Art Matters by Srista Tripathi, Class of 2025

Shifting from a world rooted in sensory experience and human contact to a distanced and isolated one with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was very difficult for me. As I explored my course options at Princeton, anticipating my arrival there as the campus returned to in-person teaching, I considered the various freshman seminars, all beckoning me to engage in new experiences. The front-runner was a class titled “Behind the Scenes at the Art Museum.” The idea of an art class was intimidating given my scientifically inclined brain, yet the description—including the possibilities of meeting Art Museum staff, viewing works of art, and having a walking tour of Princeton’s campus to discuss the works on view—filled me with excitement. Ironically enough, however, when I arrived at the historic campus with the intention of visiting the Art Museum, I discovered that it was closed during construction of a new building. I worried that the tangible visual experience I craved was out of reach, that we would be limited to discussing objects from a distance.

Yet I soon discovered that the class was moving forward with the viewing experience in an unexpected way. Entering a classroom on the lower level of Firestone Library, I recognized prints such as Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504) hanging on the wall. The readings assigned to us before the class meeting were meant to prepare us for analysis of the works, but viewing the objects in person and relating them to what we had read was both exhilarating and enlightening. I soon realized how much more could be learned through direct examination of works of art. For me, art had always been separate from society and never something that I felt I would be able to analyze up close. Yet this boundary had been eliminated, and the following weeks included a visit to the Faculty Room at Nassau Hall, a walking tour of the John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection on Princeton’s campus, and viewings of ancient Chinese art and other works as we continued debating issues such as repatriation and the ethics of museum collecting. Specifically, the valuable experience of learning about Princeton as an institution through the various objects and artworks owned and displayed by the University—all of which told their own individual stories—allowed me to see the school in a much different light. When we analyzed revered displays such as the Faculty Room, the discussion of representation and Princeton’s history, which has both admirable and troubling aspects, showed me how committed the professors were to the truth.

As these discussions continued, my understanding of art began to shift, with my methodology for viewing an artwork is now based less on aesthetics and more on analyzing the objects in a specific context. As I walked around the Faculty Room, I focused on smaller details that pointed to transitional periods in Princeton’s history, when it seemed that it was focused more on increasing the size of the collection than on the quality of the individual works. The ability to make my own connections based on my study of the artworks was immensely valuable.

While this was a strong start, I felt even more committed to the stories and contextualization of artworks as the semester progressed and we turned toward art from other periods and geographic areas, such as African objects, American daguerreotypes, and Italian drawings, including a drawing by Michelangelo. A scroll of Chinese calligraphy, Xingrangtie by Wang Xizhi, a work I would have initially seen in a simple aesthetic light, evoked centuries of Chinese culture and tradition. As we considered the debates and struggles over ownership, repatriation, and the treatment of artworks, I gained an even higher level of respect for the objects themselves. Furthermore, the class never shied away from difficult conversations regarding Princeton’s role during the eras of slavery and colonization and the institution’s history of ignoring sensitive issues regarding art collections, something that surprised me. The class put a particular emphasis on developing our understanding of the complexities surrounding the collection and display of artworks, and working with the objects themselves was an important part of that.

As my seminar class strolled through the Metropolitan Museum of Art during my first visit to New York City, I was astonished by the quality and profusion of artworks on display, but even more so, I felt proud of my ability to contextualize the objects, which goes far beyond the baseline understanding I once held. The effort that the faculty and Art Museum staff made to ensure that we would be able to experience art the way it was intended to be experienced, to be fully immersed within the work, has forever changed my perspective on art and museums.

Srista Tripathi
Class of 2025