ACADEMY OF THE HUMANITIES ANNUAL DINNER
Dr Brian Kennedy
National Gallery of Australia
12 November 2001
President of the Academy, Professor Malcolm Gillies, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a great pleasure and a privilege to be invited to address such a distinguished gathering. I thank you for the honour.
I have only one suggestion to offer tonight. Could we all spend a little more time imagining a future, one which will lead to a greater sense of confidence and well-being?
It was George Bernard Shaw who said that: 'An Irishman's heart is nothing but his imagination'. So this evening I would like to share a few thoughts with you about the power of imagination. We must focus more on the need for imagining. Who do we want to be? What do we want to be?
Theodore Adorno has asked whether works of art can be meaningful in an age of so much meaninglessness. The answer must be a forthright yes. Artists who search for meaning, challenging themselves by asking the crucial questions about human existence, will, perforce, create meaningful works of art. The principal role of art today is to challenge meaninglessness by a rigorous, vigorous examination of human existence.
When we look at something, do we actually see it? How much of what we look at, do we entirely fail to see? We cannot imagine it, we cannot remember it. We simply need to spend more time looking. It is when we see something, rather than merely look at it, that we enter into visual communication. This is a form of contemplation. It requires a sincere and humble submission to the power of imagination. Do we really use our imagination? Do we see that at which we look? We need to spend more time in silent dialogue, questioning and answering, looking and feeling.
James Elkins in a fascinating book The Object Stares Back has described the multiple acts of seeing that take place in an art gallery.
Imagine you are in the National Gallery. One person looking at one object. Think of all the different looking which may be taking place. You looking at a painting. The figures in the painting looking out at you. Figures in the painting looking at each other. Figures in the painting looking at objects in the painting or staring into space or with their eyes closed. There may be, additionally, the gallery security guard looking at you. Other people in the gallery looking at you or at the painting. We can imagine also the artist who once looked at this painting. The models who sat for the figures in the painting. All the people who have previously looked at the painting. Lastly, all the people who have never seen the painting but have seen reproductions of it.
The theologian, William Lynch, has sought to establish the imagination as the place of thought. He has rejected attempts to polarise the world of images and the world of ideas. He invites us to recognise imagination as a form of understanding.
The imagination is of course also the home of illusion and fantasy. Truth cannot be found in deception. In recent decades, we have witnessed the rise of the visual over the textual. After centuries of dominance of word over image, the electronic media of our age have taught us how easy it is to illuminate and yet to deceive, to fill the mind with images but to show a false picture. It is now essential that we begin to consider images as primary documents in their own right. They must no longer be seen as mere illustrations or evidence which validates a particular thought, interpretation or argument. Is it feasible any more to publish a book with no images. Text is only one language in a world of multimedia. Images are in themselves a mode of human expression. They should generate thought, interpretation and argument. They provide access to imagination.
Can I ask if we in Australia will accept a spirit of place, the revelation of what land can reveal to us. The poet Les Murray has written:
after the tree falls, there will reign the same silence
as stuns and spurs us, enraptures and defeats us,
as seems to some a challenge, and seems to others
to be waiting here for something beyond imagining.
The power of land in Australia is so much greater than our power to imagine it? But do we enter into it?
What sort of a world do we want to have? What spirit of education can we take from our universities today? Where is our creativity and how can we express it? It is essential in my view that we all seek to be different. We are all, each one of us, different. This is so much better than talking about whether we are better than each other. We are all wonderfully different and, with all our powers of imagination, we celebrate our individuality.
What is the Australian power of imagination? I see people with huge ambition, great achievement and a willingness to take on the world. But how can we make Australia a better powerhouse of imaginative ideas? We need ever greater determination and imagination. Australia can still dare to be different.
I completed my graduate studies at University College Dublin, an institution founded by John Henry Newman who wrote one of the great essays on the idea of the university. Newman wrote: 'you must wait for the eye of the soul to be formed in you'. Truth, he said, is reached not by reasoning, but by an inward perception. We should know that although many of us travel the world, we are all rooted in the culture of the village. The novelist François Mauriac, claimed that the doors of imagination close at 20. Could this be true? Is our imagination already closed by 20? Let us hope not.
The power of imagination. Our will to dream. Newman said that we must wait for the eye of the soul to be formed in us. The indigenous people of Australia believe that we all live in 'the eye of the storm'. We are in the central position of a world in flux. The eye of the storm is the calm center, created by the surrounding turmoil, which seeds fresh winds of change back into the storm. We must all react to contemporary realities. We must inject new perspectives and ideas into the wider consciousness.
I invite each one of you to continue to explore your imagination, to continue to make Australia a powerhouse of imaginative ideas. And may we wish for each other that we might be a calm centre, a prophetic 'eye of the storm'. Consequently, the eye of the true Australian soul may emerge from us.
Thank you so much for the time you have given me today.
Dr Brian Kennedy
National Gallery of Australia
12 November 2001