“If you see something, say something” read signs throughout the New York City subway system and across transportation hubs. As if New Yorkers really needed to say more.

The assumption remains that they will describe a dangerous black backpack abandoned suspiciously under a seat or on a bench. Perhaps, someone will see two ill-dressed, dark-skinned foreigners whispering to one another, preferably furtively, then darting away. I know I am not supposed to report the little old lady in a tweed skirt and purple anorak, her knees securing a large Duane Reade bag filled with files, reading the newspaper since somewhere above 96th Street and going past Atlantic Avenue on a Saturday morning, nor the disheveled young man sketching passengers all day on the R train, but isn’t anyone else wondering what either of them is doing…let alone seeing?

With so much to observe in New York City, the message printed and reiterated by the crackling loudspeaker presumes a narrowed discrimination. It’s not “if you see something” but “if you see something that fits within the implicit parameters of suspect behavior” that wants you to say something. Don’t notice what you see, but what you’ve been told to watch for.

Recently attending a museum show, I recognized a similarly formulaic reaction occurring–the way people know to be impressed during the ten second pass by X, Y, or Z. How often have you overheard someone leaving an exhibit repeat the implicit point written between the lines of wall text and art reviews? Or, turn to their partner whispering that they don’t get it, because there must be only one “it” to understanding an exhibit and the artworks on display?

On average, people spend 50 seconds reading wall text in a museum show, and no more than eight seconds looking at the art. One anecdote has a woman reading for over a minute and then walking away without looking at all. In a reaction against this verbal influence some shows removed all wall text. That limited audiences since context helps focus attention. Good critics point us in this direction, with room to discover the works for ourselves as well. But, their job isn’t to see for us. We are equally responsible for looking around, commenting, disagreeing, and offering insights in our cultural reactions and letters to the editor that make them rethink what they see. Most critics don’t want to be shepherds; they’d rather stand up for their preferred art and artists against an opinionated, irascible, recalcitrant audience.

Though we may have calmed our fears about terrorist attacks to some degree, in a state that urges watchfulness there is a clear need to improve our seeing. If we want a visually acute population to notice potential terrorist activity, perhaps cutting arts funding in schools is precisely the wrong move. Where else would we learn to look carefully, consider what we see thoughtfully, and develop an analysis appropriately? Cutting support to the arts means that places where looking is key become less available. It means that artists whose works have often asked us to review our understanding of ourselves, our society, and our world will offer us fewer of their insights. It is with art, that we can first learn to site what we see, debate its effects, and discern the details that establish the argument worth defending.

This fall, nearly twenty years after that fateful day, visit an exhibit with a friend and have only one of you read about it, then compare which works you remember. Find one work that makes you want to stand, or sit, in front of it for at least ten minutes and realize what transforms. Try looking at an artwork you know with the opposite response you normally have. One critic recommended returning to the same artwork every week to witness how your vision of that piece changes; it can be a street sculpture or something already hanging on your wall or a new work in a gallery. If what you see isn’t what the experts found, then consider it a contribution through a personal outlook. In the conversations you then have, such honest insight may help us reconsider the world we see.

We’ve been told what to detect and supposedly our diligence has made airports safer, citizens better guarded, and yet…I cannot help but notice that no one is looking around. Eyes glued to cell phones, interpretations learned, we mouthe what’s expected. That’s not only boring, but detrimental to our society–on the subway and for the art scene. Because when you really see something, it’s surprising what you have to say.

Human who looks around a lot and so wound up a Prof of Visual Culture