Former Colby President Gives Lecture on Art and Philosophy

By Olivia Hochstadt

Courtesy of Fred J. Field.

On Thursday, Nov. 29 at 4:30 p.m. the Parker-Reed Room in the Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni center came abuzz with a crowd of professors, scholars, alumni, and students. Enjoying catered food and drinks, they gathered to hear former Colby president and tenth Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities William Drea “Bro” Adams speak. He lectured about the intersectionality between philosophy and art through 20th-century philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s interest in French artist Paul Cézanne. Merleau-Ponty’s specialty was phenomenology, defined as the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness.

Adams introduced the audience to Merleau-Ponty’s first books that expressed his deeper investigation into phenomenology. He noted Merleau-Ponty was disturbed by the dismissal of non-scientific ways used to understand humans, a subject Adams found to have profound resonance in today’s day and age.

In Merleau-Ponty’s 1945 book Phenomenology of Perception, the author realized that the human body was a primordial habitat, the mediator of the world that reveals how humans perceive our own experience and consciousness. Seeing the philosophical implications of how the senses impact the human mind, Merleau-Ponty turned to Cézanne’s paintings to understand the depth of conceptual life.

Cézanne’s value of nature and pure perception recur throughout his artwork. He painted with the senses and sought to render all of his encounters without adornment. Adams believes that Cézanne heroically captured Merleau-Ponty’s ideas in painting by making visible a lived, prescientific view of the world.

As our sight becomes increasingly overwhelmed with images in museums, social media, and advertisements, we need complete involvement in the physical world.

“The experience of vision that arouses the viewer to unique visual experiences allows us to see and feel the visual in a new way. Painting urges fascination of the senses. Sensations are wonders of the world,” Adams said, referencing how Cézanne would return daily to the same spot near his studio in Provence to paint Mont Sainte-Victoire, depicting it differently every time.

Interrogating the scene with his own gaze through self-examination of his paintings, Cézanne prompted the viewer to see again.

“Paintings show us that the senses tell us everything,” Adams explained. “All we have to do is look with persistent and rapt attention.”

According to Adams, Cézanne was not interested in the ordinary sense of representation, but that meaning would lie beyond objects themselves. In other words, we have to look beyond what is right in front of us to see its real meaning and to question our common sense to truly pay attention.

In an interview with the Echo, Professor of Art Veronique Plesch said, “Adams, in an impressively accessible and lucid manner, introduced his audience to Merleau-Ponty — in and of itself, not an easy task at all! — and then showed the ways in which Merleau-Ponty wrote about the late-19th-century artist and why his works were meaningful to [Merleau-Ponty’s] thought. For me, as an art historian, this lecture provided a new way to think about Cézanne, while at the same time addressing an aspect of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy and also contextualizing this aspect within his work at large.”

Adams answered questions from the audience after the conclusion of his lecture. In response to one of these questions, he said that as people living in the modern age, we should be committed to thinking of experience as experience, not as anything else. He commented that, in this regard, Colby can shine and be a model of this thought process in the future.