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