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Posted by on Aug 19, 2009

Princeton University Art Museum: Art as Spectator Sport, Sentimental Journey

This is Day #2 of my vacation of locality, my journey through this Princeton where I have lived for the last three years. Today I set out for the Princeton University Art Museum based on a recommendation of a friend who used to work there. It was a surprisingly profound visit offering on one hand some familiarity (hey, I have seen that in an art book!) and on the other hand revelation (my self in relation to the art). All in all, it helped articulate a few of my understandings of the nature of art and my relationship to it.

We as a society view art as a good, something that betters the self. We just aren’t always able to articulate that. The older I get, the more I realize that explaining and knowing something are two different things and are not mutually dependent. I know art is good, but I don’t always know why and I certainly don’t always (or ever) go out of my way to explain why. But there it is.

I will do my best to not try your patience with my illustrations, but here are my points as I reinforced them today.

1. Art frames us. Not the other way around. Illustration #1.

Rainy Fifth Avenue
Childe Hassam
American, 1859 – 1935
Oil on canvas
46.0 x 39.0 cm. (18 1/8 x 15 3/8 in.)
Gift of Albert E. McVitty, Class of 1898
Object Number: y1942-62

This is one of my favorite paintings of all time and I was incredibly surprised to see it here for the first time face to canvas. This painting will lead on to my second point, but for now let us assume the painter tried to capture the essence of Fifth Avenue. Despite the rain, it is a bundle of activity, it is America, it a wash of color and grays, one image bending, bleeding into the next. But the point is that it does not capture Fifth Avenue definitively. It captures our relationship to Fifth Avenue.

It is abstract enough, like a Zen koan, to allow us to transpose our understanding of the place on the fluidity of the representation. It is a paint by numbers for our own relationship to place. We paste ourselves to Fifth Avenue. Time doesn’t matter (it was painted a hundred years ago), the structures don’t matter, but Fifth Avenue matters, and not just any Fifth Avenue. It is our Fifth Avenue. We cannot remove ourselves from this painting if we have ever been there. Art is Zen showing the interconnectedness of all things, including ourselves with that which surrounds us.

2. Art is the focal point for whole communities of introspective souls. It is a gathering point, a hub. Illustration #2.

The Death of Socrates
1768 – 1825
Studio of Jacques-Louis David
French, 1748 – 1825
Oil on canvas
133.0 x 196.0 cm. (52 3/8 x 77 3/16 in.)
Museum purchase, gift of Carl D. Reimers
Object Number: y1982-82

This was another painting that I was surprised to see in person as I have studied it before in some introductory art class. The use of light and dark, the framing, the geometric lines. And the man in the far left corner seemingly waving goodbye, or at least that is how I have always envisioned it. I imagine it is the author, or someone the author knew. I enjoy the thought of some sort of mischievousness, lightening the mood of a magnificently dark painting. And I imagine the thousands and thousands of people who have stared at this and wondered the same thing. Art captures us all in a singular purpose: to understand my relationship to this image. Does it evoke emotion? confusion?

When I stand in front of paintings like this, especially ones from the Renaissance or antiquity, I imagine literally the thousands of people standing in front of the same painting. I imagine what they were wearing, thinking, distracted by. I imagine robes, plumes, frocks, pants, coats glasses, intense stares. I imagine that somehow each pair of eyes staring intently leaves an indelible mark, like an annotation on the painting itself. It is our collective secret watermark. It is our imprint. Every work of art needs a community to embrace it, call it human. All our collective staring at the brushstrokes, the canvas, the signature. It is our contribution as a community.

3. Art is intentionally sentimental. It evokes memories, place. It makes us remember. Illustration #3

Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge
1899
Claude Monet
French, 1840 – 1926
Oil on canvas
90.5 x 89.7 cm. (35 5/8 x 35 5/16 in.)
From the Collection of William Church Osborn, Class of 1883, trustee of Princeton University (1914-1951), president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1941-47); given by his family
Object Number: y1972-15

Whenever I stare at this painting, or any of Monet’s paintings, I am transported to Seoul and one of the many palaces whiling away the day on a bench in front of the King’s former pond complete with lilies, footbridges, arches, curves and a whole lot of feng shui. In particular, this painting puts me on the grounds of 경복궁 (Gyeongbokkung), the largest of all the palaces in Seoul. I stare at this painting and the memories are so crisp that I can feel the dust and pebbles under my feet staring at the pond. I cannot, at least not at this stage in my life, separate this from my memories of something similar to this. It is profound, but from a different life of mine.

4. I never have nor ever will meet her, but she is beautiful. Illustration #4

At the Window
1872
Winslow Homer
American, 1836 – 1910
Oil on canvas
57.0 x 40.0 cm. (22 7/16 x 15 3/4 in.)
Gift of Francis Bosak, Class of 1931, and Mrs. Bosak
Object Number: y1985-38

And sometimes art is just plain beautiful. I can’t explain it, but she is just lovely and the whole scene is inviting. Art transcends our ability to explain it. I can see why we rely on metaphor all the time.

All in all, not a bad way to spend the day. I then came home and read a bit of D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese scholar who wrote a lot on Zen Buddhism, almost single handedly importing it to the West. Well, the quote isn’t his per se, it is from the Foreword written by Carl Jung of all people who is quoting another Japanese scholar explaining Zen Buddhism.

Life is not an ocean of birth, disease, old age, and death
or the vale of tears,
but the holy temple of Buddha, the Pure Land,
where he can enjoy the bliss of Nirvana

Believe what you want, but that is just lovely. And today was as well.

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