One of my weekend routines is to take a long run to the west side of Manhattan, along the Hudson River, before the city wakes. After finishing my run, showering, and sipping coffee in the glow of the early morning sun, my wife and I plan where to explore that day. This is the beauty of living in New York City—a brief subway ride or a casual stroll through the neighborhood takes us to the steps of one of many world-class art institutions. While people across the globe plan their visits to these museums months in advance, for us, all that is needed for entry—in most cases—is a Baruch ID.
What Art Means to Me
I love how the world is seemingly transformed as soon as we enter these magical spaces—whether it is the desolate light and vivid facial expressions created by Dutch Golden Age painters Rembrandt, Hals, and Vermeer at The Met; the expressive exploration of color, line, and shape of Kandinsky at the Guggenheim; or the audacious and yet ingenious experimentation with form and color by Matisse and Chagall at MoMA—it seems each piece is a portal into the artist’s state of mind that has somehow remained alive and well through the ages. Without using words, art has a way to bring out surreal and yet familiar feelings in an entirely intuitive and holistic way.
Being surrounded by great artwork invokes memories and emotions in me that very few other experiences can. Wandering through the galleries, I often feel a sense of wonder in the strangeness of life—where I have been and how I got here.
Growing up in Taipei, I was blessed with free access to the National Palace Museum. One of the most celebrated museums in the world, its art collections span more than 4,000 years of Chinese history, from translucent jade objects dating back to the Neolithic period to delicate textiles, ceramics, paintings, calligraphies, and carvings over millennia. Even then, what amazed me was the intrinsic connection I felt with those ancient souls who created the pieces of art—the sense that emotionally we may not have changed all that much through the ages.
My wife and I are members of The Met, which allows us to stop by regularly to savor what truly is an ingeniously curated representation of human heritages—from the great civilizations of antiquity, to African, Asian, Byzantine, Islamic, and Oceanic art, as well as paintings and sculptures from the European old masters and notable American and modern artists. By allowing ourselves to spend an hour or two per visit—not rushing through but paying real attention to a small segment of the collections—I learned to notice how a great piece of art possesses the fluidity to weave its way into the mind and heart through particular angles, and that our perceptions change and evolve over time.
A Sanctuary of Our Own
I previously made the point that “we become what our minds are exposed to.” Expanding our experiential base is fundamental to a high-quality education. In particular, exposure to art, music, and other cultures improves our ability to see the full context of our world and the emotional underpinnings of human nature—something that is better experienced than taught. Personally, I consider exposure to the arts to be an essential ingredient to a rich and fulfilling life. This is why I was so excited when the Mishkin Gallery—Baruch’s very own art gallery on Lexington and 22nd Street—reopened following a more than two-year pandemic closure.
Named after Sidney Mishkin (’34), the gallery’s primary focus is educational: to engage Baruch students, and the public, with thought-provoking exhibitions while “advancing the understanding of modern and contemporary art, interdisciplinary cultural activity, and innovative artistic practice from around the world.” Under the leadership of Director Alaina Claire Feldman, the gallery has opened a door for our students to experience the very essence of art: to challenge preconceived notions of the world around us. Since its reopening, the gallery has already presented outstanding exhibits that have attracted attention from such notable cultural establishments as The New Yorker. Who Speaks for the Oceans, a collaboration between Feldman and Baruch’s renowned climate scientist David Gruber, created new ways for us to understand our relationships to whales and other animals. The gallery’s current exhibit, Aura Rosenberg: What Is Psychedelic, follows the New York– and Berlin-based artist’s extensive creations and the way she challenges “how images produce and reproduce notions of spectatorship, gender, family, and history.”
I encourage every member of the Baruch community—particularly our students—to visit the gallery at some point. Whether you go with your class or stop by on your own, a simple trick that works for me when experiencing an artwork is to pay close attention to how you react to a particular piece—how does it make you feel? Whether you found the artwork invoking a sense of curiosity, anxiety, disgust, serenity, or skepticism, it often opens a dimension within ourselves that we do not expect. And that is the point.
This exercise can also be helpful in other ways. I have learned that art has the ability to open a facet of our mind to awe and inspiration that helps us escape the clutter of thoughts (and anxieties) and find clarity and even creativeness. A few weeks ago, when we visited The Met, I was experiencing writer’s block. As I wandered through the gallery, listening to a docent share a detailed background on a familiar painting and explain often-overlooked details as well as the artist’s intentions, I suddenly understood that I was seeing the painting from an entirely different angle—which opened a new door for me that I did not know existed. I knew immediately what my writing was missing.
We have all experienced this sense of revelation resulting in a fresh mindset in one way or another, and it might be surprising to many how a great piece of art can trigger that inspiration.
