The Mind of the Observer

Message from the President

William L. Fox '75

Right before my eyes were the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. And then, I zoomed in as I studied the Rosetta Stone. New to me, seen for the first time, the Vindolanda tablets riveted my attention, as if I could see these everyday entries and personal letters while looking over the writer’s shoulder somewhere in Roman Britain near Hadrian’s Wall. I deeply registered these separate marvels, just as one is supposed to do in the great museums, in my mind’s eye. And that is just how I was experiencing all of it—in my mind—through the cognitive transaction of a “virtual reality” experience.

On my way back to Canton one day, I had stopped to see a St. Lawrence alumnus whose main business is producing micro-chips. It turns out, however, the company is also extensively involved in the development of all kinds of computer applications. I had not expected a tour of the virtual reality lab, but once offered, why rush back to the office? The lab itself was not much bigger than a double in a campus residence hall, and in even more striking austerity, it was simply a door, no windows, with four walls seemingly held up by a stack of blinking electronics. Once inside, the director of research put me into special goggles, about the size of what alpine skiers use routinely.

I had many choices of places to visit while wearing the VR goggles—the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Parthenon, and more generally, Paris, Florence, and Athens. It had been 30 or more years since I last saw the British Museum, so I started there, actually walking up the grand entrance and through the front door, exactly as I had remembered. It was absolutely vivid, though I kept thinking there would be something inauthentic, which would eventually reveal the mental trickery of animated images now appearing before my face. Instead, I spent 20 minutes, suspended in delight, “as if” my feet and eyes were actually moving around the galleries and exhibits.

While I am completely sold on the added value of seeing art and historic sites wearing interactive eye gear, it remains complementary, not substitutionary for the visual reality, that is, the lived experience. Thoreau famously remarked on the technology of the telegraph that it was a merely improved means to unimproved ends. In other words, if a parlor conversation or an exchange of letters is not possible, then the next best means of connecting with another person is only that, and nothing more. What will virtual reality at St. Lawrence do or mean, because, owing to my afternoon excursion, it has now arrived on campus? No matter how effective the technology, we will always be rooted in the power of face-to-face learning and the physical presence of objects to study or enjoy. 

What might the digital experience in three dimensions complement on campus? For one thing, it will enhance the understanding and context of our University’s permanent collection of art. St. Lawrence began acquiring art more than a hundred years ago, never for the purpose of mounting major exhibitions or adding cultured décor to campus rooms. Among the first quality paintings given to the University was a mid-15th century portrait of Saint Lawrence himself, probably from Spain just before the Inquisition. The handsome figure is presented in full length while leaning slightly against an iron grill work at his feet, the device upon which he was tortured and executed in Rome. 

The University’s inventory of art was always intended to be a teaching collection, not one for permanent display. It is a sampler of nearly 7,000 art objects, perhaps without claim to any particular masterpieces, but representing well-known artists across the centuries and from different cultures.

It usually surprises people just how good the St. Lawrence collection is today. The work of European artists from different centuries, such as Albrecht Dürer, William Blake, and Marc Chagall, were among those on display with the more contemporary work of Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak, Akwesasne Mohawk artist Sue Ellen Herne, and Haitian artist Myrlande Constant for a recent exhibit on different belief systems. You could spend hours looking at the details in pictures executed with precision, skill, and purpose. These smaller works in our possession were always meant to help students see something “as if” for the first time, so that the themes and motifs seen later in museum art initiated a vital presence throughout life. Because of St. Lawrence, “Guernica” may not be the first Picasso one sees.

Charles Darwin was a brilliant scientist, best known for “noting the exception” in specimen patterns he had gathered from the field and studied intensely for decades. Darwin was a modern forerunner of the specialist in research. And, yet, he writes in his autobiography that he paid a terrible intellectual price for ignoring art, using his mind instead as “a machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts.” His statement that if he had life to live over again he would make it a rule to look at art every week remains valid for us today. If we are ever to develop our minds beyond a repository of diluted information, whatever our best skills turn out to be, the experience of art surely adds to the solution of problems and puzzles our talents which we will constantly face.

Spending time with collections—whether in person or by other means—ought to dispatch two false assumptions about the intrinsic importance of art. The first misleading notion is that art is a gratuitous luxury, a mere ornament added to the dull prose of life. It deals, however, firsthand with the realities and stuff of life—the surprises and the brokenness, the mysterious sublime and the connected threads of narrative. The second platitude that needs to be dispelled by “the soul of the eye” is that art is only perfected (or simplified) when it holds a mirror up to life. Imitation is temporary, is childish, and, ultimately, is not good art. Art is a window, not a looking glass. When we observe a compelling image created by a wise hand, we are beckoned to an interior life, intimating the universe, and a larger humanity to which we belong. We are never complete without understanding the possible transaction between “as if” and “as is.” –WLF