an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Classic Vs. Contemporary Art: A Test Of Museum-Goers’ Interest

The amount of time museum-goers spend looking at each art work is a subject of some study and much conjecture. Many years ago, a museum director told met that the average visitor spent 7 seconds looking at an art work in a museum. A few years ago, I heard that the number had dropped to 2 or 3 seconds. How these statistics were derived, I never learned (despite asking). I didn’t give them too much credence, except to note that experts thought the time we all were willing to spend looking, really looking, at art had dropped.

Millais-Ophelia.jpgLeave it to London’s scrappy Daily Mail to experiment with the subject, with a twist. The Mail set out to determine what kind of art people wanted to look at — classical or contemporary. It sent observers to the Tate Britain; they spent a day sitting in front of four 18th and 19th century paintings and four works by young British artists. Actually, two days — a Monday and a Wednesday, on the theory that those days attracted more true art-lovers and included students.

As art critic Philip Hensher wrote in an article published Sunday:

The explosion of interest in art in recent years has focused on fashionable young artists, doing outrageous things  –  exhibiting their unmade bed or a dead shark, or persuading people to sprint from one end of the Tate to the other at two-minute intervals. 

These things easily get into the newspapers, and are famous among people who aren’t even interested in art. These days, Turner and Constable seem less exciting than these celebrity artists. Could the classics stand up in a simple test of people’s interest.

…We counted how many visitors stopped at each; for how long, on average, they spent looking at each work; what the longest examination was; and what sort of gallery visitor each work seemed to attract.

Whiteread-BlackBath.jpgSurprise! The classics won, hands down. At Tracey Emin’s Monument Valley (Grand Scale), most people didn’t stop and those who did averaged 5 seconds before it. The longest time spent was two minutes. Rachel Whiteread fared little better, though “one fan…spent nearly five minutes in front of” her Black Bath (right). The Mail said Damien Hirst’s animal sculptures did seem to appeal to views, but not his spot paintings.

On the other hand, visitors spent on average two minutes, 15 seconds looking at William Hogarth’s The Roast Beef of Old England; 59 seconds looking at John Singer Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose; 1 minute, 57 seconds viewing Sir John Millais’s Ophelia (above), and 2 minutes, 5 seconds looking at Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights.

Ophelia attracted the most ardent fan: someone spent a half hour studying it.

Here’s a link to the Daily Mail article, which includes artwork-by-artwork statistics and illustrations.

What this all means is open to conjecture. To me it says something about aesthetics and narrative. People are more engaged when they see something that is “beautiful” and something that contains a discernable story. If an art work has both, all the better. 

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Daily Mail



  1. Jean Mensing says

    I’m always distrustful of these comments about time spent in front of a painting. It has a touch of snobbism. I’m always at museums and galleries having the good fortune to live in NYC. And when I enter a room I find myself quickly looking at all the paintings until something catches my eye (heart). Then I take time to look again and again. After leaving the gallery I frequently find myself thinking about something a saw but didn’t spend much time with and will go back. There are an infinite number of ways one captures an image and holds on to it.
    Always interested in your articles.

  2. Certainly this doesn’t prove that “Ophelia” is twice as good as “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.”

  3. Thanks for calling attention to the Daily Mail article. It’s an important addition to the literature on taste in art, especially regarding traditional vs. contemporary (avant-garde) art. The subject is very complex, but let me make just a few observations.
    “The amount of time museum-goers spend looking at each art work is a subject of some study and much conjecture,” you write. “Conjecture,” is not enough. In part, the Daily Mail “experiment” gives us more than that, which is why it’s of value.
    The article itself notes that the reason museum goers prefer traditional art is that “contemporary artists strive to make an impact rather than provide a complex emotional experience [or ‘emotional resonance’].” As I argue elsewhere, so-called contemporary art is not “art.” Here I will add that traditional (classical realist) artists do not ever “strive to make an impact” instead of investing their work with emotional resonance. Just ask them.
    Continuing: “What persuades visitors to stand in front of a work of art seems to be complexity and a kind of visual poetry.” The term “complexity” connotes such things as discernible meaning, fundamental values, and sense of life—things people deem important, in other words. Poetry deals with such matters and so does traditional art, which is why people are drawn to it. Especially telling in this respect is the fact that Whistler’s ‘Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights’ – – “attracted many viewers and most stood in silent contemplation.” Not surprising, for in it there is much to contemplate.
    The reasons why Whistler’s painting and landscapes in general attract ordinary people (who tend to think of abstract painting as “decorative”) are discussed in ‘Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home’ (1993), by the sociologist David Halle—a book that is essential reading for art critics and interested readers concerned with such matters. Halle found that “[d]epictions of the landscape pervade the houses studied. Hills and mountains, meadows, oceans, rivers and bays . . . — such scenes, in endless combinations are the most popular [subject] of the pictures on the walls of all social classes.” Why? Overwhelmingly, because they are “‘calm,’ ‘restful,’” but especially because they offer “‘solitude’”—not because, as Halle’s study documents, they are “beautiful” or contain “a discernable story.” The book to read on the topic of solitude is ‘Solitude: A Return to the Self’- – by the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr, who observes that “learning, thinking, and maintaining contact with one’s own inner world are all facilitated by solitude.”
    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) and Co-Author, ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ –

an ArtsJournal blog