Monday, August 03, 2009

Slowing Down to Sketch : A Flashmob Challenge

Two stories out of Paris have me wondering whether an intersection of the two might not lead to something interesting, if not even important in this "been there, seen that" era we're living in. First was this tid-bit on

Multitasking mobile phones are also making an impact at Paris’s Pompidou Center, just beyond the museum’s walls. As Agence France-Presse reports, nearly 250 fans offered an homage to Michael Jackson by participating in a flashmob in his honor in front of the Pompidou’s entrance. Following the instructions sent by a text message, participants began dancing the choreography of “Beat It,” much to the surprise and the enthusiasm of crowds lingering in front of the museum. Rehearsals had taken place earlier in the day at a dance center in the Marais while the radio station Skyrock took care of the music. “With a handful of friends, we wanted to pay homage to Michael Jackson by taking up the idea of other flashmobs that took place on the same theme in London and Stockholm,” explained the Paris organizer Roxane Planas. “Everything was done very quickly, with small means.”
Next, Michael Kimmelman posted a dispatch from Paris in the NYTimes, titled "At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus":
Almost nobody, over the course of that hour or two, paused before any object for as long as a full minute. Only a 17th-century wood sculpture of a copulating couple, from San Cristobal in the Solomon Islands, placed near an exit, caused several tourists to point, smile and snap a photo, but without really breaking stride.
Mr. Kimmleman's piece is a thoughtful reflection on the reasons so many people seem to fly through museums these days. In musing on how we got to this place he traces the differences in viewing art at museums from the era of the "Grand Tours" in which "Travelers ...spent months and years learning languages, meeting politicians, philosophers and artists and bore sketchbooks in which to draw and paint" to today:
Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look. It became possible to imagine that because a reproduction of an image was safely squirreled away in a camera or cell phone, or because it was eternally available on the Web, dawdling before an original was a waste of time, especially with so much ground to cover.

We could dream about covering lots of ground thanks to expanding collections and faster means of transportation. At the same time, the canon of art that provided guideposts to tell people where to go and what to look at was gradually dismantled. A core of shared values yielded to an equality among visual materials. This was good and necessary, up to a point. Millions of images came to compete for our attention. Liberated by a proliferation, Western culture was also set adrift in an ocean of passing stimulation, with no anchors to secure it.

So tourists now wander through museums, seeking to fulfill their lifetime’s art history requirement in a day, wondering whether it may now be the quantity of material they pass by rather than the quality of concentration they bring to what few things they choose to focus upon that determines whether they have “done” the Louvre. It’s self-improvement on the fly.
Thinking about this reminded me of how, when I lived in London, I must have visited the National Gallery a few dozen times (more or less). My approach to visiting it, after my inaugural three-hour stroll around, had been to decide on one room or even simply one piece before heading over to Trafalgar Square, and then spending the entire visit enjoying that very targeted exposure to its vast collection. Of course, the main thing that made this approach feasible for a 20-something fresh out of college and barely scraping by was the fact that there is no entrance fee to the National Gallery. The other factor leading to this luxury, of course, was back then I had a lot more free time than I have now.

The fact that this seems impossible in my life now, though, only makes me more determined to find some solution to the problems preventing it. Kimmelman suggested an approach to a cure, I think:
Recently, I bought a couple of sketchbooks to draw with my 10-year-old in St. Peter’s and elsewhere around Rome, just for the fun of it, not because we’re any good, but to help us look more slowly and carefully at what we found. Crowds occasionally gathered around us as if we were doing something totally strange and novel, as opposed to something normal, which sketching used to be. I almost hesitate to mention our sketching. It seems pretentious and old-fogeyish in a cultural moment when we can too easily feel uncomfortable and almost ashamed just to look hard.
Of course, Kimmelman is currently on a Grand Tour of his own that few of us not working for the Times can hardly afford. Still, putting the two Parisian observations together, I wondered whether it might not be possible to organize flashmob events at which dozens, if not hundreds of people would stop all at once in this or that museums across the world, sit down, and sketch. Just sketch what they see, regardless of how good they are at it. For at least 15 minutes. Then they could carry on with their very busy lives. Clearly it wouldn't have the entertainment impact of seeing choreographed dance routines, but it could benefit its participants all the same.

