Place, Art, and Self
October 8, 2003 – 8:00 pm. J. Edward Farnum Lectures
Human beings feel the tug of both place and space, stability and change. Both are needed for a fully developed sense of self. At first sight, it could seem that place and stability matter more, for unless the places we live in and call home–at all scales from house and neighborhood to nation and the earth itself–maintain their character over time, the acquisition of a mature and stable self, one that has integrity and doesn’t shift with every altering circumstance, becomes difficult to achieve. In modern times, places do change, often rapidly. This means that we can no longer depend on them as a major source of our identity; we cannot, for instance, return to them after an absence of years to reconfirm who we are. Fortunately, works of art, which I call surrogate places, do not change the way geographical places do. A favorite painting, photograph, novel, film, or musical composition continues to offer us stability and nurture; we can return to it again and again for comfort, reassurance, and inspiration. This enlargement of experience in geographical place and in art yields the contradictory, yet complementary, idea that, not only place and stability, but space and change are needed to realize a self fully. Who am I? If I had never left my hometown in China, I would certainly have developed a strong sense of self. But it would have been a stunted self, with aspects of my nature, such as a strong affinity for the bleak desert, Vermeer’s cozy interiors, and Beethoven’s “heroic” symphonies, forever buried.