March 1, 2005
BLINK, - I LIKE IT!
(but I don't know why)
Pygoya, BC, 1985
I like watching people at art exhibition openings. I have had over a hundred receptions over decades as artist and also managed a retail gallery in Honolulu. These are some of my observations of folks in the social setting of the formal art opening.
The average time spent alone in front of a work of art is a couple seconds. If the spectator is moving from piece to piece with another person or group, dialogue about the work occurs, extending the time of the group stops in front a piece usually up to 30 seconds. After going through all the works, some will come back for a second and longer look at preferred works.
If there is food and drink provided the amount of time spent reviewing the works is reduced. It seems many spend more time around the refreshment table and punch bowl than actually pondering the artwork. Apparently for many invited to attend, the stomach is stronger than the heart. Of course this may not be such a bad thing as any gallery director knows. Serving alcohol loosens the purse strings and opens the wallet. With booze the works start to look stronger and more vibrant. There is the increased chance that now some works seem "to speak" to the viewer, budgetary resistance can succumb to impulsive sales. Have a pretty salesperson "work the gallery floor" and ask guests about the work also assists sales volume.
Most naive viewers don't bother to look for more than a few seconds. Yet, they make a judgment of the depth of the work of art; deciding intuitively how much of their time is worth gazing at the painted surfaces on the wall. Ask what they think and many will declare "I like it, but I don't know why." If they decide that they don't like it, usually they'll give a reason to defend their rejection of the art, such as, "I prefer something with more color."
Malcolm Gladwell in his new book, "Blink," describes how we humans have two decision-making systems innately at work. One is a conscious effort to analyze to the hilt, factors that relate to a problem, in order to make a deliberate and rational selection among the multitude of possible solutions. This cautiousness may serve us well when there is adequate time to relegate to the situation. However sometimes, especially in "flight or fight" emergencies of our daily lives, we have to react on instinct - and after the fact judge if it is the correct action. This according to Gladwell is a programmed unconscious ability that has evolved to protect our survival as a species. We have sprung into action, without "thinking," for thousands of years.
I believe we naturally use a part of this unconscious system when we encounter artwork. I did some research on the art appreciation response a while ago (1980). I hypothesized that in just a few seconds our brain considers all these "aesthetic" factors and the sum result is our like or dislike response of the work as visual stimulus. I wrote of an evolution of mentality that today has many unconscious residual levels that influence our behavior without our conscious awareness. My reading of "Blink" (2005) now makes me consider a possible relationship between our cursory art judgment time and other human action that requires decision making in 2 seconds. As I said earlier, the average time we look at art in galleries is a few seconds. Could it be that in a "blink" we judge whether an art object is critical to our personal welfare? Or is our natural capacity to appreciate art, without perceptual training through art education, obstructed by our natural defenses of scanning the environment and reducing attention towards anything benign and non-threatening?
I like to think that personal involvement with the right work of art leads to extended interest to the point of creating the desire to live with the piece (acquire it). For such a commitment to occur, perhaps there has to be a match similar to key and keyhole, of viewer and art object, that extends "seeing" beyond a blink, thereby opening up the portal to deeper meanings, emotions, and understanding of the self. If art can do that for us, it may indeed have survival value to us as a species through nourishment of spiritual health so lacking in today's world gone mad.