I'm not sure how to organize a flashmob event, though.

Labels: art viewing


Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Love the idea, Ed. But may I suggest the "sketch-in" as oppposed to the sketch mob? I realize it's from a different era, but the idea of being there to savor the situation, as opposed to come-and-gone-in-a-flash seems more appropriate to the subject.

8/03/2009 10:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Larry said...

“It became possible to imagine that because a reproduction of an image was safely squirreled away in a camera or cell phone, or because it was eternally available on the Web, dawdling before an original was a waste of time, especially with so much ground to cover.”

It might be possible to imagine, but it’s extremely unjust. The costs of international travel being what they are, someone visiting Paris from the U.S. and having only a day or two to see the Louvre (and the d’Orsay, and the monuments, and Versailles, etc.) might well feel they had very little time for contemplating only one painting.

Museums and similar institutions themselves don’t always encourage “dawdling” either. Crowd control is the word today. I remember my visits to London seeing the Crown Jewels, the National Archives in DC, the public viewing of the Fabergé eggs at Sotheby’s here in NY a few years ago, and being told by the guards to move it along, don’t stop, don’t look too long, we’ve got long lines, and the like. And even if the crowds are not too heavy, when a museum organizes a blockbuster exhibit of 150 pieces or so, your attention inevitably wavers after a while, and the tendency is to spend too much time in the earlier galleries and thus pay short shrift to the later work. A small show like MoMA’s Van Gogh at Night is really a better alternative in that you can spend 10 minutes in front of a single painting like Starry Night without feeling there’s so much more ground to cover.

A friend and I once sat down in front of the big Pollock at the Met and stayed there for close to an hour. That’s what I like doing from time to time in the NYC museums in which I have a membership, i.e., organizing my viewing like a concert, where there may be 2-4 works on a 2-hour program. But music moves in time and can’t be sampled, where a painting or sculpture does not force the onlooker into a time frame. This is also one explanation for the enormous success of museums nowadays vs. classical concerts. You’re not tied down to a seat and can set your own pace. But that's the drawback too. You don't see many people at the Met sitting down for an hour in front of one painting.

As for snapping pictures, I do it all the time where museums permit. For one thing, I like creating CDs and sending them to friends who can’t visit the actual museums. For another, I can revisit the works at home and spend more time with them.

But isn’t there now a no-photography policy at the Louvre?

8/03/2009 10:23:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

If it's a question of what it takes to entertain us now, perhaps some variation of the yet-to-be-released "Wii Paint" might someday be available for use in museums (or plein air).

A flashmob event: interpretive dance-sketching in front of masterpieces, with the results appearing on personal digital sketchpads as stills or motion recordings.

8/03/2009 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger Anna L. Conti said...

They're doing something like this at SFMOMA with "Sketch Fridays." this week will be the fourth week that folks show up at 2pm, grab a sketchbook (provided by SFMOMA)and head to one of the galleries to sketch the art. Sketchbooks are turned in before leaving the museum, and some of the sketches are put up on SFMOMA's Flickr page:

8/03/2009 10:46:00 AM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

Having just come back from an upstate NY trip and visiting the Fields Sculpture Park at Art Omi, the galleries in Hudson, NY, the Empire State Plaza art collection in Albany, the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs, the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls and the Munson-Proctor Institute in Utica, this topic feels timely and relevant to my recent art viewing experiences. Is sketching the best way to take in, spend time with and experience art? Sometimes I like taking in lesser known work from a well known artist oeuvre, sometimes i like taking in the greatest hits and hidden gems in a collection by well known artists that i havent seen before. Inevitably we end up talking about celebrity culture and why such a small handful of artists made it so big when so many artists were working in the same or the similar vein with similar visual languages, thoughts and ideas or else we talk about how the art was intersecting with the current thought and culture of the day. I think benches in galleries and museums encourage looking at length and spending time with a piece and having the time to do so is a real luxury ...

8/03/2009 10:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kimmelman is easily the best art critic in the world.

Most critics, with their finely tuned tastes think that offering their elevated opinions is enough to satisfy their job requirements. However, Kimmelman challenges both himself and the reader to consider things outside of the realm of opinion.

