How do we experience works of art? Do we stand nearby talking, busily wolfing down the opening’s low-grade wine and cheese? Do we page through a book of reproductions then shelve the thing, having spent less time with it than a rerun of “Seinfeld”? What exactly are we trying to get out of this art thing, anyway?
UNM art history professor and meditation practitioner Justine Andrews suggests that there is a slower, more mindful way to experience a work of art. She has developed a program of guided meditation (currently via Zoom) open to the public to do just that. Weekly Alibi sat down with Andrews to talk about mindful looking, presence and a little bit about the Black Death. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Weekly Alibi: What is mindful looking?
Justine Andrews: I came to developing this program from my mindfulness meditation practice, which I've been doing for close to 10 years. I also became interested in something called the Slow Art Movement, which is an international movement that tries to provide a counterbalance to the soundbite world; the three-minute attention span that we all have. There's a specific day of the year that they choose; and people are supposed to go into a museum, spend 10 to 20 minutes just looking at a work of art and then gather and talk about it.
Like the Slow Food movement?
I think you can see it that way. Trying to slow things down. As an art historian, and maybe even as an art historian of the Middle Ages, to me, meditative practice with art is a historical practice as well, although it's very different. It actually took me a little while to translate myself as an art historian academic to doing a kind of meditative practice with art, because it takes out the history. But I think it's a really important way to experience the work of art and to do that kind of slowing down. Taking the time to look carefully. [In] the program itself, I guide groups through looking at a work of art. Now we're doing it online because of the necessary parameters of this time. Ideally, you do it with the work of art itself in a museum setting or maybe in a public setting.
Would you consider doing something like this outside?
I think you could do that. I think you probably could if it's a quiet enough space. You don't need complete silence, but it is easier to bring your awareness to one thing if you can focus.
Is this series the first one of these that you've done?
Yes. I mean, I actually started doing it in the classroom with a volunteer group of graduate students last fall.
Do you believe that there is an innate value in being in front of the actual artwork versus a reproduction?
Why is that?
There are the concrete things, and then there are the less concrete things. So, concrete things: Let's say it's a painting. There are a lot more tactile aspects to painting or even printmaking, for that matter, if you can look at it and see the hand of the artist through brush strokes. Many times, there's a buildup of paint. There's actual dimension to it that you just can't get in a pixelated form. Pixels are necessarily an abstraction. It's just a very different kind of media. So, there's that kind of physicality looking at two-dimensional art. Obviously, sculpture, you want to be able to move around, to walk around, see all the different dimensions. Architecture you move through, so you really need that movement as well. Then there's–I'm trying to think of a good word to use to describe that feeling.
Yeah, maybe the presence of the work of art. Another thing too is the scale. There are so many times in classrooms that I show my students something that's six inches, but it comes across on the screen as six feet tall. You get so much more information.
You’ve described what is essentially an ahistorical approach to viewing artwork. Is that the essence of the meditative practice of mindful looking?
In a way. Mindfulness in particular is about becoming present. It's about the here and now. It's not about keeping one's mind in the past and not projecting one's mind to the future. Sitting right here and right now with an image, an object or a work of art. It is a wholly different experience than the historical experience. At the same time, it's worthwhile exploring it because it allows people to feel an access to art that they don't always feel. So many people, and I'm really deeply interested and concerned about this, people feel that museums or art are just not for them for a variety of reasons. I feel like the mindfulness practice can remind us that art really is accessible to all people, and everyone's experience with it is valid. You may actually find some insights that can then lead you to another kind of exploration, historical or otherwise. There's that part of it, but then there's also the part of it that, as a historian, I can tell myself that we're tapping into a historical practice, since art for most of the pre-modern era largely was about meditation. People spent long periods of time looking at an image or painting on the wall, or on an altarpiece in a church, or a stained-glass window. These were things people spent time with. There was a practice of meditating with art.
The Stations of the Cross comes to mind. That is a practice that is defined by the artwork. Is your approach to mindful looking similar?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense of spending time. It's certainly not based on any religion. You're not really trying to get something out of the image, and you're not trying to bring something to it. I would say in a religious context like the Stations of the Cross there's this exchange happening.
You are meant to arrive somewhere? You're supposed to be changed?
Yeah. Maybe you're supposed to be changed or supposed to get something or give something. To have that exchange with the image in that way, whereas mindfulness is really about just feeling, listening to your mind. It always sounds so easy to say you just really sit there and try to be with the image and not think about your laundry list of things to do, but that little list keeps coming in. So, it's a practice. Keeping your attention and keeping your awareness on one thing.
You’ve studied artwork that was created during the plagues of the Middle Ages. Did we get anything good out plagues art-wise?
It's a good question. I don't know exactly. I will say that there is some magnificent art that comes out during the period of plague in the Middle Ages, but I'm still hesitant to say yes. I think it's very complicated.
It just adds to the stressors?
It does. For the contemporary world especially, I would say it changes the resources that are around. That can be good or bad for the arts, because in the Middle Ages it might have changed the resources, but it might have increased the patrons’ interest and willingness to make or pay for art. In our contemporary culture, it might change resources, but those resources might come away from the arts because people are focusing more on medicine and things like that. It’s difficult to say.