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March, 1995

WHY IS IT that the same person who might hesitate to interrupt you while you were engrossed in a book, who would never be so rude as to begin talking to you during the performance of a philharmonic orchestra, will never think twice about bombarding you with questions and idle chatter while you are attempting to view an art exhibition? I rarely attend opening exhibitions precisely because the easy mix of conversation and viewing is taken for granted—no one really expects you to be looking at the art. A reception is a social affair and one is expected to be—well—social. At best, I’m not a very sociable guy but when I do want to mix with people, I rarely do so when there are pictures to look at. Since I must visit a great many art shows during a month, I tend to be somewhat jealous of my time and, when I show up at an art gallery or museum, I expect to look at art. I look at art for a reason—most often to critique it, or to review it, or to learn more about it or, best of all, to simply enjoy it. In fact, the last two reasons I’ve just noted are pretty much the same reason I read books or attend concerts. So how come I can’t expect the same courtesies of silence when I’m viewing art? I’m spoiled, I know. When I attend press openings at, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art for example, I’ve grown used to the fact that no one—no one—will interrupt my train of thought. It is not only that other artwriters respect each other’s need for concentration—even the museum staff stays out of one’s way, never speaking to you unless you approach them. As professionals, all of them know that looking at art is just as demanding—if not more demanding—than reading a book or listening to a concert. Unfortunately, one doesn’t always find professionals at an art exhibition—reception or not. For more times than I am willing to recall, I have been startled out of my concentration by someone coming up behind me and asking "Well, whadda’ya think?" or "Can I help you? If you have any questions, I’m right here." If I were engrossed in a book, these same people might wait for me to close its covers—or look up—and if I were at a concert or opera, surely they would wait for intermission to barge in on my thoughts. Aside from courtesy, it’s really all a matter of education. Too many people simply do not know how to look at art. It is surprising (at least to me) how many think that reading about art is the same as looking at art. One reason art critics wield so much power is precisely because of this misconception. Many highly literate people assume—wrongly—that comprehending linear type is the same as comprehending color and form, or that explanation is the same as understanding. It is not—as any artist (even illiterate ones) can tell you. No matter how glib the critic, if he knows what he is talking about, he has arrived at his glibness through considerable training in looking. And, at bottom, he can only tell you what he sees—which is not the same as what you might see. Ultimately, if you really want to understand art, you must take the time to grasp it on its own terms. It takes as much effort—and effort of a different kind—to "read" a picture as it does to read a fine piece of literature—or to "hear" a sonata. So, consider yourself on notice—if you find me in a gallery, I’m there to look at art—not to hear you talk. Artists deserve my total concentration; art takes my total concentration—nothing less. If you really want to talk, make an appointment—otherwise, just let me look.

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