Gardner Campbell: Keynote at the NMC Symposium for the Future

I just attended  Gardner Campbell’s amazing keynote address at the New Media Consortium’s Symposium for the Future (which is being held in the virtual world this week).  And what a keynote it was!  The title was “Two Painters, One Poet, and Some Sweet Soul Music”.


Gardner Campbell's set up

The talk (you really can’t call it a “talk”, let’s refer to it as an “experience”, shall we?) was held in the large amphitheater (pictured here) – so it was seating in the round.  In the ring, Gardner had placed three, raised daises (as you can see in this photo).  One with a funky, space-aged looking computer, one adorned with painters material (easels, paints, etc.), and the third, tricked out with a musical instrument set up for a rock band.  As the experience progressed, Gardner moved from one dias, to the next, pulling the threads of his ideas into a lovely tapestry.

He started with the funky looking computer on one of the raised platforms which, it turns out, was a mock replica of the M5 Multitronic computer featured on a Star Trek episode in season 2 of the original series (who remembers that episode?).  I’m only slightly embarassed to admit that I do.  I’ll spare you the details, but the main point was that the computer wreaks havoc on the U.S.S. Enterprise, taking over the ship, and blasting people out of existence.  The crew has to “out smart” the machine and take back control.  Gardner’s point?  You guessed it.  That our fear of computers and technology is deep-seated and long-standing.  We are afraid of computers because we are afraid of ourselves.  Our technology today, just like the M5 on Star Trek, is built by us, programmed by us, and fashioned as extensions of us – and so, we fear it.

The “poet” was Robert Browning (for those of you who don’t know, Gardner Campbell is a professor of English, a Milton scholar, and now the Director of the Academy for  Teaching and Learning at Baylor University)….the “painters” were Andrea del Sarto and  Fra Lippo Lippi (I had to look them both up), who were near-contemporaries in Florence, Italy – early 16th century.  Meet Andrea and the Fra:


Andrea del Sarto


Fra Lippo Lippi











Robert Browning portrayed both men in dramatic monologues and those poems, as Gardner explained to us, shine light on a lovely contrast. Andre del Sarto is a blamer.  Everything is wrong in his world and there’s nothing for it.  He’s miserable, bereft and forlorn. Fra Lippi, on the other hand, sees only beauty and light.  Yes, he sees all the same woes and tangles that del Sarto agonizes over, but he doesn’t wallow in self pity. Instead, he marvels at the world around him and gets on with things.  From Fra Lippi came my favorite quote of the day, ” If you get simple beauty and naught else, you get about the best thing God invents”.   A cautionary tale for all of us, battling the webs and tangles of life.

gardnerfilm clip_006

And then Gardner pulled up a movie clip from the 1948 film, Portrait of Jennie. In the clip, the story of del Sarto was brought forth as a cautionary tale to another, modern day, painter (Joseph Cotton) who was being chided (by an art dealer played by Ethel Barrymore) for the hollowness of his work, the fact that he had no emotional charge, no vigor, no passion.  I need to watch that movie.

Lastly, Gardner rounded it out with the “soul” part of the talk, by walking over to the musical dais and playing some good, toe-tapping tunes, winding up with “Stand by Me” and an exhortation to us all to share and reach out to each other.

Lovely, lovely.  Gardner told the tale of our hopes and fears – the ones that characterize our response to our newest and most disruptive technologies – and he asks us the question – are you a del Sarto?  Or are you a Fra Lippo Lippi?

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