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Can Art Teach Us to Be Patient?


Recent experiments show that long-forgotten prolonged observations can help us regain the virtue of patience.

Patience, in classical terms, refers to the balance between extreme emotions and a middle ground; Aristotle called this “metriopathy”. Thanks of this balance people were able to overcome strong emotions caused by misfortunes, or, like Penelope, wait for a very, very long time for the return of a loved one. Patience, however, has changed over time. In modernity we use the word to referto our ability to deal with pain, nut also to the capacity of sitting down and read a book, listen to an entire album, or observe a painting thoroughly.

Our current instant existence has given us plenty, but it has also stripped us of some of our most essential values, among these, patience. This situation is particularly evident in the realm of art, where surveys have shown that the average time of observation of a painting in a museum is merely 17 seconds. The Louvre estimated that visitors spend an average 15 seconds gazing at the Mona Lisa, one of the most enigmatic portraits on Earth. This is obviously a consequence of our biological clock, which is used to devoting short attention spans to a single thing and instead spreading our attention over a large number of different things at once. So, can art teach us how to be patient?

Painting of women at table, knocked over wine

In an article recently published by the University of Harvard, Jennifer Roberts argues that art does not only require patience, but it can also teach us the ‘power of patience’. The only way to ‘release the richness’ held by a painting is by observing it for the time it requires, she points out, until something about it physically fills us. Likewise, historian David Joselit has described paintings as deep reservoirs of temporal experiences; like ‘time batteries’ or ‘exorbitant stockpiles’ of experience and information.

Thinking about a painting, for example in Van Gogh’s Wheat Field in the Rain, or in the Portrait of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin by Ilya Repin (which seems to hold all the sadness in the world) as ‘time batteries’, objects that wrap us up in a timeless capsule where the aesthetic experience takes place, is to resurrect the purpose of art. Because art, also, provides consolation. As an assignment, Roberts asks her students to visit a museum without their mobile phone and to remain there until one of the paintings moves them so much that they want to write an essay about it.

Apparently the results of this experiment have been magnificent. Students have said they ‘understand’ something within art that they’d never imagined before, and many of them made a habit of this practice. This entire exercise comes down to single essential recommendation using prolonged observation, we can experience that ancient and forgotten virtue: patience.

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