Pamela Fletcher: Convocation 2013 Address

Pamela Fletcher

Bowdoin College’s 212th Convocation was held Wednesday, September 4, 2013, in Pickard Theater, Memorial Hall. Following is the text of Professor of Art Pamela Fletcher’s address, “Winslow Homer’s Report Card.”

President Mills, Deans Judd and Foster, members of the Bowdoin community, and especially the Class of 2017. Thank you for the honor of allowing me to address you this afternoon.

It’s an honor that has particularly personal meaning for me. Twenty-eight years ago, I sat in First Parish Church, where Convocation was then held, as a first-year Bowdoin student. Given my present predicament, I wish I could say that I remember well the words of wisdom that the convocation speaker delivered. But I can’t. All I remember is the feeling of being a little too hot, a little anxious about the first days of classes and how to find the library, and a whole lot terrified to be in a strange place, surrounded by people I didn’t know. But I also remember the next four years, and how they changed my life. So part of me just wants to reassure you that everything is going to be just fine. And I’ve imagined fantasy versions of this talk in which I recount carefully chosen anecdotes from my time here (carefully chosen in part, to avoid reminding those faculty still at the College of my awkwardnesses and “Pass” grades: to those of you who may just now be remembering my student self: sorry – and thank you). But I’d tell these stories, in my perfect talk, in order to illuminate a clear path to intellectual self-awareness, professional success and personal fulfillment.

But no talk can do that. And, more importantly, that’s not how real lives or real educations unfold. Ask someone to tell the story of their life, and I guarantee each one has a moment of serendipity –  “and then I met this person who…” – or failure – “and then I got laid off, so…” So as I think hard about what Bowdoin – now and then – has taught me and what I want to tell you now, I realize that I need to talk about what comes after “and then….”. In other words, I need to be honest. So here goes. My biggest weakness is being afraid – terrified really ­– of failing publicly. (You can quickly divert yourself by imagining how pleasant that fact made preparing for this talk.) Ever since I can remember, my first reaction has been to instinctively back away from doing things that I wasn’t already pretty sure I could do decently well. So here’s one hard won truth: this is a bad way to live your life. And if you recognize this feeling in yourself, fight it.  Work against it, not least because of the second conviction I want to share, which is that human creativity – which begins with the willingness to do something new, even if you might look stupid at first – is the most important thing there is.

Now despite the fact that I’ve spent much of my adult life figuring these things out, they sound kind of unpersuasive when distilled down into wisdom-dispensing format. So I’m going tell you two stories, one about being a student at Bowdoin, and one about being a professor here, both of which are about being afraid and the meaning of creativity.

The first story is about how and why I became an art historian. It might surprise you to learn that I was an Economics major. I really liked Econ. Then, in my junior year, I took Intro to Western Art, with the brilliant and recently retired Linda Docherty. Pass/Fail, of course. I really liked that too. But I was still going to Wall Street. Then, I got a summer internship at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. I did a little of everything: I painted walls (and tracked paint on the floor), I hung pictures (and crushed my fingers with the hammer), and I talked about art with the curator (he asked my opinion of this Man Ray and I was flummoxed). If you’re getting the sense I wasn’t the ideal intern, you’re right – the skill set I had at that moment was not particularly art-specific. But one day, maybe in desperation, I was asked to clean out Winslow Homer’s footlocker. (Homer, for those of you who don’t know, was a 19th century American artist, who painted things like this. He had a studio a bit south of here in Prout’s Neck, and the Museum is fortunate to have a fairly large collection of his work and some family memorabilia.)

The footlocker was a green metal box, kept in a small closet, and I vividly remember sitting there on the floor, going through fishing tackle and old papers. I don’t recall everything in it, but one object changed my life. It was a report card – just a small piece of paper with a list of subjects and grades. Maybe because I was then a student whose life was still largely determined by similar pieces of paper, maybe because the handwriting was so obviously handwritten, maybe because some of the grades were rather low – whatever the reason, the reality of the past struck me with force at that moment. As I held that report card, I realized fully – not abstractly but bodily and emotionally – that the people of the past were as fully human as I was at that moment, as curious, as bored, as prone to intermittent success and failure. And something else struck me too: the things they left behind could still connect us to them in profound ways, even though they were long dead. This was the moment I truly became an art historian. Because works of art don’t just have this capacity, it is what they are for – to express and communicate across time and space.

That moment led to my first big life decision that seemed to anticipate, even invite, failure. I decided I didn’t want to go into finance or go to business school; I was going to go spend the next eight years studying paintings. My parents – though supportive – were apprehensive. I was nervous, too, as I didn’t exactly have the ideal background to persuade art history graduate programs that I was a risk worth taking. The chances of failing – of disappointing my parents, of not being able to support myself, of not getting into graduate school – seemed terrifyingly high.

