A recent survey found that the average visitor in an art museum looks at a painting for less than 2 seconds, reads the accompanying placard for another 10, glances back at the painting, and moves on. The Louvre found that visitors looked at the Mona Lisa for an average of 15 seconds. Artist Robert Hughes called this the Mona Lisa Curse. He was referring to the idea that it is more important to claim you have seen a piece of art, than having actually seen it.
If seeing art is simply a matter of understanding an artwork’s place in history, its contribution to perspective or technique, or its perceived value on the market, then learning to see art means only a connect-the-dot exercise of matching image to information—for example, painting and wall text.
Art, however, has an intangible impact. When we see certain images, particularly those of nature, we are in awe. The response has been discussed by many philosophers and artists over the centuries, but it was embraced by 18th- and 19th-century artists who called it sublime. The sublime was a philosophical and artistic response to rapid societal changes created by urbanization and industrialization, as well as discoveries of untamed wilderness in The New World. There is an older term, however, that is similar to the sublime that is the focus of a new exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Night Begins The Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty opened June 18th at the CJM, and it takes it direction from two ideas. First, the Jewish concept of time that a new day begins at sundown. Secondly, the Hebrew word yir’ah, that lacks an exact English translation, but is an amalgam of fear, awe, love, and beauty.