BY NUMERIC measures the art world is thriving as never before. Museum attendance is up-more Americans visit museums in a year than go to all sporting events combined-and the art market is booming. Just 15 years ago to pay $100 million for a painting or sculpture was unthinkable; now something sells at that level several times a year. This week a Leonardo sold for $450 million.
Yet ask any collector, dealer or curator who measures the health of the art world by something other than just dollars and crowds, and you are likely to get a worried response. The sheer scale of activity is transforming museums and the market and driving out the fundamental pleasures of looking, thinking and feeling that draw us to art in the first place. At the Vatican and the Louvre, crowds are so large that entire rooms become impassable; other popular institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art also have worsening problems of crowd control, even as they continue to expand. Few in the crush and noise can pause to consider what they are seeing.
According to multiple studies, museum-goers usually spend only about 10 seconds on any work they look at-and that time includes reading the wall label. In museums where photography is permitted, some visitors pass more time taking selfies with their backs to the pictures than they do actually looking at the works. Like fast food, art is becoming a product for rapid mass consumption.
To counter this change, some have started initiatives to nurture a calmer approach to viewing art. Slow Art Day, an international movement, encourages lengthy study of art in museums and galleries; at Harvard the art historian Jennifer Roberts trains her students in the practice of immersive attention, whereby they look at one work for three hours. Recent books in praise of contemplative experience include "On Slowness," "Slow Cinema," "Slow Reading," "Slow Movies" and earlier this year, "Slow Art."
Michael Findlay's "Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modem Art" is a fresh and lively new book on the subject that offers a short but penetrating analysis of the problem, as well as a practical guide to the steps a visitor to a museum or gallery can take to see with greater understanding and pleasure. Written by an eminent dealer of modem art with more than 50 years of experience, it offers an insider's view from someone who can remember what museums were like before they became a branch of the tourism industry, and what the art market was like before it became so fixated on cash and fame. Although Mr. Findlay is apt to quote from a wide range of literary sources, including Wordsworth and William James, the tone of the writing is informal and casual; this is a deeply personal book, full of autobiographical details revealed with unabashed candor. Discussing his response to pictures he tells a surprising amount about his wife, family and friends, and he is unafraid to admit that great works of art still have the power to bring tears to his eyes.
In Mr. Findlay's assessment art is fundamentally sensory, experiential and emotional, but nearly every sector of the art world tries to change art into something else. With more melancholy than anger, he describes how museums grew obsessed with marketing efforts in order to increase attendance, and how the press came to focus almost exclusively on money when reporting on the art trade. He recalls a time, not so long ago, when collecting was mainly for passionate enthusiasts, whereas now many buyers merely seek trophies to flash their wealth and impress their friends. The author also criticizes academia's desire to reduce art to little more than an illustration of history. Approvingly, he quotes the great 19th-century connoisseur Giovanni Morelli, who wrote, "the history of art can only be studied properly before the works themselves. Books are apt to warp a man's judgment."
Mr. Findlay recognizes that, from the beginning, art has often served as a token of power, and that its study can tell us much about the past and present. But these are secondary values; its primary function is to be experienced. He does not say so, but his view of art is humanistic, not hedonistic, and ultimately goes back to Aristotle. What he does tell us is that he was raised Catholic and educated by Jesuits, and he clearly retains the sense that art has an almost spiritual communicative power. Art is sensual but should also stir the emotions and provoke inspiration.
Mr. Findlay used to teach a course called "Trusting Your Eye" and a stated purpose of his book is "to inspire confidence in your own taste." A surprising number of participants in the art world, from first-time museum visitors to seasoned collectors and dealers, have an uneasy feeling that they lack understanding, and that this is a sign of their lesser status compared to those more in the know. Mr. Findlay wants to do away with such fears. Throughout the book he advises his readers to "pay no attention to either popularity or price" and to ignore the opinions of others, especially critics and gallerists. Instead viewers should look, think, feel and judge for themselves. Near the beginning of the book he writes, ''When a voice of authority interprets a work of art, we need the courage to tell our-selves it is merely a suggestion, and that the only truth is in what we see. " Near the end, he makes a similar recommendation, ''Forget what your spouse (or friend) thinks, and forget art history ... just decide for yourself." To achieve confident judgment, he counsels that in a museum or gallery you ignore every distraction from visual experience. Don't get the audioguide, don't download the app, don't read the wall label, don't snap a photo. Just look. The more you look, the more you will know what it is you like, and the more sure you will become in your own taste. There is no universal right answer; inevitably we all respond differently to thestimuli of art. "You can only be 'wrong,' " he says, "if you let the opinion of others trump the conclusions, albeit highly subjective, that you reach as result of your own careful and genuine engagement with works of art." Given the anxious conformity of so many in the art world, this is particularly refreshing advice.
Mr. Findlay preaches two insights. The first is that understanding is made of experience, not just information. Facts gained from books, and works seen in reproduction are nothing more than information. Only the living acquaintance with art in its original form can stimulate your senses and thereby engage your emotions and open your mind. Real knowledge andsecure judgment come from a lot of looking, and nothing else. The second is that "our emotions are forms of cognition." He writes, "We do not need to know about the painting. We do not need to identify the painting." What we need is to experience the painting "with an affect that is sensuous, i.e., it produces a sensation, an altered state of mind, possibly a visceral feeling." This can only be done slowly and calmly. Quoting T.S. Eliot, Mr. Findlay tells us that when viewed this way, art can transport us to "the still point of the turning world."
Mr. Butterfield is an art dealer, historian and writer.