Art Matters by Eloise Schrier, Class of 2023

One of my second graders recently informed me that my superpower is super vision. “You’re like an X-ray!” he squealed into the screen excitedly. I teach art classes over Zoom to elementary-and middle-school students, and during my “Comics and Confidence” class, I had asked each eight-year-old to draw themselves as a superhero, picking a talent they are proud of to be their superpower and a person they admire to model their character after. While they crafted their surrealist Crayola self-portraits, I explained a similar artwork: Glenn Ligon’s Self-Portrait at Eleven Years Old (2004). It was this explanation that earned me my superhero cape.

Self-Portrait at Eleven Years Old was the first piece of art I truly understood. I initially encountered Ligon’s print in Professor Caroline Harris’s freshman seminar FRS 121, “Behind the Scenes: Inside the Princeton University Art Museum.” Walking into class in the old Museum building’s study room, I was stunned to find the print unframed and lying on the table. I had never been so close to an original work of art—neither had most of my peers—and the proximity was intoxicating. Professor Harris began the class by explaining what Self-Portrait meant. I was struck by how much she could see in Ligon’s blurry amalgamation of circles and dots without didactics or a key. To me, it just looked like circles and dots. It was as if she had super vision. The lesson wasn’t about Self-Portrait, however, but about how to “read” a work of art. Professor Harris re-explained Ligon’s print, this time showing us how to discern its meaning by matching the details in Self-Portrait with the piece’s significance and context. With one lesson plan she had debunked art’s mystique.

Art speaks so loudly and yet often uses no words, instead relying on the ability to elevate quotidian items so that they hold entire histories. Ligon’s print, for example, is just a piece of paper. However, that singular sheet contains his history, his childhood, better than words could ever enunciate. Understanding art engenders a greater understanding of humanity—it has certainly unlocked the world for me. My time at Princeton has been moved and marked by the language of art: as a major in the Department of Art & Archaeology, I’ve learned to read works of art and to write about what they articulate. For my senior thesis, I analyzed how works of art depicting the apartheid-era dompas, or passbook, convey South Africa’s history and national identity—and make apparent where the written word communicatively fails in comparison to the visual. Through my certificate in Visual Arts, I’ve learned how to co-opt art’s loquacity and speak for myself. My senior exhibition paired found objects with paintings and prints to elucidate the aspects of my identity that I struggle to grasp or explain. Understanding art has allowed me to understand not only the world around me but also myself. That wouldn’t have been possible without Ligon’s Self-Portrait and FRS 121, which showed me how and why art matters.

Unlike most self-portraits, Ligon’s is not physically representative of himself. The print uses stenciled paper pulp to re-create the benday dot image of Stevie Wonder from the cover of his 1977 album Looking Back. The self-portrait aspect, as I explained to my second graders over Zoom, is conceptual. When I teach Ligon’s work to my elementary-school students, I repeat what Professor Harris did in FRS 121, only in simpler terms. Together, the second graders and I read the piece, pairing details with meaning: Ligon’s evocation of the musician could suggest his affinity for the artist or mean he thinks he looks like Wonder. Clues—like the titular age, Eleven Years—tell us when Ligon connected to the musician, whereas naming it Self-Portrait lets us know that he was trying to depict some aspect of himself when he made the work. Ultimately, we arrived at the same conclusion as I did freshman year: that when the artist was eleven, he identified with this version of Stevie Wonder, just as the second graders were doing in their superhero self-portraits as their chosen idols: Ariel, Spiderman, Tom Brady, and Dad.

I’ve taught this class a handful of times, and making the latter connection between the kids’ drawings and the one on their screens always elicits a chorus of enthusiastic and adorable kid-garble: “Ligon is just like me!” “I do that!” “How did you see that?” “You’re like an X-ray!” Their eyes widen, and they smush their little faces against the computers trying to get a closer look. Slowly, they come to the realization that we are all seeing the same image and I don’t have super vision. You can practically see the lightbulbs going off as they begin to understand a work of art for the first time and realize that all pieces operate through the same machinations. Ligon’s representation of his eleven-year-old self as Stevie Wonder is the same as their self-portraits at eight years old as Spiderman learning to ride a bike. Whether it’s “Self-Portrait at Eight” or Self-Portrait at Eleven Years Old, they now know how to read a work of art. All of a sudden, art matters to them in the same way it matters to me—because they can see themselves, and their world, through a different language.

Eloise Schrier
Class of 2023