Seeing vs Looking...

A couple of recent experiences got me thinking about how we all digest the various sights we encounter on a daily basis...

Imagine you're rushing to work on a busy street on a Monday morning, the weather is cold and damp, you're 10 minutes late, everyone seems to be slowing you up and getting in the way, you get the idea! Let's say a billboard over the street has a wonderful reproduction of a famous painting on it advertising an Exhibition in your area. We can all safely assume the brief glance we may shoot up at the billboard can only give a very transitory and unsatisfactory visual stimulation to the viewer, this is for want of a better explanation 'seeing'.

Van Gogh - Sunflowers, 1888

Contrast that with spending 15 minutes stood in front of the same painting in a quiet gallery, and being able to really study the texture, the brush strokes (as above), how the subtle colour changes affect the mood and drama of the painting, let's safely call this 'looking'. So what? Well, the worry is that every day the pressure is being cranked up for most people, more work, less time, and we consume media at an ever increasing rate. The average Londoner sees 3,500 visual messages throughout a day around the capital...and according to research 99% of these fail to even register with the viewer after the initial glimpse. With that over saturation in mind why is it of no surprise that the quantity is consuming the quality and all we mainly do is see, not look?

Our senses are being trained to move with fleet of foot from one stimulation to another, be it the reduction of music to a background noise or the swipe of a thumb up a smartphone timeline we are making visual and audio judgments in the blink of an eye. I recently took a trip to the National Gallery in London, I had been researching and looking forward to seeing some paintings by the Italian greats Canaletto and Guardi. Both were masters of the Venetian scenery and I was looking forward to slowing down and imbibing these great works.

On arrival at the National Gallery it reminded me of a weird mix of a Bus depot and a foreign exchange tour...Of course what should I have expected being slap bang in the middle of London really, but part of me was hopeful I'd find a couple of quiet minutes to really 'look' and not just 'see'. After waiting patiently for the particular room to open (there was some union strike action so half of the gallery was shut - very continental!) I found my way towards the 18th Century gallery and here started the game of shuffling and barging that was required to get even a fleeting full on view. It reminded me of being in a busy bar trying to get served yet the waiter never quite caught me eye, in this example the poor old Canaletto would have been looking left, right and centre amid a sea of expectant faces wanting their 'drink' of classic Venetian art.

Canaletto - The Stonemasons Yard, c.1725

Mildly disheartened I was swept away with the crowds and almost accidentally came across the great 'Sunflowers' by Van Gogh. Here I managed to stand firm for 30 seconds against the army of selfie stick waving passers-by who seemed intent on regurgitating their transitory experience across the whole room. I did manage to get to see & study some of the wonderful texture of this painting but oh what I would have given for the room to be emptied! Perhaps this is, or will be, made an option, of course for a price! £100 for 30 mins private view sounds about the going rate in London :)

I left a little downhearted, feeling somehow robbed of my experience. Of course it's good really that everyone can have access to this art by making it publicly available for free but really if we continue to treat it in such a consumable way it's stature and quality will logically be diminished. We'll know it's famous and supposedly good but perhaps we'll lack the understanding of why...

Guardi - The Doges Palace and the Molo, c.1770