Tag Archives: patience

Orangerie, up close, 2006

You wander through one of a city’s great art museums and watch the people. They spend an average of maybe 15 seconds in front of any painting that catches their attention before moving on.

Or more likely, they spend another 15 seconds reading the label on the wall. And if the label contains a legend explaining who the artist was or what the painting is about, they may very well spend more time with the label than with the art on the wall. It’s disheartening to watch.

One of the problems is that we are a verbal, not a visual culture. I know the common wisdom is currently that we are a visual people, but it simply isn’t true: Even those things we think of as symptomatic of being visual are things we “read” for information rather than see: like the stick figure man or woman that lets us know which restroom is appropriate.

But even more than that, it is that we are a problem-solving people. America’s national mythology describes us as doers and go-getters. We simply don’t believe in wasting our time. We’re too busy. Our heads are too crowded.

There are all those yapping voices, all those different aspects of our personalities, all clamoring for attention.

”Mmm, doughnuts!”

”Don’t forget the dentist appointment.”

”Do these socks go with this tie?”

”Is the ozone hole getting bigger?”

”Mmm, doughnuts!”

So, it’s hard to appreciate art these days.

And it’s no wonder that a management class steps forward to create some order.Orangerie, the critics, 2006

Each of us has it: The executive in our heads that tries to get through life quickly and efficiently, cutting through the baloney and making the decisions for everyone else in there.

It’s a necessity in an information top-heavy age with bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeways.

Unfortunately, this tendency to empty the ”in box” and get on to the next problem runs completely counter to what art is about. To see art, or read poetry, or listen to chamber music, we have to kidnap, blindfold and gag the executive in our brains and give ourselves over to a different kind of experience.

And ”experience” is the operative word, for the primary function of art is to provide an aesthetic experience.

That executive in our cranium is used to dealing with information, not experience. There is life on one hand, and there are words and symbols about life on the other. Most of what life requires of us in the late 20th century deals with words and symbols: filling out forms, scanning in our Visa numbers, looking down the stock listings in the Business section of the newspaper. We are drowned in words.

But at least we are used to them. Experience is scary: sensuous, messy, confused.

So how do you deal with art? How do you prepare yourself to appreciate it, enjoy it, and grow from the experience of being exposed to it?

First of all, you have to slow down. Your interior life moves slowly, implacably. It is only your cerebral cortex that buzzes with frenetic energy. The deeper, more meaningful emotions, the underlying rhythm of life is more measured: a pedal note under the jangling fugue subject above.

Art requires that you work on this slower time scale. It doesn’t give itself up, like the punch line on a New Yorker cartoon; it slowly releases its value to those who can wait.

You have to spend time with a painting or statue. The Manager wants to look at a painting and say, ”Yes, I know that: It’s a Renoir. File it under ’19th Century, Impressionism, French.’ ” And then move on to the next: ”17th Century, Dutch, Genre: Rembrandt.”

It is as if knowing the name of the painting is the same thing as knowing the painting.Orangerie gawkers, 2006

But if you look at a single painting for, say, an hour, you will learn things about it. You will be forced to discover all the richness that the artist took the time to put there.

What colors has the artist used? What shapes? Is it dark or is it light? What is the subject? Can you make sense of it? If not, is the ambiguity important? Is the paint thickly applied, or flat and textureless? How does that help the painting convey what it has to give you?

You swish it around in your mouth like a good wine, looking for the complexities of taste and aftertaste.

How does the painting make you feel? Is it an emotion you’ve felt before? If not, is it related to one you’ve felt? If it’s completely new, how do you feel about that?

The art slowly unfurls, like a rose opening from a bud. The attention you pay will pay you back.

In the next installment, we’ll take a look at just one painting and see how this approach might pay off.


Patience is a virtue, they say, although you could never tell it from watching a driver hit the speed dial on his cell phone while in the drive-through lane at McDonald’s.

If it is a virtue, it is one of those quaint, Victorian or medieval virtues, like chastity or temperance, that seem completely beside the point in our modern world.

Ours is a world of channel-surfing, of Federal Express, of 24-hour Wall Street, of the Concorde. drive thru holding bag

When e-mail isn’t fast enough, we invent instant messaging.

Admit it: Haven’t you left something behind at Safeway because you just didn’t want to wait in the line?

Children cannot wait to be teenagers. Teenagers cannot wait to be adults. They are all in over their heads and don’t know it.

Adults cannot wait for the traffic light to change and gun their engines. They run up escalators and microwave their instant coffee.

If they could make their clocks run faster, they would.

And what do they gain by racing through the day?

A few moments to squeeze in something else too hectic to notice as it passes by.

It is our national impatience on each Election Day that we want to know the results before the ballots are actually counted. How has that worked out?

Don’t blame the media: It is our demand for instant results that drives the networks.

But, on the other hand, we should blame media. drive thru sign

I don’t mean “the press,” for which “the media” is often used as a synonym but rather the actual mediums of communication: the television, the computer, the iPhone.

We live in two competing time realities. Media time rushes at the speed of the electrons that form it.

Our computers run at a speed clocked in gigahertz, and if tomorrow they run at terahertz, we’ll trade in our outdated desktop.

But underneath it, there is the time that there has always been: The solar time that is barely perceptible, plodding at the pace of starfish crossing undersea rocks.

In our media experience, everything flies by, helped by keyboard shortcuts.

It confuses us into thinking we live in a fast-paced world. But we don’t. We live in a slow-paced world that is chronicled by ever-faster media. A day still takes a full 24 hours to cycle.

Because so many of us work on computers and spend our leisure time watching video screens, it is easy to mistake the mediated world for the real one. We are social creatures, and the means we have created for communicating with each other can seem primary rather than derivative. cell phone pix

Our new gospel might read, “In the beginning was the flicker.”

The problem is that the faster we speed up our interaction with the world, as mediated by our technology, the less we are actually engaged with the world we live in. Instead, we are engaged with our iPhones, leaving our world to fend for itself.

This was brought home all the more forcefully the last time I went to the zoo.

We visited with a friend’s 8-year-old boy and watched as he paced from exhibit to exhibit, looked in for a maximum of 10 seconds and moved on to the next animal.

Trained by the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, he expected instant animal action: The big cat should roar, the antelope should pronk. That is what they do on television, where all the “boring parts” are edited out. lions sleeping

The zoo, because it was there, in real time before his eyes, was a terrible disappointment. He hadn’t the patience to stand for a half-hour in front of the exhibit to see what animals actually do, as they sleep, scratch their furry behinds and tear the rinds off tangerines with their teeth.

The result wasn’t just boredom. It was a failure to identify with the animals, to scratch his bottom like the monkeys or to feel his own teeth in those tangerines. A failure of empathy.

What he sees on television are just pictures: information he can manipulate.

There is nothing human about it. It is experience as flat as the video monitor. But there in front of him at the zoo, if he had the patience to see it, is a 3-D world, one infinitely complex and fascinating. It contains not only unexpected behaviors, it contains sounds and — most pungently — smells that the iPad experience cannot deliver.

At such times, we can recognize that impatience is a vice. It blocks our understanding and our growth as humans. It diminishes the world and worse, shrinks our engagement with it.

The reverse is also true: The reason that patience is a virtue — and one worth cultivating even in the 21st century — is that it provides a chance to escape our egos.

It gives us the opportunity to empathize, at real time and with real beings, so that we may act morally and ethically.

Patience allows you to seep into the world and become part of it instead of just moving it efficiently from the in-box to the out-box, stamped by your momentary attention.

Instead of making life boring, patience makes it exciting and keeps us involved in it.