An Art Challenge for Atlanta

Take the challenge a Harvard professor gives
her students to teach them the value of patience

by Andrew Alexander

June 20, 2019

Featured image: Edgar Degas, La Répétition au foyer de la danse, (Courtesy High Museum)

A tough but beloved professor of art history gives all of her new students a difficult first assignment. They must submit, for her notoriously demanding scrutiny, an intensive research paper about a single work of art.

That’s pretty intimidating as it is, but before the students pick up one book, before they visit the library, before they even write a single word, they must look at the work itself for at least three hours.

No tweeting. No Facebooking. No cell phones. No laptops. No speaking. Just a pen and a pad of paper to record passing thoughts and observations.

Three hours straight. One work of art.

Could you do it? The time span, the professor says, is designed to seem excessive. Also crucial to the exercise is the museum or archive setting, which entirely removes the student from everyday surroundings and distractions.

It’s an exercise in what the professor, Jennifer Roberts of Harvard University, calls “immersive attention.”  She argues that these practices now need to be actively engineered in her students because they are no longer readily available in the society at large. Her students at Harvard are presumably well-prepared in every other regard, but the skill of slowing down, of what Roberts calls “temporal intelligence,” the very capacity that allows people to engage with art, is in danger of being lost.

Claude Monet’s painting Val-Saint-Nicolas, near Dieppe (Morning) is part of the exhibition European Masterworks: The Phillips Collection at the High Museum. (Courtesy High Museum)

The assignment–let’s be honest–sounds like a righteous, remedial pain in the ass. But at the same time, it’s impossible to argue that Roberts is wrong.

We’re all familiar with the notion that patience and dedication lead to skill, but the notion that patience itself is the skill, is the objective, is a much tougher idea to wrap our heads around, especially when we’re all obsessed with immediacy and results. But as with any other skill, patience will atrophy if it’s unpracticed. Roberts points out that in her own research, she often discovers important details, ideas and relationships in a painting only after 45 minutes or more of careful attention. Certainly, the skill of patience can be applied to other fields and endeavours, but there’s no better realm than art to practice it.

Roberts says that at first many of her students resist being subjected to this exercise. But after doing the assignment, they almost invariably tell her that they are astonished by what the process unlocks. In one sense, she requires them to slow down, but in another, she simply gives them permission and a structure.

I’m hardly an Ivy League professor, but if I could, I’d like to give Alexander Report readers an assignment of my own. Atlanta is a city that does so many things well, but I think you’ll agree, the muscle of our patience, both collective and individual, could use some flexing.

Three hours actually does seem excessive to me, and I want my art assignment to be challenging but approachable.

Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 painting The Road Menders is part of the exhibition European Masterworks: The Phillips Collection at the High Museum. (Courtesy High Museum)

Let’s try this for 20 minutes. (Extra credit if you want to try for longer, but I otherwise think that’s a good start. And no points will be deducted if you find you can’t do it for the full 20 minutes. It’s not a contest. It’s something to try).

Choose a work of art. The paintings in the current Atlanta exhibition European Masterworks: The Phillips Collection at the High Museum strike me as the sort that invite and reward sustained attention. They also qualify as being in a museum, outside of our everyday environments. But the work and the setting can be entirely of your choosing.

The most important ground rules are: no screens, no cell phones, no reproductions, no speaking, no distractions. Just quiet observation of one original work of art for 20 minutes.

Why do it? What will happen? As with meditation, I suspect this won’t feel fun or entertaining or even immediately enlightening or gratifying. As with meditation, the benefits may at first seem hard to quantify or articulate or even detect. But Roberts argues — correctly, I think — that deceleration is itself a productive process.

You don’t need to amass a mountain of student debt in order to absorb the crucial lesson the good professor is trying to pass on. Looking is instantaneous, but seeing takes time.

And patience is more than just a virtue. Patience is power. So let’s practice it.

Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based arts journalist and founder of The Alexander Report. This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in The Saporta Report.


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