So part of my anxiety was for my own personal life and future. And to the extent that it was, the story might now seem anticlimactic insofar as the fact that I’m standing here today suggests things basically worked out okay. But the nature of that anxiety was bigger than that: it isn’t irrelevant that the move was from Economics to Art History, and not the other way around. We live in a world where many people are skeptical about the value of art. Not the financial value of art – people are all too aware of that – but the importance of art. Many politicians frame the importance of higher education in terms of urging students to take STEM classes, and some institutions suggest charging students with such majors lower tuitions; institutions and cities debate selling off art collections to pay debts or honor pension obligations. As someone who has devoted her life to the study of art, this is disquieting – and it was when I started out too. Not because I don’t understand the pressures of allocating scarce resources, or the need for scientists and mathematicians to make the world we live in run the way it does, and maybe even improve it. I do. But I also believe that art is just as central to being human. People create and engage with art to express their emotions, to interpret their pasts, to grieve for their dead, to persuade the living, to imagine the future, to delight the eye, and to challenge the mind.  Art is human creativity in material form that lasts beyond the short span of human lives. But in a world that so values money, technology, and practicality it can feel scary to tie your life to art. And while I recognize that the world couldn’t function if we were all focused solely on art, I am equally certain that the world won’t survive if none of us are.

Given that lead in, my second story might seem at first a little off topic, even contradictory. I’m going to tell now you about my summer, during which I began learning to write computer code. Let me show you how far I’ve come. See this picture of a caterpillar. Now see this one. Can you see the difference? I wrote some lines of code that made this little black line on the top left. (The code looks like this.) But I didn’t stop there, I wrote a program that made this. As an art historian, you can imagine how proud I am. I have added a little black line that – to the extent that such a thing is possible – makes the picture of the happy caterpillar worse.

But I didn’t decide to try to learn how programming works in order to make art, or even to manipulate images. I decided to do so – or more accurately was persuaded to do so by Computer Science Professor Eric Chown – because we’re going to teach a course together this fall that’s terrifyingly experimental. Our aim is to explore how extraordinary advances in computational power are opening up new ways to study human history and culture; and – at the same time – think about how the values of humanistic inquiry might help shape how computers are used and understood. Along the way, students are going to learn some programming. As a humanist, I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea that you can’t understand a culture unless you speak its language, and lines of code that look like that are how you talk to computers. And once you understand the concept, it is truly mind blowing – that human beings have created ways to take electrical voltages arranged in patterns of being off and on, and create multiple layers of increasingly complex languages that use that foundation to produce all that computers do. Human creativity — where I, short-sightedly, least expected to find it.

I don’t know the ending to this story. I’ll begin to find out on Monday, when our first class meets. And as excited as I am, I’m also scared: I’ve never taught anything like it and I’m not a very good programmer. But Professor Chown is.  And I think it’s a risk worth taking.

So, those are my two stories. But I’m still left with the feeling that in the end I haven’t quite captured some essential thing I’m trying to communicate – the why of it all, the feeling of connection and joy that to me infuses both of the aesthetic experiences I’ve just tried to describe. (Also, I simply cannot leave you with the visual image of that caterpillar.) So, I’m going to do what art historians do best, and turn to the objects – or, here, their simulacrum in the form of a set of pixels assigned specific RGB values. Just look with me for a moment at five objects:

Brancusi, Bird in Space
Matisse, Conversation
A metope from the Parthenon
Bellini, St Francis in the Desert
The Masoleum of Galla Placidia

These images range in origin from classical Greece to early 20th century Europe, and together tell one version of the history of Western art. But that’s not why I’m showing them to you. I’m showing them because they’re objects that in specific encounters at specific moments in my life moved me profoundly. These might not – indeed, they almost surely won’t be – your objects. And just showing them might not communicate to you what I see in them. I could try to explain it: show you which arrangements of color and graceful line bring me to tears, which technical accomplishments take my breath away.

But instead I’ll turn to another artist – one who works in the medium of words – and read a quote from Tom Stoppard’s beautiful play Arcadia, which is set, in part, in the 18th century. At one point, a fiercely intelligent young girl breaks down weeping in distress at the destruction of the library at Alexandria some 18 centuries before: “How,” she asks, “can you bear it? .. All the lost plays of the Athenians … thousands of poems … How can we sleep for grief?” Her tutor answers:

“By counting our stock… Seven plays … from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripedes … You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?”

To me, works of art are like something dropped – no, not dropped, deliberately set down and left behind – in that procession, and in coming upon them again, I find joy, aesthetic joy – I’m overwhelmed by beauty, yes – but also a sense of purpose and connection to a larger human experience, community and history. These moments are rare, they are fleeting and, for me, they encompass everything. I wish you all many of them – wherever you find them – in the years to come, at Bowdoin and beyond. And I remind you that you will only find them if you get up and walk in the procession and look around you, see what is there, and work toward making something of your own to leave behind. Thank you.