Art is not just about liking or disliking something or defending or detracting, it is about understanding and appreciating context. Often people forget that art is not just about their own opinions and tastes it is more about the diversity of viewpoints and creative outlets that exist for everyone to engage in.

As always great article ED... you are quickly becoming the Kimmelman of the gallery world.


8/03/2009 10:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best art critic?
Now there is a conversation for discussion, but we'll save that for another time.

There was actually a great article a few months back in Artnews or Art in America, which was about the ways museums are trying to adapt to the changing concerns of a viewing public. I think there is always a fine line that museums must walk because they don't want to resort to gimmicks as a way to engage the public, but they also need to try new approaches to presenting the work to a generally inattentive audience.

Seeing as how the tradition of sketching is rooted in the histories of museums, I think it would be great to bring that back to prominence. I also think the notion of flashmobs bears a resemblance to a happening, so that would be cool to start a whole movement of those events at galleries and museums.


8/03/2009 11:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Henri said...

Hi Edward,
Doesn't the Kimmelman piece say more about the changes to vision and how we see and understand the world around us? Lenses are everywhere determining our thoughts, our understanding and our interactions. Isn't that the deeper part of that article?

8/03/2009 12:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

Edward's 20 years old method sounds pretty much the way I function. I also do it with a gallery. I can return 2 or 3 times to visit a show I really like.

And because I hate skipping, I'm not the kind to past fast through many spaces just to see if there is something I like (not really the art fair type). I read PR, look at teasers, browse for info, and I pick the places which I gather, "deserve my visit" in the way they have succeeded attracting my attention (or I have a list of artists whose work I follow, or whose suggestions I listen).

I tend to disregard artists who are compulsive in throwing tons of disparate works in a show as if hyper-productivity was the quality of the practice itself, instead on focussing on what the artist is
trying to say (in case he/she has something to say). If your PR reads "our next show will present a series of 500 photographs from artist X", chances are I won't be interested (unless they're 500 photos of the same object and a visual effect requires such an assemblage).

A good standard gallery exhibit should be worth staying 1 hour (not counting the extra required by video/audio works, but too much is too much in a gallery context, sometimes the work begging to be published or broadcasted elsewhere).

Cedric Caspes

PS: Important museum historical exhibits with over 500 artefacts sometimes force me to skip, when I'm travelling, but if there is no catalogue then I'm really pissed.
I am also pissed when most of the items are junk surrounding 2 more important pieces. Some museums don't have the funds to pull up an ambitious exhibit, but they keep pretending.

8/03/2009 12:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

I said "visual" effect above and I wish I had written a more unspecific term like "special" effect. Not all special effects have to be visual.


8/03/2009 12:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mostly there are no prohibitions to sketching in museums, whether in the US, Europe or Asia; however, at an exhibition in Taichung, Taiwan I was told pens were not allowed and therefore I could not sketch. A sketch mob could counteract the increasingly antiseptic experience of glancing at art, at which traffic flow and security, as with so much else, seems paramount.

8/03/2009 01:14:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Flash mobs are fine - Bill Wassik wrote a book on it, and the MJ flash mob thing has been around for a while (at least two years). In other words, people are jumping on the band wagon.

Band wagons are great.

I look upon museum sketchers with the same distain that I view readers of camus at coffee shops.

There are two things wrong with sketching in a museum.

1) You learn to draw like everyone else.

2) You are there to be social.

I resent other people at museums. I resent having to share as much as I resent private property. I resent the gaze of the other.

People who copy generally become what they copy. Its a fact. I wouldn't copy too much. Most people I know that only copied other artists went on to suck.

People learn by aping - ape life, not art.

But I don't think I'll be showing up at the met regularly - it is 4.50 round trip by subway, and I can buy a sketchbook for that.

Museum visits are for students and suckers who aspire to be upper class. Who was it that said museums are cemeteries? You know I know.

I recommend everyone read "Unintended Consequences" by John Ross to see what Timothy McVeigh was into. Keep an open mind you know?

8/03/2009 01:19:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Henri said...

Hi Edward,
Doesn't the Kimmelman piece say more about the changes to vision and how we see and understand the world around us?

I too read that - the old ways are passing - sort of elegaic tone. A sense of urgency I do not feel.

I do not feel.

