Sixteen Years for Fifteen Seconds: How long should you view a work of art?

Look at the painting…

In 2010 James Elkins, Art Critic and Historian of the School of the Art Institute, Chicago, wrote a piece entitled How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting? for The Huffington Post. In this piece the author describes an encounter with an elderly lady who he estimates, over decades of visits to the Art Institute of Chicago, spent at least 3,000 hours looking at Rembrandt’s painting Young Woman at an Open Half-Door (below).

Rembrandt – Young Woman at an Open Half-Door (1645)

Last year the online version of the tabloid The Daily Mail published a biting piece about the brief moments that viewers spend viewing contemporary art, leading with the jaundiced headline We all know what we like, and it’s not modern art!

The basic premise of the Daily Mail’s piece was to prove via observation that viewers spend an average of as little as 5 seconds looking at works by important contemporary artists such as Rachel Whiteread or Tracy Emin in the TATE Modern. Their conclusion was that viewers do not like looking at modern art.

Far be it from me to accuse The Daily Mail of canny journalism, but unfortunately there was an important point raised by the rag in this study. The point is not that viewers do not like looking at contemporary art, but that they do not spend much time looking at art.

The issue can be expanded into all visual art. The Guardian (phew!) quote a viewing time of the Mona Lisa of just around 15 seconds; just enough time to take a snapshot of La Gioconada. This meant that a work of art that took Leonardo Da Vinci sixteen years to complete merits less than a second of viewing per year of making. This brisk viewing time of art was further emphasised in an observational study, Spending Time On Art by Jason K. Smith and Lisa F. Smith (University of Otago, New Zealand), where the authors observed a 17 second median viewing time of art in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

Snapping the Mona Lisa – Image from The Guardian Online

I personally can confess to barreling through the crowds at The Louvre as an eager teenager looking to snap the Mona Lisa and virtually bypassing one of the world’s greatest collections of art on my way there. What I saw at the end was anticlimactic in my young eyes, having spent so many years looking at so many reproductions of this historically significant but seemingly unremarkable work of art. What I missed while glazing the corridors of one of the world’s great art institutions was monumental.

Why I rushed to see the Mona Lisa, and why the painting was so disappointing, I equate primarily to both education and understanding of art. I was raised to see the Mona Lisa as a driving force of all modern art, but I had little understanding of what the significance of the painting actually was – I was more starstruck with the idea of the Mona Lisa than with the actual work of art.

This expectation could be the same expectation that led to Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture at the TATE Modern being glossed over in The Daily Mail’s observation. Whiteread has enjoyed critical acclaim (and some lambasting) since her controversial sculpture House shot her to fame in 1993. This public installation led Whiteread to become the first ever female winner of the Turner Prize, and her method for making art has remained relatively constant since.

Rachel Whiteread – House (1993) – Image courtesy of

The artist casts objects (including in her repertoire a Victorian house as mentioned above, library bookshelves and a controversial holocaust monument), then creates “negative sculptures” of these objects to show a sealed-off and finalised view of something which once had human engagement. The resulting works of art give a fascinating view of objects in a way that they are not normally seen, like turning real-life inside out and presenting a caulked perspective that can be eerie and unwelcoming. The weight of concept behind Whiteread’s methods is enormous, but the actual finished product can look somewhat empty to the uninformed viewer without closer inspection.

Whether Whiteread’s work will inspire a frenzy of happy snappers in a prodigious art institution in 500 years time is something we will never know. We do know, however that 5 or 15 seconds is a remarkably small amount of time to view a work of art of any description. I personally have spent sixteen seconds watching a baby panda sneeze on YouTube. But I cannot claim to have spent more than fifteen seconds looking at the Mona Lisa.

In 1970 author Alvin Toffler wrote a sociological study, Future Shock. In this book, Toffler analyses the effects of a “speeding up” of society to the point where transience will become second nature. Since its publication, much of Toffler’s percipient visions have become social mainstays. Contemporary western society can be said to exist in a period where transience rules supreme; ephemeral is the name of the game, and from a young age we are now spoon-fed instant access to a world of information through modern media and technology that leave little time for appreciation and analysis.

Although this has led to some wonderful developments, the problem with this is that art takes time and understanding to read properly. In the Huffington Post article referenced at the start of this piece James Elkins observed that if he had a full-time job of looking at art then he would have spent over two working weeks to learn to see one Mondrian painting. Art takes time and education to understand fully, and time is the key factor. We are all able to see the artistic product in front of us, but it is only through taking time looking that we can truly see the art.

Through education we can learn the rest.

The picture that you saw at the beginning of this post shows a scene of art fans viewing Manet’s famous and extremely influential le déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass). Manet’s painting is often cited as the first modern painting, completed in 1863 and currently exhibited at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

If you have not already spotted it, the image that you see above is a watercolour painting of the Manet painting being exhibited. It is called Untitled (Manet), by Canadian artist Tim Gardner [image courtesy of 303 gallery]. Garder’s method is to take photographs and make photo-realist paintings of scenes. His concept, as cited in modern painting bible Vitamin P, is partly a criticism of modern painting, designed to show that photography has made painting somewhat obsolete. His use of the supposed “first” modern painting in a gallery as the subject of this painting underlines the theme of modern painting as central in his work.

Le d’éjeuner sur l’herbe took two years to complete. The viewers in Gardner’s painting will be looking at it as long as Untitled (Manet) exists.

The moral of this story: The more you look, the more you see.

4 thoughts on “Sixteen Years for Fifteen Seconds: How long should you view a work of art?”

  1. You raise interesting points. I’ll have to read Elkin’s article later. I actually felt your point on transience very vividly last week when I was in Amsterdam in the Van Gogh Museum. His Wheatfield with Crows was a revelation and, embarrassed by my own fascination, I took walks around the adjoining rooms a number of times before returning to the painting again and again so I wouldn’t seem too weird. It probably didn’t work, though.

    1. Ha, I’ve experienced the same thing before, obsessing over Martin Kippenberger’s Heavy Guy installation at the Hamburger Bahnhoff, Berlin. It’s a strange phenomenon being taken over by a work of art like that. And yes, both James Elkins pieces cited in this article are great reads. Thanks for popping in!

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