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Friday, December 31, 2004

Seeing, Not Having Seen

Last October The Guardian ran an interesting piece by Amelia Gentleman about what it’s like to visit the Mona Lisa. Coming across the article earlier this week reminded me of the time that I spent recently with Leonardo da Vinci’s famously coy lady.

The Louvre has encased her behind a pane of bulletproof glass. Additionally, people (and their digital cameras) are kept four feet back from her cage by a metal barrier. This installation all but insures that no one gets a good look at the piece or spends time closely analyzing da Vinci’s work.

The situation, though, doesn’t seem to matter much to the crowds that assemble in front of the painting. As culture has replaced religion and the museum has replaced the cathedral as reason and destination for the contemporary pilgrimage, the Mona Lisa has become our era’s version of the religious relic. Its cultural value doesn’t derive from its formal properties, its conceptual support, its provenance, or even its authenticity. Its value to those who travel to see it lies elsewhere, somewhere outside the object itself.

The point of seeing the piece, for almost all visitors, is to say that they have seen it. Tourists don’t really go to the Louvre to look at the Mona Lisa. They go so that when they return home they can tell friends that they saw the painting.

Those of us who spend time looking at and writing about art tend to be condescending toward the masses that gather in front of da Vinci’s painting—looking, as they do, to the work to provide validation for their trip to Paris.

Unfortunately, though, many of us do the same. Reading through top ten list after top ten list this month in both the print media and around the blogosphere has made me realize that too many art writers neglect seeing exhibitions in their haste to prepare for saying that they have seen them.

In our rush to publish missives from art fairs, biennials, the right museum retrospectives, and esoteric exhibitions in out-of-the way gallery spaces, we spend too much time trying to one-up each other. “Have you seen so-and-so’s new show at such-and-such? You haven’t?!? Oh, let me tell you all about it.”

When someone offers to tell you all about that latest show, listen to what he has to say—really listen. And ask questions. It won’t take long to determine if he’s describing work that he’s really seen, felt, and understood, or if he’s describing a stop made in an attempt to kill some time between a mimosa brunch and afternoon happy hour.

People who write for print have their own set of issues to deal with. One of the dangers of writing for the blogosphere, though, is that there is no news cycle. The next publishing deadline is always and forever right now. The self-imposed pressure of wanting to be the first to say it and to keep doling out new content so that site stats remain high tends to lead to writing that is less thoughtful, less polished, less rich than it could be if more deliberation and judgment were used.

That’s not always a bad thing, of course. Once in a while this immediacy leads to better and more timely writing than appears in the print media. But sometimes slower, more deliberate, more thoughtful, and more passionate work is better.

If posting becomes somewhat less frequent in the near future on From the Floor it’s because I’m trying to put into practice a new principle for the new year—more seeing, less having seen.

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