Monkey see, monkey not do?


The Five Senses (Still-Life with Chessboard), 1630, oil on wood, Musée du Louvre, Paris

A couple of articles in the New York Times have me worried about how we are engaging – or more to the point not engaging – with our culture.

Wandering from room to room:

Michael Kimmelman observes that museum-goers are stopping less and less to really look at the art, rarely pausing for more than a second or two. Instead of visiting museums in order to become more cultured or more worldly, people seem to be breezing through in order to check the “Mona Lisa” or “Winged Victory” off their “To Do” list. It’s a superficiality Kimmelman blames in part on the camera:

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.

I’d add to that argument that museums are also complicit in this new “culture of convenience.” Our own Minneapolis Institute of Arts has touted the ease of its audio tours with “quick stops,” requiring you to spend no more than thirty seconds in front of any given painting or sculpture. Of course, in today’s world, 30 seconds is starting to look like a significant commitment.

Let them eat Jiffy Cake

In the New York Times Sunday magazine, Michael Pollan takes on the towering network of food shows, and how they’ve created a generation of gourmet couch potatoes. Thanks to Julia Child and those who have followed her, more people than ever know the difference between saute, grill and broil. But according to Pollan few actually choose to do any of these things in preparing their own meals. He writes:

Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that’s less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia arrived on our television screens. It’s also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of “Top Chef” or “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star.” What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves — an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for.

Pollan argues that Julia Child loved to cook, and her love of the work involved was obvious and infectious. In comparison, modern cooking shows are her evil step-children:

These shows stress quick results, shortcuts and superconvenience but never the sort of pleasure — physical and mental — that Julia Child took in the work of cooking: the tomahawking of a fish skeleton or the chopping of an onion, the Rolfing of butter into the breast of a raw chicken or the vigorous whisking of heavy cream. By the end of the potato show, Julia was out of breath and had broken a sweat, which she mopped from her brow with a paper towel. (Have you ever seen Martha Stewart break a sweat? Pant? If so, you know her a lot better than the rest of us.)

Of course, we can rationalize these trends. We live in a fast-paced world, we lead busy lives, and we need our culture – whether it’s on the wall or on the table – quick and easy. But what are we losing in the process? At the minimum, it appears as though we’re being less self-aware. I’d also argue we’re losing sight of the simplest – and sometimes most profound – pleasures of the senses.

Here’s a thought – the next time you’re at a museum, pick a work of art and spend 5 minutes with it. That’s not much to ask, is it? Look at it from different angles, watch how others engage with it, and maybe even break out a sketchbook and try to capture what you see on paper.

On another day, take on a meal as a creative project. Make sure it takes at least 30 minutes to prepare (take that, Rachel Ray!). Make EVERYTHING from scratch. Take a few deep breaths before you start to eat. Linger over the the presentation, the smells, the colors, and of course, the taste. Oh, and leave the television off.

Notice anything?