Nature and art are two of the most fertile grounds for experiencing wonder. Essayist and philosopher Alain de Botton describes art as “an apothecary for the soul.” And he notes how misguided our appreciation of it often is. “Art,” he writes, “enjoys such financial and cultural prestige that it’s easy to forget the confusion that persists about what it’s really for.” In describing Claude Monet’s The Water-Lily Pond, one of the most popular works at the National Gallery in London, he writes that some worry “that the fondness for this kind of art is a delusion: Those who love pretty gardens are in danger of forgetting the actual conditions of life — war, disease, political error, immorality.” But the real problem in our lives, he argues, is elsewhere: “The real risk is that we will fall into depression and despair; the danger is that we will lose hope in the human project. It is this kind of despondency that art is uniquely well suited to correct. Flowers in spring, blue skies, children running on the beach . . . these are the visual symbols of hope.”
Museums and galleries remain among the few oases that can deliver what has become increasingly rare in our world: the opportunity to disconnect from our hyperconnected lives and experience the feeling of wonder. Museums are where we go to commune with the permanent, the ineffable, and the unquantifiable. “What art offers is space,” wrote John Updike, “a certain breathing room for the spirit.” But this kind of breathing room is an especially rare, and thus precious, experience in our technology-besieged lives. Maxwell Anderson, the CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, describes a museum’s mission as providing visitors with “resonance and wonder . . . an intangible sense of elation — a feeling that a weight was lifted,” or “cartharsis,” as my fellow countryman Aristotle put it.
“Every era has to reinvent the project of ‘spirituality’ for itself,” wrote Susan Sontag in “The Aesthetics of Silence.” And art offers a pathway for that reinvention. Sometimes, of course, reinvention means going back to something that’s always been there. Or finding a way to see anew something you’d ceased to notice. What makes it harder today is our obsession with photographing everything before we’ve even experienced it — taking pictures of pictures, or of other people looking at pictures. We can be so obsessed with recording the ephemeral that we miss the enduring.
Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of Alone Together, has written about the cost of constantly documenting — i.e., photographing — our lives. These interruptions, she writes, “make it hard to settle into serious conversations with ourselves and with other people because emotionally, we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything.” And by so-obsessively documenting our experiences, we never truly have them.
Turkle is optimistic, however, that the generation that has been hit the hardest by this will also be the one to rebel against it. She recounts the thoughts of a fourteen-year-old boy who told her, “Don’t people know that sometimes you can just look out the window of a car and see the world go by and it is wonderful. You can think. People don’t know that.”
My younger daughter, Isabella, came to the same realization when, as an art history major, she was given an assignment to spend two hours in a museum in front of a painting and write down her experience. She described the assignment as both “exhilarating and unsettling: unsettling because I realized I have never really seen a painting and exhilarating because I was finally seeing one.” She had chosen to look at J. M. W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire in the National Gallery in London, and she describes the process of looking at the painting for two hours like going on a long run. As odd as it sounds, looking at a painting for two hours requires you to push yourself and go past the point of what is comfortable,” she said. “But what was so interesting was that when I was finished I had what felt like a runner’s high. I felt like I had just experienced something magical, like I had created a tie between the art piece and me.” She’d had an experience that cannot be captured on Instagram or Twitter.
To illustrate how unusual this can be in our culture, after she’d been looking at the painting for an hour, a security guard came up to her and asked what she was doing. “I found this hilarious because what I was doing was looking at a painting. But, we have gotten to the point where someone standing in front of a painting just looking at it for a long period of time is suspect.”
Fully giving our attention to anything — or anyone — is precisely what is becoming more and more rare in our hyperconnected world, where there are so many stimuli competing for our time and attention and where multitasking is king. Increasingly, the world around us, or at least the one that’s presented to us by the tools we choose to surround ourselves with, is designed — and very well, at that — to take that element of surprise out of our path. The ever-more-sophisticated algorithms on the social media sites where we live our lives know what we like, so they just keep shoveling it to us. It’s celebrated as “personalization,” but it often caters to a very shriveled part of who we really are. They know what we like but they don’t know what we need. They don’t know our possibilities.
In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr writes that “there needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden.” There’s not a lot of garden left in the world. We should not forget that while technology will constantly change, the need to transcend ourselves through great art never will.
And that’s why art is such an important part of Thrive Global. It offers a portal for that inefficient contemplation, for making new connections, for experiencing other parts of ourselves, for disconnecting, for making us alive to our world — in short, for wonder — in a way that nothing else can. So in The Thrive Journal, as the hub of the global discussion on well-being, we’ll be featuring art and commentary from artists, poets, philosophers, museums, and galleries around the world, including Mark Nepo and the Prada Foundation in Milan.
And we want to hear from you, too. What are your favorite works of art? What pieces allow you to disconnect and experience wonder? How do you go about making art a regular part of your life? So send us your favorites, your epiphanies, your stories here.