I consider myself a scientist by trade, and logical thinking dominates my thought process. It is therefore particularly interesting for me to find a great deal of common ground between science and art: both are driven by questioning conventional wisdom, advanced by breaking barriers through ingenious ideas, and succeed by creating something new.
Admitting Ignorance and Challenging the Status Quo
In the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, one of my favorite reads this winter, author Yuval Noah Harari wrote, “Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus—‘we do not know.’ It assumes that we don’t know everything. Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge.”
Both scientists and artists began their crafts with the idea that no concept, idea, or theory is sacred and beyond challenge. I am certainly no expert in art history, but I know that artists constantly “push the envelope” by elevating the established paradigm, technique, and artistic expression in order to create something that is truly their own. You can see vivid examples of this by sampling works of well-known artists through the centuries from Rembrandt, Hals, and Vermeer to Kandinsky, Matisse, and Chagall. Oftentimes artists revolutionized their own style within their lifetime.
In my opinion, science and art—and all disciplines emanating from them—represent different facets of the human desire for discovery, renewal, and creation, which enables the greatest achievements of our species.
Harari continued: “The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.”
This draws in sharp contrast with premodern traditions of knowledge that everything important to know about the world was already known or has a ready explanation—as offered by common cultural beliefs, creeds, doctrines, scriptures, or religions.
Just as these tendencies are shared across cultures, so is the human desire to challenge the status quo, to establish new and ingenious ideas conceived by no one else. By acknowledging our own ignorance and limitations—that we do not know everything and there is always room for discovery, learning, and new ways to do things—we maintain the hope that whatever our present situation is, it is neither destined nor inevitable and we have many more opportunities to overcome than we can imagine.
And then he wrote about art! I love the MET, and like you, I discover something new every time I go. We’re so lucky to be in NYC and surrounded by many well-known art institutions, smaller galleries, and everything in between. Art is everywhere in NYC! I’m so glad you see value in art. In my opinion, exposure to art and its practice has the power to open up minds and lead to innovation in all disciplines. We see it and don’t see it at the same time. Art is everything, it can be functional or purely aesthetic. Because I studied art, I’m a problem-solver and free-thinking. This was a great read. I truly enjoyed it. Thank you!
Check out the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics to read how researchers are studying the neural basis of what President Wu vividly describes: https://neuroaesthetics.med.upenn.edu/
Thank you for pointing out this fascinating line of neuroscience research connecting the way our brain perceive and process visual information and our aesthetic experiences.
We meet our emotions through art. Like you said, “…how does it make you feel?” The artist engages us in a conversation across time and space that allows us to become conscious of our emotions. For us academics, I also find this to be so helpful since we spend much of our time living in the cognitive. Through art and our affect, we can become more balanced.
If you ever want to travel to Queens, I would highly recommend a trip to the Noguchi Museum. Although it is small, it is very interesting and has a wonderful garden which is perfect for a peaceful retreat.
Thank you, Brenda, the Naguchi Museum is one of our favorites and have visited multiple times. It is indeed a peaceful retreat!
I particularly enjoyed your blogpost as a former art student (before I shifted to journalism). I make a point of stressing the importance of the arts to my students whenever I teach, especially since the arts are so often short-changed in today’s curricula. I like to ask them the definition of art (I had an art teacher who used to joke that “art is what’s on the wall”) and after they struggle with that awhile, I offer my definition: art is what blows your mind.
Perhaps students at Baruch should be given the opportunity to visit the places You are seeing. It would nice to have students do as You do: Taking time to see on small part at each visit. After all Students in NYC should be learning about NYC treasures.
Thank you for your comments, Jake. Many of the museums I visited are free for Baruch students. All they need is an Baruch ID to access. I do urge our students to take advantage of this amazing opportunity.
Dear David Wu,
Thank you for your beautiful thoughts about the marriage between Art and Science.
I so appreciate how you share how you engage with the arts, and how you relate this to your students at Baruch and other readers. Our daughter just enrolled for Fall ’23, and as parents working in the arts, we are so grateful to read your thoughts on art through the ages, human creations and development. Reading this is another reason giving us trust that Baruch, and this city, is the best place for her.
Thank you so much.
Thank you, Ms. Spadea for your comments from a parent’s perspective. Exposure to the arts is a great example of the treasures the city has to offer for our students. With a little homework, your daughter will be able to explore the abundant of opportunities not only at the museums, but every kind of cultural organizations around us. Many of them are free to Baruch/CUNY students or offer pay-what-you-wish tickets.
I’m thrilled to see the New York Times devoting an in-depth coverage of our Mishkin Gallery exhibit coinciding my blog post:
President Wu, you have inspired me to take fuller advantage of the cultural programs in our arts-rich section of the country. Thank you!
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