The Role of Art in Today’s Political Climate | Director's Letter Winter 2017

I remember some fifteen years ago being knocked out by the art of Shahzia Sikander at an exhibition at Asia Society in New York. Deftly merging exquisitely rendered miniature techniques drawn from the tradition of Persian manuscript painting with today’s issues—particularly the movements and dislocations of peoples and the slipperiness of identity—the work bridged past and present in ways that were strikingly fresh. So when we had the opportunity to work with Shahzia at Princeton, and to enable her to translate some of her ongoing concerns to a monumental scale at 20 Washington Road—the new home for the University’s many international programs and for its Department of Economics—it was the achievement of a long-held ambition to partner with this extraordinary artist. I urge you to discover the results when construction on the building is complete in December.

As I write, Shahzia’s words about her inspirations and processes ring in my ears from a Museum-sponsored public program, one which ended with a question from the floor about the role of the artist in today’s political climate. The questioner was not the first in recent days to ponder whether art making could matter enough in today’s polarized world. Can works of art be the effective bridging tools some of us have long asserted? Shahzia’s answer was a resounding yes, and while humorously recognizing that it’s also “okay to be depressed,” Shahzia emphatically insisted that the demands of our times could also be energizing for the artist.

This can be true for all of us who care about the visual. Shahzia’s two new monumental commissions for Princeton are dynamic additions to our campus, and in their rich cosmographies invite us to find common ground even in cultural traditions that may be unfamiliar. Hearing Shahzia’s words and witnessing her energy was for me a moment of renewal—a reminder of art’s power to heal and unite—and a call to all of us to double down.

Another such moment came for me recently when teaching a course on “monuments of European identity.” The monument the students and I were discussing that day was the modern-day museum, understood as a creation of the European Enlightenment. As we probed the ideas that underpinned an institution grounded in eighteenth-century values and a princely history, we ultimately asked ourselves how much museums continue to be informed by their origins, and whether adjustments to the model might be needed in order for museums to truly be today’s town squares and vessels for debate and renewal. Having considered such questions for twenty-five years, I found the students’ fresh, baggage-free approaches to be wonderfully invigorating. I returned to the Museum with eyes refreshed, ready to consider the ways in which we can continue to build on the past and bring new ideas to bear for the benefit of a constantly changing society.

As we move into winter, the Museum’s galleries are full of works that attest to the continuing vitality of art, the power of close and sustained looking, and the importance of the universal museum. From a recently opened exhibition considering three hundred years of narrative art from India, to a stunning installation of paintings by Willem de Kooning (affording the public access, in a sense, to a course being taught this fall by John Elderfield), to contemporary galleries newly installed with works clustered around the theme of the celestial (both literal and metaphorical), our galleries are indeed evidence of what art teaches us about time, history, difference, ourselves, and each other. Like all of the great universal museums, ours offers the opportunity to move seamlessly from ancient Egypt to nineteenth-century Japan to modern-day America—or to pause at length in galleries that speak to the meaning of democracy in ancient Athens or in eighteenth-century North American colonies. Have we ever needed that solace and strength more?


James Christen Steward

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