Fall 2023 | Director’s Letter: Between Sensory Experience and Joy

Planning for the gallery and programming opportunities that will be afforded by our new Museum recently took me to India, in company with Zoe Kwok, the Museum’s Nancy and Peter Lee Associate Curator of Asian Art. Over the course of a week, we walked the corridors and galleries of the City Palace Museum in Udaipur slowly, practicing the kind of close looking we often encourage our visitors to do but rarely achieve ourselves. Immersing myself in spaces adorned with centuries-old wall paintings, discovering the unexpected depths of richly decorated arms and armor, and traveling into the Indian countryside to visit temple complexes built across centuries of change and continuity provoked unexpected responses. Bookended by days of wandering in Delhi and visiting some of the greatest Mughal sites of India—including an ancient Hindu temple complex remade into a mosque and the tomb complex that was precursor to the Taj Mahal as a monument to love and loss, all in the inescapable heat of India in July—the whole led me to a state of mind that I didn’t wholly understand in the moment, but that, with the benefit of hindsight, I can only describe as joy.

I recount this journey to consider for a moment the relationship between sensory experience and joy. Such moments of transport must be assigned, in part, to the abundance of stimuli: the eroded layers of stone in ancient temple carvings, the vibrant colors of Indian textiles in the street markets, the smells of cows commingling with cycle-drawn rickshaws in the narrow city lanes, the fan-bestirred hot air of India’s museum galleries. The sheer tumult of these encounters stopped me in my tracks and imposed a different pace and character of experience. Such an opportunity seemed almost miraculous as I thought back to early 2020 and the onset of COVID times, when the possibility of having such experiences again wasn’t certain. On top of all that stimulation was thus a layer of gratitude for the opportunity to have such rich encounters.

These days there’s a good deal of science to back up our understanding that sensory, and particularly visual, experiences can be good for us. The simple act of looking at art has been shown to release endorphins that can help combat pain and reduce stress. The neuroscientist Charles Limb describes experiences of art as “magical” but “not magic,” since we can now study such experiences much as we do other complex neurological processes. Intuitively, we understood the benefits of art long before scientists came along to verify them. One of my favorite writers on this phenomenon is the novelist Saul Bellow, who observed in his 1976 Nobel Prize lecture: “Only art penetrates what pride, passion, intelligence and habit erect on all sides—the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive. Proust calls these hints our ‘true impressions.’ The true impressions, our persistent intuitions, will, without art, be hidden from us and we will be left with nothing but a ‘terminology for practical ends which we falsely call life.’”

Even as fall signals endings—the end of summer, the creeping shadows of shortened days—it also marks a series of beginnings, especially for those of us whose lives are informed by the academic calendar. As I write, a new season and a new art year are upon us. Here in Princeton, we are excited to offer you moments of visual stimulation that might, in their own ways, stimulate you to perceive those “hints” of another reality of which Proust and Bellow spoke. The exhibition Art about Art: Contemporary Photographers Look at Old Master Paintings—curated by Ronni Baer, Allen R. Adler Distinguished Curator and Lecturer, with curatorial associate Peter Fox—promises to afford an abundance of visual pleasure that I think could be described as joyful even as it provokes analysis and consideration.

However different the experience it offers, the presentation this fall of Doug Aitken’s powerfully allegorical outdoor video work migration (empire)—last shown in Princeton in 2010—will likewise invite us into an experience in which visual poetry, beauty, and the dark side of what we humans have done to the natural world collide. In these and other collisions, let us find moments of transport—and even of joy—that might catapult us to new experience.

James Christen Steward
Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director