Can art be meaningfully described as slow or fast? Or to put the question differently, is speed an attribute of artistic experience? That is the question I have been thinking about since I was asked to write about slowness.
It is easy to understand why the exhortation suggested in the term “slow art” should come up now. Our lives are faster every day—too fast for most of us—and we find ourselves engaged mostly with the transitory and the immediate. In addition to accepting this speed, we also tend to see the world as an assembly of separate things, and the two combined contribute to our alienation from meaning and to our disenchantment. This alienation and disenchantment hollow our spirit and prevent us from being awake to the world and its radiance. Feeling that something is amiss, some try to find direction and comfort in trends and distractions, others seek relief and guidance in religion or meditation, or by altering the way they eat or where they live. But these efforts don’t often bring about the wakefulness we long for.
I would like to suggest that under the appropriate circumstances art can be the most efficient way to facilitate the awakening we want and need. This statement begs the question: what are the appropriate circumstances? It would not be surprising to assume that since our disenchantment and alienation have something to do with speed, the countermeasure would have something to do with slowness. It makes sense, but I do not think it is right. The first problem with the idea of “slow art” is the implication that there is another kind of art. What would that art be? Fast art? Moreover, what is the speed that “slow” refers to? The speed of comprehension, apprehension, recognition, or consumption? Then there is another, more elusive, question—whether slowness is an attribute of the thing itself, like the unfolding of a flower, or an attribute of the observer, like the mathematician trying to recognize a pattern in numbers, or an attribute of the experience, as when we slowly adjust to a dark room.
There are also misunderstandings that complicate the use of the term “slow” to distinguish a certain type of art. Of these misunderstandings, none is as problematic as when we confuse the speed of making an artwork, which we intuit by reading certain codes, with the speed of unfolding the experience that is art. Speed is relevant to the process of making an artwork. It also matters to the framing of artistic experience, and it is this framing that leads to confusions in distinguishing between art as a category of experience and the circumstances surrounding—even facilitating—that experience.
Art exists only in the present, and the experience of art is in critical ways an inquiry—a desperate inquiry—of the present moment. Art unfolds what is, and our capacity to be part of that unfolding depends on our capacity to allow what is there to be manifest. To correlate this capacity with the reduction of events in an artwork, such as one might find in a painting by Ad Reinhardt or an installation by James Turrell, is to confuse what it is. A visitor to a gallery can be contemplating paintings or experiencing a ceremonious chapel-like work without art ever making an appearance. A spare, attentive environment, as well as a circumstance that allows for the recognition of the subtle and the ephemeral can be both clarifying and elating. It also can make us feel better about ourselves and more connected to, and aware of, the world. But because something is edifying, cultural, or sensitive, does not mean that it is art.
Art is not a type of activity, but a specific category of experience that allows no modifiers—not slow art or deep art or fun art. It is art, or it is not art, and whether something is art or not depends on power, which is related to, but is not the same thing as feeling. Power is being possessed by the recognition of the fullness of things—or more appropriately, as an overfilling of that recognition. This overfilling is enrapture, and it is enrapture that can—and maybe is the only experience that can—wake us from our slumber and deliver to us a radiant world.