Also, I was mentioning this week this sort of sense of regionalism, engendered by lack of access, is good. Jet setting and mass communications make it too easy for ideas to spread, diluting the brand and making travel not really necessary (ideas don't have site or object specific auras despite what some people think).

On the other hand, sometimes it is nice to get out, even to a generic franchise that makes you feel dead inside.

8/03/2009 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Dalen said...

I've sketched in public on my own a few times. Generally it was too distracting having people around. I couldn't lose myself in it.

For some reason it also seems to erase the social distance usually practiced in public. Complete strangers suddenly want to chat, with some giving unsolicited critiques of my work and others seeing it as an opening for a pickup line "Hey baby, why don't you draw me?" SO not what I was trying to accomplish.

But - strangely enough - when a group of people are drawing, it is totally different. A Dr. Sketchy's recently sprouted in my town, and after attending once, I was an instant devotee. Saltimbanques for this century? It was focused but fun, and no one tried to talk to me when I was drawing because they were all drawing too. Perfect.

8/03/2009 03:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Kimmelman is as helpless as an inverted tortise when it comes to traditional painting, so the fact that he's taken up sketching on his European tour indicates that he's become aware of the limitations of his powers and is doing the only thing that will remedy them, while setting a fine example for his child, so this speaks well of him all the way around. I only wonder where the self-consciousness comes from. We're in a "cultural moment when we can too easily feel uncomfortable and almost ashamed just to look hard"? I had no idea. Seems like an art critic ought to be looking hard at things. I sketch in museums, especially in shows I'm going to write about. Joanne can vouch for that. Just in case someone mistakes Zipthwung's obvious flamebait at 1:19 for informed opinion, drawing is one of the best ways to get at what art has to offer. It's also one of the great pleasures of life.

Dr. Sketchy's is awesome.

8/03/2009 04:04:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Im not sure drawing sex workers is the tangent you mean, but I'm all for that - but there are all kinds of salon style drawing sessions from sessions for old people who worry their lives are too hectic and need to slow down, to events for young people who feel like life is passing them by.

I have mentioned Third Ward, which has a drink and draw deal. That would be the latter.

Other people prefer the still life composed of thrift store pots so they can learn how to draw ovals.
I think students should demand a refund for that, personally.

It's not flame bait to say you needn't draw with a conte crayon to get the gist of what's going on.

But I can understand that some people might want to draw a Courbet.

8/03/2009 04:37:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

A great idea Edward! A Flashmob drawing group drawing ANYTHING would be fun.

8/03/2009 06:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that after the Pledge of Allegiance and the Moment of Silence, every child in the nation should be required to draw something from direct experience, a seed pod, a screw, the teacher's butt, whatever, for 3 minutes. This segment of education needs to last a year or longer. The result would be an increase in an individuals power of perception, knowledge of the natural and man-made world, attention span, sense of individuality and appreciation for the work artists do. Knowledge based on experience, not book learning.

It would also offer a clue as to what to do with the museum sketchbook.

Whistling should also be required curriculum.


8/03/2009 06:52:00 PM  
Anonymous david carson said...

i liked Kimmelman's article. couldn't help but think that slowing down to really "see" is a romantic notion that has been replaced by time-shifted "experiences". recording the experience for future playback (be it photo,video, or otherwise) has become part of the experience itself - adding to it in my opinion. the experience can be shared and modified. it's alive.

i realize there is a lot of satisfaction in slowing down and taking the time to see. It's a practice that is harder to teach as most people soon get bored. John Cage had a great saying - "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually, one discovers that it is not boring at all." But i also can't help to think that because you can time-shift the experience of looking, I wonder if you end up spending more time with the "object" overall. I put quotes around "object" because an object, in my opinion, is now many fractured elements that exists over time (the original, the many reproductions, the reactions and documentation from the shared community, etc). Whether, or not that time is quality is debatable and depends on the experience.

8/03/2009 07:38:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

The focus of drawing from a stationary object would probably provide just the right balance for kids raised on ever-faster jumpcuts in TV and movies, ever-faster ways of e-communicating and i-linking.

Just out of curiosity: Is there anyone under 25 who is reading or responding to this thread?

8/03/2009 08:41:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I thought Holland Cotter was the biggest romantic sap (bags blowing in the wind can be art), but Kimmelman just moved up to tie with the "we need to slow don, man".

