By David Alexander, on 10 January 2022
There are two things we don’t teach our students but we should: to see and to listen. They are virtues–and skills–that are at least as important as writing and speaking. Some would argue that they are even more important. Pierre Bonnard, the great post-Impressionist painter, said that “many people look, but few see”. How very true! It is one thing to receive a visual impression and quite another to interpret it.
For those of us who are in London, a good exercise is to catch the no. 9 bus at Aldwych, go upstairs (it is a double-decker) and travel at least as far as Knightsbridge, if not all the way to Hammersmith. Try it and look up: on the buildings of London there is a wealth of detail that is hard, and sometimes impossible, to see from ground level. There is an astonishing variety of statuary and ornamentation. It is part of the language of architecture through the ages, and its vocabulary is very rich indeed.
It is estimated that, thanks to electronic media, we come into contact with up to 70,000 images a day. Most of them are seen only fleetingly and few of them convey their full message to us. These days it is impossible not to be blasé about imagery. Contrast that with the situation in past ages, when people would travel long distances to view and marvel over a single image. In Florence in 1504, when Michelangelo Buonarroti finished his statue of David, he had it hauled into Piazza della Signoria and left in front of the city hall, Palazzo Vecchio. People came from far and wide to attach the Renaissance equivalent of ‘Post-It’ notes to the pedestal to express what they thought of the work (Forcellino 2009, p. 60). Despite the immense outpouring of creativity in Florence in that period, people were not satiated with images. They had time to weigh up and discuss each one.
Spending many hours each day staring at a small screen we run the risk of suffering from visual illiteracy. Under the constant bombardment of imagery, attention spans easily diminish. More does not mean better. Who now has time to acquire the skills to interpret images? Who now reads, for example, On Growth and Form, or The Story of Art, or The Four Books of Architecture?
To hear a recording of Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982) playing Robert Schumann’s Carnaval is to experience the perfect balance between precision and expression, for Rubinstein was one of the greatest pianists ever. It needs intense self-discipline to acquire that experience: absolute freedom from distraction, even breathing, stillness, perfectly maintained attentiveness. Only then does Rubinstein’s magic work its full wonders. None of these qualities is encouraged by electronic media; indeed, quite the reverse.
We who work or study in universities have one great mission: to interpret the human condition and communicate our findings. This is the acquisition of wisdom, which the OED defines, succinctly, as “soundness of judgement”. Hence, by definition wisdom is the opposite of superficiality. It follows that the quality of the output–shared wisdom–is a function of the quality of the input, the experience and interpretation of knowledge. Fuelling this are the impressions we receive as we live our lives, study and work.
Such is the cacophony of modern life that it may well be true that there is greater virtue in listening than in speaking. It is never too late to learn to see and hear, to interpret space, form, sound and nuance. Nonetheless, we go to conferences to speak, not to listen. We tap away at the keyboard to write, not to read. This is perhaps not surprising given that the amount of material available to us to absorb is simply overwhelming. The Information Technology Age is of course still very young and it remains to be seen how humanity will cope with it and reach some kind of reconciliation. But as we make our uneasy progress through the ICT revolution, it is time to return to the old skills and develop our ability to understand the many languages of the visual and audible world around us.
Forcellino, Antonio 2009. Michelangelo: A Tormented Life. Polity Press, Cambridge UK, 344 pp.
Gombrich, Sir Ernst Hans Josef 1950. The Story of Art. Phaidon Press, London, 688 pp.
Palladio, Andrea 2000. The Four Books of Architecture (I quattro libri dell’architettura, 1570). Dover Press, New York, 110 pp.
Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth 1942. On Growth and Form (2nd edition). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1116 pp.
Rubinstein, Artur, 2016. Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9 & Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. RCA, New York (CD).
David Alexander is Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction at IRDR.