to look at much of contemporary art. In fact, contemporary art is hard to look at.

Enter Slow Art Day. We’ve discussed elsewhere how our art of looking actually helps people see contemporary art. It’s hard to believe unless you see it or experience it – but slow looking – i.e. 10 to 15 minutes per piece – makes it possible for anyone of any level of sophistication to see new art.

See, for example, this Slow Art Day 2012 report from Ashland, Oregon, where the participants looked at three works by contemporary, technology-inspired mixed media artist, Jenny Vogel. “Participants told [the host] they were challenged by her selections but the experience of slowly gazing at them made a difference. It really helped them to see multiple dimensions of Vogel’s work…” And this group included a participant who had never once been to a museum, much less looked at challenging contemporary art.

Slow Art Day helps people see contemporary art. That’s important but there’s more to the connection with contemporary art.

I’ve always thought that Slow Art Day – in its underlying form – shared some tenets with contemporary art. And I didn’t think it necessarily had to do either with helping people see new art or with making art slowly – though both are certainly important part. No, I’ve always thought the connection to be more fundamental – and Siegel’s article helps me to clarify how.

While contemporary artists are making art locally and for specific audiences and locations, we are making possible a contemporary art of looking – one that is also local and idiosyncratic.

There is nothing more local than an individual staring slowly at an artwork for 10 or 15 minutes. While we are a global movement, we are indelibly local. The hosts chose the venue and the art – we dictate none of that. And, whatever they are looking at, it’s happening right there in the moment in Salem, Cape Town, LA, London, Leeds and Hong Kong.

Slow Art Day and contemporary artists together give art audiences an art and an experience more varied, more local, and more contemporary. It’s the contemporary art…of looking.

– Phil Terry, Slow Art Day Founder with Naomi Kuo, Slow Art Day intern

6 Comments on “Beethoven and Picasso – and the Contemporary Art of Looking?

  1. Great article, Phil! While I disagree that art with nearly universal appeal will ever become boring or bland (to me, at least!), I love the connection you’re drawing between contemporary art and Slow Art Day. That’s one of the things I love most about this movement: that you can experience art (including contemporary art) in meaningful ways outside of the ritualized and socially sanctioned way we’re “supposed” to look at art. Slow Art Day is both at once global and local, widespread and intimate, and that’s where the true power of the movement lies.

  2. Alie – I also find it hard to imagine that I could ever see Picasso as bland. But, I do think there’s a risk of not engaging the general public in the long-term – that the appeal of the blockbuster exhibits could start to wane if not complemented by a more intimate, local, non-sanctioned, way of looking.

  3. I like how you point out how the same big exhibitions by the same big artists have become more or less routine – it’s a phenomenon that I’ve noticed recently but hadn’t yet been able to put my finger on. I agree that because contemporary art is intimidating to people who haven’t been confronted with it before, it often doesn’t get its just due in museum settings. Which, of course, creates a cyclical and long-running problem. I don’t think that museum-goers actually want to see the same Picasso exhibition over and over again but rather want to be challenged with new things, but museums are wary of taking risks with less-recognizable works of contemporary art, because these works are so alien to their viewers. In the long-run, this just isn’t good for the museums. 20 or 40 years from now the contemporary art of today will have become familiar “historical” art, so why not start introducing it to audiences early on and allow them to learn how to truly look at contemporary art?

  4. Maggie, isn’t it true as well that there are museums for contemporary art? Sometimes they just aren’t put together in one building. And smaller galleries show contemporary work too. However, the audiences of your more historical museum and those smaller galleries are probably different, and maybe that is where the inequality of representation lies. I like the way that you are thinking, though! Contemporary work should not have to wait for history to validate it before we value it.

  5. This is such a thoughtful post, I really enjoyed it. What really struck me was the comment that Picasso (and probably a lot of other artists in his vein of celebrity) is popular because we know how to look at it. It isn’t a scary or intimidating thing, its familiar and beneficial because we get out of it what we have slowly gotten out of it by being bombarded with images over our lives. I have always wondered why it is easier for someone to enjoy Gustav Klimt over Otto Dix (not the best example) and I believe its a combination of familiarity based in his prevalence in culture and a matter of taste.
    The issue you raise of short vs long term is very true, how do we get people coming back to discover, and not just to move in a cycle they have been shunted into a long time ago? One of the many great things about Slow Art Day is the idea that it helps tone our way of seeing in general (over different mediums, and artists). Perhaps by continuing these events, museums can help people not just briefly pause over something that sparks their attention, but also pay as much attention to that artist as they do Picasso.
    I also find that calling contemporary art local, based on individual artists very amusing, interesting? The localness brings a sense of community, but the individual focus makes the current art world very alienating. However, we do know there still is collaboration. With the internet and fast communication, I feel like in reality the whole world is one big collaboration with each other, whether cognizant or not of that fact. But then again, I think its too early to tell!

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