If there’s one thing that can get us to look up from our smartphones, it’s a striking work of art. Somewhat surprisingly, the amount of time we stay focused on a captivating painting or sculpture hasn’t changed much since the advent of smartphones, according to a recent study in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.
The study showed that the average amount of time spent gazing at a great work of art today is just under 29 seconds—statistically unchanged since the same research team published a similar study in 2001. Although that might not sound like a lot of time, it’s nearly twice as long as the 15 seconds the average reader spends on a web page.
Much less surprisingly, the researchers found that about one-third of museum visitors are now devoting a chunk of that time to taking “arties”—selfies with the artworks. This may serve a useful emotional purpose, according to study lead author Lisa Smith, Ed.D., a professor and dean of the College of Education at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
The new study was conducted at the Art Institute of Chicago, where one of the masterpieces on display is American Gothic—the iconic Grant wood portrait of a rural couple and their pitchfork. About 35% of museum visitors took arties with this painting and eight other famous artworks that were the focus of the study. (Before following their lead, be sure to check a museum’s photography policy, and turn off the flash.)
Smith's co-investigators on this research were her husband Jeffrey Smith, Ph.D., author of The Museum Effect and also a professor at the University of Otago, and Pablo Tinio, Ph.D., an associate professor at Montclair State University. The researchers didn’t interview museum patrons about what motivated them to snap arties. But they speculate that it may have fulfilled a psychological role beyond just being a no-cost souvenir.
In an email interview, the Smiths explained it this way: “To a degree, arties serve as a vehicle for what we call ‘emotionally amortizing’ the event. That is, with an artie, people can look back at a later date and reminisce about having visited the museum.”
If hanging out in an art museum for a couple of hours is an emotionally satisfying experience, then having an artie as a memento may help you spread out those feelings over a longer period of time. Still, to get the most from the museum experience, it’s crucial to also engage directly with the art itself, not just your phone or tablet screen.
“We’re big believers in taking some time to look at the art,” the Smiths say. “We’ve spent time looking at works we know and love, and discovering nuances or aspects that we had previously missed. We’ve also spent time looking at works that we’d ordinarily have passed by and surprised ourselves by revising our opinions. Not always, but often enough to mention.”
How long is optimal? The Smiths say they may spend five minutes or more—sometimes much more—in front of a favorite painting. Realistically, however, that’s longer than most people are likely to devote to a single work of art. “We have strong evidence that the typical museum visitor wants to ‘see it all,’” say the Smiths.
There’s nothing wrong with that, if it’s what you want to do or if you may not be back for another visit anytime soon. The most important thing is to enjoy your visit. “If a work really speaks to you, however, we suggest taking at least a full minute to really look,” the Smiths say. “Read the label if one is provided, and then look a bit more.”
One benefit of immersing yourself in a museum's art collection is that it may foster reflection and contemplation. The Smiths say, “We have studied this, along with our students and colleagues. We’ve found that, in looking at art, people often relate what they’re seeing to their own lives.”
How does that work? “It’s a bit like the art being a mirror that reflects real or imagined events and places,” the Smiths explain. “A person might remember an incident from childhood, think about what it was like to live in a different era, or recall positive memories of young love or an exotic holiday. If you have a series of such interactions, you may have what Csikszentmihalyi called a flow experience, in which you think more deeply about your life, your relationships, and even your place in society.”
In earlier research, Jeffrey Smith teamed up with Izabella Waszkielewicz to study this effect in visitors at two art museums. The visitors were questioned about whether they contemplated the important things in their lives, thought about being a good friend to others, and contributed to the good of society and the planet. These questions were posed either at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of their visits.
Positive responses to the questions peaked at mid-visit. By the end of the visit, museum-goers were already shifting back to immediate concerns, such as remembering where they had parked or finding a place to grab a bite to eat.
Yet that doesn’t mean the experience had no lasting impact. As the research shows, encounters with great art can be the impetus for reflection. Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, you may leave the museum a changed person in subtle but meaningful ways.
Smith, L. F., Smith, J. K., & Tinio, P. P. L. (2017). Time spent viewing art and reading labels. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11, 77-85.
Smith, J. K.. (2014). Art as mirror: Creativity and communication in aesthetics. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8, 110-118.
Smith, J. K., & Smith, L. F. (2001). Spending time on art. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 19, 229-236.