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SOLITARY PURSUIT
In the modern museum, moments of solitude and deep contemplation are rare. But when we find one, it is worth savoring.

By Willard Spiegelman

Everyone knows the feeling: discomfort, annoyance, rage, an entire range of emotions provoked by other people when one might wish to have total solitude, or at least relative peace and quiet. Welcome to the modern museum experience.

What do we want when confronting great art? Books are easy, ready companions, and it’s always possible to block out other distractions by resorting to noise-reducing devices that insulate us with auditory privacy. With film, live music and especially theater, the audience and its collective responses contribute to the greater pleasure of attending, even though there are plenty of times when one wants to smack the people sitting behind, talking as though they are in their living room; or the woman with dangling jewelry and poisonous perfume in the next seat. Rock concerts are based on mass participation; classical ones, formerly the closest thing to silent worship you could find outside a church, are starting to resemble them, becoming more like pop events. In most cities, like Dallas, where I live, everything warrants a standing ovation with whoops and hollers.

This leaves the visual arts. The aim — at least my highest aim — is a private, solitary contemplation of a single work, in silence and over a long period of time. Studies have confirmed my personal sense that the average looker spends no more than fifteen seconds in front of any painting. The act of looking, however, does not mean a passive glance by a fast-moving tourist equipped with an audio guide, but an extended act of reciprocal absorption. This is what I always hope for.

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