Art Matters by Adam Welch

Artists are storytellers necessary to human survival. I believe that. Artists have always had a place in society, even if at times they are relegated to the fringe. Artists spin rhymes and stanzas in visual form—scrawled upon animal hides and cave walls, inlaid as mosaics, or captured in the pinch of a pot. For as long as stories have been told, there has been an eagerly awaiting audience. Furthermore, as time passes, there is a need, equally matched by desire, to gather those stories together—enter the Princeton University Art Museum, Art@Bainbridge, and Art on Hulfish, collecting, interpreting, studying, and amplifying the human story as an infinite act of reinterpretation.

As the executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton, a lecturer at Princeton University, and an artist, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about art. When the drawers of my mind require organizing, I am drawn back to an eloquent bit of writing attributed to Sen no Rikyū, who is, one might say, the godfather of tea:

Chanoyu is nothing but this: Boil water, infuse tea, and drink. This is all you need to know.

Rikyū was without question a deeply reflective person. Here, Rikyū takes a complex idea and distills it and makes it real—dare I say, pedestrian. Yet, if you know about the tea ceremony, there is more to it than Rikyū is letting on. The ceremony is a ritual that invokes deeper meaning—so why simplify it, render it to nothingness? A parallel to art is uncanny. Art can be built into towering philosophical complexity; one can devote whole academic seminars to its history and millions of voluminous texts are composed about it. If I may, à la Rikyū:

Art is nothing but this: Pinch form into clay, infuse with glaze, and look. This is all you need to know.

Like the tea ceremony, art affords everyone, maker and participant, the opportunity to experience the world from another perspective. Art shows us the infinitely complex, otherworldly, utterly irreducible—and the utilitarian. Rikyū reinvented the tea ceremony, a long-held tradition, and aligned it with wabi—a mash-up of Confucianism, Taoism, and Zen—reframing art and life into the common and simple. Andy Warhol remade the everyday into art. Joseph Beuys said, “everyone is an artist.” Rikyū believed that the chanoyu could be anything; as for art, Rirkrit Tiravanija made it so.

The mission of the Arts Council is Building Community through the Arts. As a nonprofit arts organization supporting artists and promoting art within our gallery and through public art, we play a vital role in providing access to the arts, offering a chance to foster connections between artist, material, and community. There is, therefore, a shared spirit with the Princeton University Art Museum—our raison d’être is intertwined. The Museum, and particularly the new building, will afford the viewer both sides of that coin—casual and critical engagement. Along with approachable galleries, windows that act as “lenses,” bringing the outside in, and new approaches to display. I eagerly await its completion.

The Princeton team has dreamed of a way to simultaneously offer the experience of the simple and of the complex. As an artist, teacher, and critic, I often hear the death knell “everything has already been done.” The Museum continues to prove that wrong. Since opening its new space, Art on Hulfish, the Museum has elegantly called to task our staid ideas of gender and sexuality and in the current exhibition, Native America: In Translation, the complex histories of our country. Such offerings allow us, in the Duchampian sense, to see the limit of our capacity to reimagine an expanded worldview.

Nature, politics, activism, beauty, dailiness, otherness, and connectivity are at the center of our stories. Art is the sinew cinching us together in myriad ways. Museums are the one form of delivery that assures us an authentic experience with the untold millions who traveled the world before us, allowing us to garner from their experience and understand more about what we were and who we are yet to be. This is the task put before the Museum: to amass a plentiful first-rate selection of the world’s work and to reimagine the vast possibilities for understanding humanity. Having access, in every manner of speaking, to a local museum that is truly upon the world stage is no small matter.

Adam Welch
Executive Director of the Arts Council of Princeton