Peter Clothier addresses "How to Look at Art" in his new book, Slow Looking: The Art of Looking At Art. He suggests that paying close attention to a work of art has the potential to change the way we visit a museum or gallery, as well as the way we live our lives; and he hopes readers will consider this method of how to look at art.
Peter Clothier believes that we need only to open our eyes to see art clearly, that we need to give ourselves sufficient time—as long as an hour—to thoroughly look at an individual work of art.
"We live in a state of confusion about who we are and where we are going," he writes, "and we unquestioningly believe things about ourselves and the world that simply are not true. We choose to see through the smoked glass of ignorance, presumption or delusion. And we end up being fooled by what we imagine we see, rather than what is really there."
"One Hour/One Painting" Sessions
Clothier describes these sessions in Slow Looking. He asks us, the viewers and admirers of visual art, to slow down long enough to sit and look at what is right there in front of our eyes.
He discovered this way of how to look at art several years ago: "I was shocked, quite painfully into the sudden awareness that I had been drifting my way through life without any clear sense of purpose or direction. Thankfully, my unwelcome but much needed wake-up call was one of those merciless, breath-snatching gut punches that life sometimes delivers, providing the trailhead to the path I have followed ever since." He plunged into books by Ram Dass and Pema Chödrön, learning, "how greatly I stood to improve my life, not to mention that of those around me, if I could only penetrate the fog that had obscured the way I had been looking out at the world."
Chanting and Meditating
A friend persuaded Peter Clothier to give his brand of Buddhism a try. "It involved chanting, and it would not only solve my painful dilemma, it would change my life. He taught me the prescribed mantra, "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" (see Art and Spirituality), and instructed me to sit and chant it every day for increasing periods of time, having set a firm intention in advance as to what it was I needed. I soon discovered that the magic actually did work; opening doors for me I never dreamed were there. I found new ways to cope with any adversity that came my way.
"The practice got me focused in a way I had never been before, and helped to lift me out of a particularly difficult period in my life. It also prepared the way for the silent, vipassana meditation practice that I have followed for now more than 15 years. Its basic principles offer sound guidance to anyone looking for success and fulfillment in life; you learn to show up, sit still, get focused, and persist.
"I started out as a poet and translator.
"But years ago I was introduced to the world of contemporary art and began to write about it. I wrote because I found myself looking at the work of artists that, at first, seemed strange and difficult, even off-putting, and writing has always been my way of coming to terms with what I don’t yet understand.
"In short order, the work of new, young, often experimental artists became the focus of my creative output. But by the time I hit upon the idea for my 'One Hour/One Painting' sessions, I had already been publishing articles and critical reviews in national magazines for decades." Once Clothier learned about the value of paying attention, he took more careful note of how to look at art.
"It was the coming-together of this life-change and this observation," he writes, "that 'One Hour/One Painting' was born." And, after a few such hours of meditation, he envisioned a "marriage" of setting aside a full hour to sit and contemplate the richness of a work of art. Clothier concludes, "The combination of my new skills as a meditator with my professional avocation as a writer about art seemed like a prospect that could prove immensely enriching to mind, body and spirit. I should give it a try."
Clothier is also the author of Persist, a book examining his personal and our universal drive toward creativity. He writes: "I'll follow where they lead, even though they lead me through unexplored and unexpected byways, as they have just now done. They have guided me well thus far. I've learned to trust their wisdom, and they never stop coming. That's the joy of it."
Now in his seventh decade, Clothier has reached serenity even as he struggles to write nearly every day. But the struggle is joyous. Towards the end of Persist, he writes, "A good part of the successful creative process consists in maintaining a flow of thought, image and medium, but the trick is that it must be done without exception of tangible or emotional return. It must be no less an expression of freedom than the spirit that created it. It must come, as does the work itself, purely from the heart." The words in Persist flow and shimmer like those in an inspiring poem or like brushstrokes in a classic Impressionist painting. They infuse into our collective psyche, challenging us to engage in our own creativity.
(See What is Art and Why is Art Important.)