Inside Voice:
Silence and Slow Time
2 July 2014

At Smart Set, Willard Spiegelman meditates on the importance of quiet in museums. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, he encountered it memorably last fall at the installation of Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet at the Cloisters.) His advice: don’t wait for noisy gawkers to go away. Just stand still and firm; the racket will recede on its own, as you radiate the quiet.

Every so often a miracle occurs. The crowds vanish. Perhaps no one is around to begin with as was the case for me in Philadelphia. Or perhaps something marvelous so transports the viewer that he can forget the crowds, noisy or inconvenient though they may be. At New York’s Frick Collection last winter, I waited for a spot to open and I just planted myself in front of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, on loan from the Netherlands, until I had looked my fill. I made myself ignore my noisy, jostling neighbors. The thrill of slow looking has also happened when I come to an art exhibition that changes my mind about an artist I never knew well: Kandinsky; Arshile Gorky, most recently. Or that opens my eyes to an artist of whom I have previously known nothing at all: Howard Hodgkin, for example, first in Fort Worth and then at the Metropolitan Museum; L. S. Lowry, at Tate Britain last summer. A world opens itself up and invites you in. The surroundings melt and it’s just you and the pictures. These things happen. Keats described the experience as feeling that a new planet has swum into your ken. He was thinking of literature — in his case George Chapman’s translations of Homer — but the analogy obtains.