Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Art and Science of Looking

Research on museum visitorship, studies and statistical data about collections, and quantitative as well as qualitative research in museums fascinate me. Take, for instance, a recent article published in the Daily Mail that disclosed the results of a study conducted at Tate Britain, where museum-goers were observed while viewing works of art. The numerical data is surprising (for example, the longest observation was, in fact, contemplation of Sir John Everett Millais' Ophelia, where a viewer contemplated the painting for 30 minutes in contrast to a mere five seconds or, rather, a sheer avoidance or un-acknowledgement of works by Damien Hirst, b. 1965--).

Yes, you can argue that looking at a work of art means that it captures your attention. But the act of looking does not confirm that you like the work. What determines the turn to look and further, how long we spend looking at a work of art? Certainly, a factor to consider is the viewer's like or dislike, but what else? To invoke, yet again, our friend from AHRECO, W.J.T. Mitchell, and, thus ask "does the object stare back?"

An interesting riff on the notion of looking and staring occurred in an exhibition mounted at the National Gallery (London) in 1999 for the Millennium. I saw this exhibition and was quite unaware, at the time, of its machinations. "Telling Time" explored, at bottom, the process of looking through the employ of the largest-ever eye-tracking experiment that permitted the public to observe eye-movements when looking at art. The experiment provides an unprecedented amount of data on how we look at paintings. A full report on the eye-movement traces, as recorded and reported by the University of Derby (a project collaborator) is here.

The notion of looking, however, is problematized when we consider the ways in which paintings (sculptures, and so on) differ from other art forms. Clearly, as the Daily Mail article states, art requires a different, variable amount of investment: you can choose to look at a painting, or not. This is in marked contrast to a symphony, for example, where you have committed to listen for 40 minutes or so. Consider the ways in which visual artists, art historians, and now critics have differed in their thoughts on looking. Leonardo argued that superior paintings could be viewed all at once, inclusively, whereas poetry insisted upon consecutive verses and a gradual unfolding of knowledge. Yet, the Derby research from the millennium exhibition indicates that we do not see pictures instantaneously but we come to have a general impression through focusing on thumbnail sketch-size that, when compiled, forms a general picture.

The next time you take a look at a work of art, in a gallery or museum setting, consider why you are looking. What makes you look at the work? Are you encompassing all of it in your gaze? Are you looking because you like or because you don't?

image credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt, Little girl, in tutu, looking at her dance step in mirror with teacher beside her, as printed in LIFE, 1920.


art gal said...

This subject fascinates me, too. I have long been curious about scientific studies that track not only eye movements when looking at art, but also brain activity and feelings/emotions evoked (a Kantian response, per se). I wonder if patterns emerge that could differentiate "great" art from works that are "not". Has anyone heard of any such studies?

This post also intrigues me because museum curators, designers, educators, and visitor services professionals are very interested in understanding visitor behavior patterns. For example, which works garner the most or least attention, how long do people look at certain, works, how long do people spend in and in what ways do they move through an exhibition, are all questions whose answers influence future museum experiences.

Thanks for another thoughtful and thought provoking post!

GC::VA said...

Great post. Man that study is intense. I would be curious in a data collection of age vs time period of work. I think the results would be surprising and interesting.