Time for a Slow Art Movement?

Slow Food hit mainstream culture the mid-’90s, disseminating the philosophy that cuisine should retain its local and regional integrity while encouraging the farming of plants, seeds, and livestock indigenous to its ecosystem. The Slow Food organization, founded in 1986 by Carlo Petrini in protest of McDonald’s opening in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna, was one piece of a greater effort to dissuade globalization of agriculture at the cost of regional viability.

Today Slow Food is a widespread, well-known trend across Europe and the U.S. One gesture by an Italian man has sparked a global cultural movement towards slowing down, consuming less and investing locally. Now there are “slow” trends in other parts of our culture, too.

Probably the most well-known among them is Slow Fashion, which offers an alternative to mass-produced clothing. It places an emphasis on artisan-made, high quality, thoughtfully designed and ethically made garments. It supports the local economy, seeks domestically sourced and sustainable materials, and supports the second-hand garment industry by either expediting sales of used clothing or re-purposing used clothing as material for new designs. Slow Fashion also promotes higher quality products that last longer, which we then repair as they age rather than throwing them away, thus reducing consumerism and waste.

Other trends in cultural slowness: cinema, television, photography, and even technology and science. These all mainly have to do with literally slowing down to take actual time to consider, observe, reflect and learn. What might be most relevant to the art world is the way scientists and technologists are resisting pressure to “publish or perish.” Like these academics, artists and gallerists work at an unreasonable and punishing pace to maintain visibility and viability in the industry.

So what is the potential of a Slow movement in visual arts? How could it further the engagement of community and build a robust, sustainable arts economy?

A Slow movement in visual art would need to subvert the frenetic pace set by the emergence of one-night or weekend-long exhibitions and art fairs, which make it hard for an audience to get to really know the art and its makers. They heighten a sense of anxious hurry—get in, get out, get the work before it’s gone, take as many photos of as much art as you can and post on social media. These models evade critical analysis, reflection and emotional connectivity—there’s no time or space to consider the work more deeply before the next thing comes along. 

In a Slow Art culture, one of the ways we might push against this fervor is by nurturing artist careers differently. Maybe we gallerists and curators begin by offering fewer shows and by scheduling artists in greater advance. Museums already do this, so it’s not an unfamiliar format. Many galleries have already elongated their schedules to accommodate six-week exhibitions—what if they were eight weeks?

We would then be able to program supplementary events to enrich and enliven the exhibition experience, each with a heavy emphasis on the slower acts of looking, thinking and reflecting through discussion. Perhaps critical thought classes? Workshops on interpreting visual art through a creative, historical or political lens? Round table discussions, symposiums and salons on the writings and works as a response to exhibitions? Intimate dinners and social gatherings? These things do happen to some extent, but on a more institutional level rather than a gallery level. For spaces that have four-week runs, I can tell you from experience that these kinds of events are always desirable, but difficult to achieve.

A Slow Art movement would respect the time it takes an artist to create the work, by providing space for an audience to enjoy and more deeply interact with the work. Longer runs would encourage repeat visits and allow time for the press to cover the work thoughtfully. Perhaps by visiting exhibitions over time, rather than viewing the arts as a transient commodity, we understand art at a greater, longer scale, as something one lives with over time, which could even help people envision becoming collectors.

There are so many ways we can make thoughtful, deliberate choices about how and where we spend our time with the arts. Engaging in Slow Art could be a resistance to the pace of our post-Internet lifestyle.