Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Mona Lisa in 30 seconds

I just heard the tail end of a talk on BBC Radio 3, during which the speaker seemed to lament the very brief period that the average viewer spends in front of one of the world’s most famous paintings, the Mona Lisa.

Apparently, when the painting was in Japan in the 1970s, the average time spent by the viewer was 30 seconds, while at the Louvre (where it is housed), the average time is 15 seconds.

Does this show that the average viewer is not interested in the painting, or that the main interest lies in being able to say that he or she had seen it, as a famous art critic once argued?

Or is there, perhaps, another interpretation as well?

Perhaps part of the reason lies in the power of the visual image, and its ability to give a great deal of knowledge even after a very brief viewing, because the visual brain is so well developed and can acquire so much knowledge over very brief periods of time. After all, volumes of writing on the Mona Lisa will not give the same information and knowledge that a few seconds of actual viewing does.

Some of the most beautiful segments in symphonic works last but a few seconds and yet are experienced as beautiful and emotionally arousing. Why shouldn’t a visual image do the same?

I do not deny the fact that many want to view the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s Pietà at St Peter’s Basilica just to be able to say that they have seen it.

But it is equally rash to deny the huge efficiency of the visual brain, which allows the average viewer to obtain a great deal of knowledge through such a brief viewing.


maydi said...

My statistics prof used to say 'if your head is in the freezer and your feet are in the oven - 'on average' you are doing ok'.
I wonder what the breakdown of the viewing numbers is

S.Z. said...

I do not know the breakdown, but my point is that you can still get significant visual knowledge after a brief viewing.

Óscar Sánchez Cesteros said...

... and if the picture would be an object, 'autonomous' and 'living' artificial being. A kind of 'visual object' with attributes an properties as human face. How many time is necessary to recognize a human face? seconds? Is Monalisa a 'visual object' as human face? I think it is true, 13 seconds is enough.

Katherine said...

Hmmm. Re. the Mona Lisa, might it also have something to do with the press of people in the queue behind? Which is not to challenge your suggestion either. I read somewhere that the average time visitors spent in front of any single art work in a gallery is 7 seconds... So 15 for her is twice as long.

jaims said...

In addition to the possibilities you bring up, there is also something to be said about the 40-year lag in between 1970's 30-second view and today's 15-second view. Another possibility for the decrease in viewing time may be that the minds of today, often bombarded from an early age with symbols and images and thus more used to rapidly dealing with -- seeing, appraising, reacting -- them, may not need as much time as a 1970s brain to adequately "deal with" the iconic painting.

bjorke said...

Mona Lisa is surely more of an iconic tourist destination than an artwork, at least in cultural terms -- it's of interest to most people even if they have no interest in art per se. As such, its viewing is highly ritualized an difficult to compare to that of other works. Fifteen seconds is plenty of time to take a snap of it with your celphone before moving on to the Victoire de Samothrace & the smoothie bar.

S.b. said...

A picture is worth a thousand words. I agree with you that a 30 second visual provides more "information" than a 1000 page dissertation.

However, when it comes to some people, I think the answer is simpler. I think it's boring, and unappealing. Actually I've never understood the hype behind that painting. I could stare at Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory or van Gogh's The Starry Night for 5 minutes and not be completely bored. But the Mona Lisa isn't visually appealing to me. To me it's dull. In fact I think its creepy and she looks more mannequin-like than human.

I think most people go to see it just so they can say they saw it and therefore by association they are now among the sophisticated and learned.