Can Art Teach Patience?

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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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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