Can Art Teach Patience?

Have you ever noticed how long people look at a painting in a museum or gallery? Surveys have clocked view times anywhere between 10 and 17 seconds. The Louvre estimated that visitors studied the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world, for an astoundingly low average of 15 seconds. Our increasingly online, instantaneous existence accounts for those numbers, obviously. Can we ever again find the patience to look at art as it was meant to be seen? A recent article by Harvard University art history professor Dr. Jennifer Roberts argues not only that art requires patience, but also that it can teach “the power of patience.” Where patience once stood for the helplessness of standing in line at the DMV, patience, in Roberts’ argument, can now stand for empowerment, a “time management” choice that can drive us to look not just at paintings, but at our whole lives.


Roberts’ adapted her article from a lecture given at The Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) conference last May (available for viewing on YouTube, if you have the patience). The conference presenters were asked to tackle the following question: “In this time of disruption and innovation for universities, what are the essentials of good teaching and learning?” Any educator infuriated by Facebook’s blue glow on the faces of their multitasking students wants to know the answer to that question. (Full disclosure: my day job is teaching college English.) But anyone stressed and somehow unfulfilled by the go-go pace of modern gadgetry wants to know that answer, too. For this age of visual learners, visuals—especially high-content visuals such as art—may be the answer to our modern technological malaise.

Roberts begins by describing her teaching goal of “tak[ing] a more active role in shaping the temporal experiences” of her art history students, in which she, “in a conscientious and explicit way, [engineers] the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.” Using “deceleration, patience, and immersive attention,” Roberts wants “to give them the permission and the structures to slow down,” an experience she feels is “no longer available ‘in nature,’ as it were.” That permission takes the concrete form of making each student spend a full 3 hours in a museum or archive looking at the work they plan to write their paper on. Stripped of all technology and ripped from their natural environment, these students would then theoretically experience the work in a way that cursory, online viewing cannot offer. Despite initial complaints and disbelief that any work could merit 3 hours of viewing, Roberts’ “astonished” students eventually realized the value of prolonged viewing.

“What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it,” Roberts contends. “[A]ccess is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.” Roberts modeled the experiment for her student through her own prolonged viewing of John Singleton Copley’s A Boy with a Flying Squirrel.  Roberts then provides a short art history lesson (longer, with visuals, in the video) in which she recounts when she made certain discoveries at 9 minutes, 21 minutes, etc. As fascinating as Roberts’ deconstruction of Copley’s painting is, even more fascinating is her use of the painting’s backstory, which involved months’ long correspondence across the Atlantic as Copley invited criticism from British artists. Because the snail mail’s snail-like pace forced Copley to slow down, Roberts believes, that pacing and slowness worms itself into the art itself, waiting to be rediscovered by the patient viewer.

But what do all these images and ideas mean for learning in regards to patience? Is it just for art historians and art geeks? Roberts quotes fellow art historian David Joselit’s idea that “paintings [are] deep reservoirs of temporal experience—‘time batteries.’” Tapping into the energy of these “time batteries” through Roberts’ “strategic patience,” any student can learn to use patience to unlock the potential learning of “a star, a sonnet, a chromosome.” It’s a bold, cross-disciplinary argument, made with the often beleaguered humanities holding the key, something the “hard” sciences may not be willing to accept.

I’ve been as guilty as anyone else of flashing past a work in a museum or gallery with an eye on the clock. But after reading art historian T.J. Clark's The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (which I reviewed here) in 2006, I gained a new appreciation for the value of prolonged viewing. In The Sight of Death, Clark “experimented” with how prolonged exposure to Nicholas Poussin’s  Landscape With a Calm and Landscape With a Man Killed by a Snake helped him mull the events of September 11th. Clark’s experiment failed in terms of creating a satisfying book, but I think that the experiment itself, as Roberts might agree, was worth it. Personally, whenever I visit my local museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I make a point of spending quality time with my favorites: Cezanne’s Large Bathers, Turner’s The Burning of House of Lords and Commons, or Van Gogh’s Rain. I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than 20 minutes just looking in a single stretch, but the cumulative time must add up to hours. I only wish that I “had world enough, and time” to employ Roberts’ ideas better.

My time crunch quandary speaks to Roberts’ biggest point. “Where patience once indicated a lack of control,” Roberts concludes, “now it is a form of control over the tempo of contemporary life that otherwise controls us. Patience no longer connotes disempowerment—perhaps now patience is power.” If we could all look more closely and completely at our world, just as Vermeer’s The Astronomer (detail shown above) studies his celestial globe, we could appreciate and understand more of the cosmos rushing past us at breakneck speed. It only takes a little pressure to turn off an iPhone, but the pressure to answer to technology’s siren call of speed crushes us as we try to tune out and tune into life itself. Certainly reading Proust’s serpentine sentences or listening to a Mahler symphony slowly unfold can teach the value of patience, but perhaps our screen-obsessed society is only equipped right now to turn to the static painting as salvation from life moving out from under us before we know it.

[Image: Johannes Vermeer. The Astronomer (detail), 1668. Image source.]

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