Art Intervention: A Fifteen Minute Experiment in Developing Perceptiveness

I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea of an art intervention.  An intervention that would force me to take a deeper look at things. When was the last time I looked at one thing for 15 minutes?  15 minutes???  Yikes!  In this age of multi-tasking, easy access information, ten windows open at a time, comments firing at you from Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, and bestsellers called BLINK, how can anyone stop and LOOK for 15 minutes?  What might I see?  What might I learn?  Challenge on.

After reading an article by Holly Finn (A Cure for the Age of Inattention – WSJ)

I decided to simulate what students at some of the greatest universities are doing – learning by looking.  They are using art as a medium to develop an appreciation of perceptiveness gained by giving something serious and extended attention.  The university programs are focused on museum pieces and classic art works.  I chose a gallery in New York City that hosted an Alice Neel exhibit (she is a favorite portrait artist of mine.)  With my willing accomplice, Michele, we picked a portrait titled “Abe’s grandchildren” to study.  We took up our positions.  We clocked in.  Go.

It was an awkward start.  I wasn’t even sure “how” to look in the beginning.  My original thought when seeing the work was “that’s nice”.  But that’s like someone telling you that you did “a good job”.  Well, it’s nice to hear but it doesn’t really mean anything.  There’s no specificity to work from.

As the minutes went on I found I created my own systematic observational approach.  As I became aware of certain details they spurred a question, an answer, and other questions. I grew fond of Abe’s grandchildren. Michele and I stood and looked for 15 minutes.  A long time in silence.  Then we compared notes and found we had entirely different approaches to the painting.  Michele, an aspiring painter, took a technical approach- working from the outside in, exploring the mechanics of the painting.  I focused on trying to understand the kids rather than understanding the art or artist.  As Ms. Finn said: “The conclusion matters less than the collection of detail”.

Not only were we intrigued by our different approaches, but after sharing our thoughts we were energized and inspired seeing things missed at first glance.  There was no doubt that the thoughts we had after 15 minutes of observation were so much richer and deeper than our preliminary ideas.  And sharing these ideas added even more depth.

Not that this is a big reveal.  But how fascinating to develop a better understanding of your world by watching it for 15 minutes?  What do you see?  Universities use this approach to train doctors to become better diagnosticians.  This technique has applications for all fields.  Watch your production line, watch your staff, watch your customers, watch your kids.  What will you learn?

In the meantime…

Take the plunge- scroll down, set your watch, and take a look for 15 minutes.  Let me know what you see and I’ll share what I saw.  You won’t regret the time spent.  No doubt you will find new and important uses for your improved state of perceptiveness!

Email your observations to

Abe’s Grandchildren (1964) Alice Neel



Food for Further Thought:

WSJ Book Review of “Wait:  The Art and Science of Delay” by F Partnoy

NYTimes Review of “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell


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