Several years ago I was asked to give the commencement address at the Memphis College of Art. The very day I sat down to write that speech, a long article appeared in the newspaper about how useless graduation speeches are. The headline read: "Nobody ever remembers their graduation speaker or speech." Needless to say, I felt a bit deflated as I sat down to write. This year, I discovered that at "TheWriteSpeech.com" a commencement address costs just $19. Amazon.com has 3 pages of commencement speech books retailing for under $20 and eligible for super saver shipping. For the previous commencement address in Memphis, I spoke about Vermeer and why his work still has such great relevance in our world today. The day before delivering this speech, I sent a copy to my father, who told me it was a pretty terrible graduation speech as it was too serious and didn't offer up any advice.
So, I guess I better start with some advice. My husband and I have adopted 4 guiding life principles - none of them original. The first: always notice someone's haircut. It's important and you will win friends. Second: people just want you to be nice to them. Sounds simple, but believe me, it's effective. Third: don't do stupid stuff. The latter comes from a friend who became a church elder and found himself suddenly in the position of counseling troubled people who were drinking too much, gambling, abusing spouses, being unfaithful, etc. These confused souls wanted guidance about how to rectify the harm they had done to loved ones. My friend's response was simple: if you don't do stupid stuff, you don't have to suffer the consequences of your actions. So, just don't do stupid stuff.
My final piece of simple but true advice comes from Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape. When asked once as a successful business leader to illuminate the secret of his immense success, Barksdale said in his characteristic Southern drawl, "the main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing." To prove it, Barksdale, a titan of the world of high tech, gave the state of Mississippi $100 million to teach children to read. We were all shocked that he didn't buy schools computers or pay to wire classrooms. Barksdale and his wife believed that reading is the most critical core competency for children and Mississippi ranked lowest in national literacy rates. He kept the main thing the main thing - and so should you.
Now that I have shared some advice with you, I can move on to my primary topic today, which is about wonder.
I'm 41. Once you pass your 40th birthday, you can become reactionary. It's one of the few benefits of turning 40. You can long for the good old days and look to the past. As a 41-year old reactionary, I feel passionately that we all need wonder in our lives today. In this banal, homogeneous, mass produced modern America, we all need to have that remarkable and jolting experience of encountering an object, a building, a work of art, or a sight that inspires profound wonder. It occurs when we see something so completely new and unexpected; it exists outside of our frame of reference. It also occurs when we gaze at something so incredibly beautiful, so well designed, provocative, and expertly made that the inherent and ravishing beauty of what we see confounds us.
During recent strategic planning meetings, I have been speaking a lot about wonder with MIA staff and board. When I talk about wonder, some of our trustees become uncomfortable. Many don't understand the word wonder. I have heard: "It's childish"; "But Disney has a cruise ship called Wonder"; "it's just not important enough."
What is it about the word wonder that makes sensible adults squirm? Ironically, although we associate wonder with children, it's actually complicated and little understood. The dictionary describes it as "the emotion aroused by something awe-inspiring, astounding, or marvelous." In his book on Wonder, Robert Fuller writes, "wonder prompts us to consider how particularly vivid displays of vitality, beauty, or power might reveal a purpose or intentionality of the universe as a whole. As such, wonder stimulates efforts to discern what is of intrinsic value or meanings (as opposed to what is of utilitarian value or meaning)."
Wonder first and foremost describes an experience. It is an emotional experience in which we have a reaction to environment, generally inspired by novel and unexpected stimuli. The response is emotional, intellectual, and often physiological. Think about it, you stand before the pyramids, the Sistine Chapel, or the Grand Canyon, and your mouth drops open, your heart races, and your brain momentarily clears. Perhaps words fail you. It is really a complex response provoked by something extraordinary, provocative, and unexpected.
Albertus Magnus, the 13th century theologian, wrote:
"Wonder is defined as a constriction and suspension of the heart caused by amazement at the sensible appearance of something so portentous, great, and unusual, that the heart suffers a systole. Hence wonder is something like fear in its effect on the heart....it springs from an unfulfilled but felt desire to know the cause of that which appears portentous and unusual. Hence, wonder is the movement of the man who does not know on his way to finding out..."