If I was any slower at this point I would be Carlos Castenada, who I studied with when he travelled in is astral form.

Have you ever tried to draw an Acid trip? Yeah, forget it.

8/03/2009 08:42:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Two Ways To Organize A Flashmob Event

It reminds me of the CB craze of the 1970s, but not limited to streets, highways and parking lots.

8/03/2009 09:22:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Two Ways To Organize A Flashmob Event

Sorry. Left out a hyphen in the url. (That was never a problem in the '70s.)

8/03/2009 09:36:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

I'm only 12 and I've given up sketching in public. Everyone was copying me.

It was so embarrassing. I've gone back to cell phones. No one notices. They don't know I've got CS4 at home.

8/04/2009 01:04:00 AM  
Anonymous sus said...

I thought that the World Wide Sketch crawl was a fine idea.

Unfortunately, I work Saturdays and can't organize one in my city.

8/04/2009 08:43:00 AM  
Blogger ArtChick1 said...

I think that a mob/scetch is a great idea and I think with a little help I can do this event. Will a museum be upset because of a security issue...does one need special permission for a large crowd? Would appreciate feedback, Ed

8/05/2009 03:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Ariel Baron-Robbins said...


I'm 26, is that close enough? I also teach Beginning Drawing as part of my graduate assistant-ship at the University I attend. Sketching from observation most definitely provides the viewer with a much more intimate connection to the object than taking a photo or viewing ever could. Your eyes become hands caressing ever nook and cranny and you notice details because a sketch typically requires at least 5 minutes or more to complete. I've found that after only a couple of weeks, even my toughest "I can't draw" or "Drawing is stupid" students break down and realize how much they have overlooked in their environment.

I've taken them to draw a performance artist and we all drew her for 45 minutes. After, several of the students told me that they wouldn't have stayed for 30 seconds if they weren't drawing but that they really, really enjoyed it and would go to see more performance artists in the future because of the experience.

We also go to galleries at the school, coffee shops, and outside on the lawn to draw people walking by. You do get people stopping and asking questions and interacting with you, but I don't find it that distracting. It's an exchange of information with a complete stranger about art, nothing different than meeting someone at an art opening except there is less chance of pretentiousness.

Also, if you are ever traveling on your own and want to talk to someone, there is nothing better than sitting in a bar or cafe and drawing. Someone inevitably will be curious and strike up a conversation. If you draw a flattering portrait of the bartender, you can even get a few free beers!

8/05/2009 04:06:00 PM  
Blogger donna said...

I don't usually draw from paintings, but I love drawing from sculpture. On a recent trip to London, I sat on a bench and made small sketches from the fabulous Parthenon figures. For some reason, when I see a beautiful marble sculpture, I'm moved to draw it. The play of light is fun to capture, and the act of drawing the piece is so satisfying. A flashmob sketch event would be great, but for me it's a very direct and private moment when I draw in a museum. I agree though that people want to engage you in conversation and you become part of their tourist experience when you're drawing. Several people wanted to take my photo and one person just took it without asking.

8/06/2009 11:43:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph Giannasio said...

If you were to approach this as a hybrid similar to existing events and documentation and add the twist of the potential of instantaneous mass communication, the anticipation of participation, and the exponential progression of email forwards the end product would differ dramatically from the a fore mentioned

"Sketch Fridays" at SFMOMA
World Wide Sketch crawl

It can be a combination of an email open call to participate such as Night of a Thousand Drawings where a destination is described, an open call for participation email is sent with a request for it to be forwarded to anyone who might be interested in participating.

the second aspect would loosely borrow from the photo journalism book that assigned a group of photographers around the world to document one 24 hour period.

also remove the bounds of a museum, pick a moment, have the participants register via the web, or via txt message instruct the participants to carry around a pad and something to draw with, and at any moment within a one or two week window a text will be sent out and when they receive it they should stop where they are at that given moment and draw. then they can write on the back their name, and where they are drawing and maybe a brief comment on the subject, then mail them to whatever space you can curate it in.

I'm not sure what the details are of the service you would need to organize a worldwide vast txt message. Or what would be the best moment, but they are just details they'll work themselves out.

8/09/2009 07:35:00 PM  
Blogger dayana said...

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9/03/2009 11:31:00 AM  

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