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August 4, 2009


Michael Kimmelman had an extremely perceptive piece in yesterday’s New York Times on the decline of in-depth observation in the modern age. Today, he posits, we are all about the surface of things. We are, quite literally, out of our depth. And he supports his thesis by observing visitors to the Louvre, in Paris.

“Almost nobody, over the course of [an] hour or two,” Kimmelman writes, “paused before any object for as long as a full minute….

He goes on: “At one time a highly educated Westerner read perhaps 100 books, all of them closely. Today we read hundreds of books, or maybe none, but rarely any with the same intensity. Travelers who took the Grand Tour across Europe during the 18th century spent months and years learning languages, meeting politicians, philosophers and artists and bore sketchbooks in which to draw and paint — to record their memories and help them see better.

“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….”

“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."

I’m reminded of the Dutch artist and physician Frederick Franck, author of The Zen of Seeing, whom I contacted when putting together a book called More Reflections on the Meaning of Life. Franck, a proponent of the use of drawing as a way of connecting with one’s own perceptions about the world around him, liked to quote Hui-neng, the 7th century Chinese sage: “The meaning of life is to see.” Franck elaborates: “Indeed, the cow can look at me, but I can see the cow – a living being. We have become addicted to looking-at…

"The more we look-at," Franck believes, "the less we see.”

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