Rene Descartes, the 17th century philosopher, wrote extensively about wonder and placed it first of all passions. He thought that wonder did not take place in the heart, but in the brain. He wrote that wonder "fills the cavities of the brain...and causes the whole body to be as immobile as a statue." Wonder made Descartes uncomfortable, however, because he saw it as morally neutral; as we stare at the object of wonder, we don't yet know if it is morally good or bad.
Between college and graduate school, I took a year off to work and travel in Europe and the Middle East on my own. It was rewarding, fascinating, challenging, and grueling. After an initial 3 months, I ran into some difficulties as a woman traveling alone and decided to head back to London. I was tired, lonely, and in need of a good meal. I took a 3-day train from Athens to Venice across the former Yugoslavia, locked in a tiny compartment with 3 very uptight young Frenchmen. When we hit the Italian border at 7 am there was an Italian train strike, but luckily I had exactly 1,000 lira on me, enough for a bus to Trieste. I then took another bus to Padua. I arrived late afternoon, tired, sweaty, and very hungry. I contemplated a shower or a meal or trying to see Giotto's frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel just before closing.
Giotto narrowly won out, and I rushed over. Something magical happened to me in the Scrovegni Chapel. As I stood there, at first all by myself, in front of the beautiful 13th century frescoes, I was overcome and immobilized by wonder. I was frozen before Giotto's painting of the Kiss of Judas, heart racing, my eyes took in more beauty than I could have thought possible. Involuntary tears came out of my eyes, which was quite embarrassing as a tour bus of Americans poured in. Although completely emotionally and physically exhausted, I stood in a state of ecstatic wonder, marveling that humanity had produced something so beautiful that it was beyond comprehension. This transformative experience is why I have spent my entire career working in art museums.
We don't care enough about the scarcity of wonder today and that is what all of you must change. Wonder shouldn't be reserved for children or for Disney cruise ships. In previous eras, people frequently expressed wonder for the natural and man-made world, perhaps because so much of the world was still new and undiscovered.
It is of no accident that we thought and wrote a lot about wonder starting with the early modern world as people started to travel by land and sea. Distant journeys brought mariners, soldiers, merchants, and explorers face to face with completely new worlds in the early modern era.
Travel also increased trade and brought foreign goods back to people in growing cities like London, Amsterdam, and Rome. In Brussels in 1520, German artist Albrecht Duerer reported seeing the treasure that Cortes sent back to Charles V. In his diary, Duerer wrote, "I saw the things which have been brought to the king from the new land of gold, a sun of all gold a whole fathom broad, and a moon all of silver of the same size, also two rooms full of the armor of the people there, and all manner of wondrous weapons of theirs, harness and darts, very strange clothing, beds, and all kinds of wonderful objects of human use, it was more beautiful to me than miracles." Incidentally, none of these objects is known to still exist today; the gold sun and silver moon were melted down.
People didn't even have to travel to experience awe. During a visit to England's York Minster, a friend pointed out to me how wondrous that cathedral with its 200-foot tall limestone towers must have been to people in the 14th century when no wooden building was taller than 2 stories. Think how that magnificent house of God towered over the local city and the very sense of wonder and magnificence it must have inspired in people who had never seen another tall building in their lives. Life was full of marvelous wonders.
Obviously, our world has changed today and that change continues at an inconceivable rate.
Our ability to experience wonder is not, however, limited to foreign travel and influences. As our world has become wider, flater, and more familiar, our skills of perception have diminished. We want answers as quickly as it takes to sign on to high speed internet and the bombardment of every day images in our visual world means we do not see or perceive very well anymore. To feel a sense of wonder requires not only a pair of keen eyes, but also a curious and thoughtful mind ready to have an encounter with an original object whose meaning - and moral position - may not be immediately apparent.
So, where does wonder come from in our world today that is so small, flat, well known, and expected? It comes from you. That's why our world desperately needs creative artists, architects, and designers to provoke, delight, and spark imagination. As designers, I hope that you will all go out and inspire and initiate wondrous things - things more beautiful than miracles - that will cause people in a banal visual world to stop and gape, heart pounding, for a moment where time stands still and they are filled with wonder at your conception.
Given that you're not going to remember anything I've said today, don't forget to notice people's haircuts.
director, Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Saturday, May 17, 2008