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.