Art Matters by Yifu Liu, PhD student, Department of Art & Archaeology

How does art survive in a pandemic? How does art help us survive as we deal with the painful realities of racial injustice and political turmoil? These are two of the questions I was considering as I began my McCrindle Internship at the Princeton University Art Museum in the fall of 2020. The unprecedented year brought unique challenges to the Museum. Like many cultural institutions across the globe, the Museum closed its doors to visitors because of public health concerns. The decision, while necessary, drastically cut short the time that viewers could engage with artworks in person before the institution began a multiyear renovation and expansion project. It thus became crucial to expand digital access to the collections. As part of this effort, my responsibilities included producing website interpretations for new acquisitions and generating keywords that would increase the visibility of the artworks for researchers. In the absence of exhibitions, the website is the primary way for the Museum to stay connected to the public. I quickly learned just how much effort is devoted to creating such online content, which strikes an intricate balance between accessible knowledge for the wider audience and materials that students and scholars can utilize for their research.

What I found even more rewarding was the opportunity to study closely the photographs that the Museum has acquired through various initiatives. Some of these initiatives seek to address issues of equality and diversity by focusing on images of slavery, photojournalism, and the works of women artists. As the nation grapples with systemic racism and political unrest at a time when the pandemic has already caused so much devastation, I find these photographs more relevant than ever. They include commercial stereoscopic views of Black laborers in cotton fields that circulated in the post–Civil War era. These seemingly bucolic images, which enjoyed particular popularity among white audiences, belie the physical exhaustion and oppression that such workers faced. While many Black Americans enjoyed a better life following the abolition of slavery, they still faced significant challenges, including the implementation of Jim Crow laws and the continuing exploitation of Black workers by plantation owners through practices such as sharecropping. These images serve as a powerful reminder of the persistence of systemic racism, which our society is still coming to terms with. As BIPOC communities continue to be disadvantaged in legal, financial, medical, and educational systems, we have a long and arduous journey ahead before true equality is achieved.

I also see messages of hope in the collection, however. Flip Schulke’s photojournalistic work includes iconic images of Black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and of struggles during the civil rights movement. Schulke’s documentation of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963), which culminated in King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, still resonates with viewers. Despite the recent tragic losses of Black lives, which have exposed the ingrained racism of our society, these images show that there is tremendous potential to create real change if we come together to amplify the voices of those who have been marginalized.

Just as the United States has been galvanized by the fight against racial injustice, the world is connected through the shared struggle to contain the spread of COVID-19 and to treat those infected. Health care workers have served on the front lines in this crisis, working tirelessly and risking their own lives. Their heroic acts and selfless dedication remind me of a Life magazine photo-essay by W. Eugene Smith that follows the Black American nurse-midwife Maude Callen. Working in the rural South, Callen delivered babies, made emergency house calls, held vaccination clinics, taught classes, and distributed necessities such as clothing to the poor. In an image that captures a tired Callen looking out of a window after twenty-seven hours of work, Smith shows us her commitment to the health of the community despite the lack of resources and the racial prejudice she experienced. Just like Callen, our health care workers have also extended themselves beyond their limits to treat as many people as possible. Looking at Smith’s photographs of Callen, we realize just how pivotal the efforts of health care workers can be to those facing various forms of adversity.

My internship allowed me to see how art can serve as a witness to social change and the figures, whether great or humble, who have shaped history. Although these photographs were taken in the past, the issues they bring to light and the spirit they carry still resonate today.

Yifu Liu
PhD student, Department of Art & Archaeology