Art Doesn’t Just Imitate Life. It Infuses It With a Radical Kind of Hope

4 minute read
Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation, an international social-justice philanthropy with a mission to reduce poverty and injustice, strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement.

“Every poet is an optimist,” James Baldwin told a Guardian reporter in 1974, in an interview promoting his tender, poignant novel If Beale Street Could Talk. It was his first book in six years, and he would soon turn 50 years old. As a black man in America, one who had stood weeping at his friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in Atlanta, pessimism would have been understandable. But as one of our greatest artists, a writer who lived with eyes wide open to the beauty and tragedy of the world around him, Baldwin found both comfort and possibility in hope.

I am no poet myself, but this is why my optimism is so often renewed and recharged by the arts. From the time I encountered Baldwin’s work when I was a sophomore in college to this winter, when I sat stunned by Barry Jenkins’s astonishing and all-too-timely film adaptation of Beale Street, Baldwin’s words have lifted me up, expanded my consciousness, and helped me make sense of my own experience. More often than not, I find that it is art’s defiance and empathy—its defiant empathy—that shakes me and wakes me.

I remember vividly when, as a young student at the University of Texas, the Dance Theater of Harlem visited Austin on a national tour. The majesty and grace of their performance astonished me. To see people who looked like me, dancing and expressing themselves in a way that was so dynamic, kinetic, and new—that night moved me deeply. It was an early experience, to be repeated often in my life, when the arts broadened my perspective and expanded my world.

Today, we are blessed with art, artists, and even art patrons that make us feel our most awake and hopeful.

I felt this same way when, last year, I found myself sitting inside the gates of the San Quentin State Prison in California, with legendary art patron and philanthropist Agnes Gund. What was this 80-year-old-grandmother, and president emerita of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, doing in a men’s prison? Simple. Aggie was there to learn.

See the 2019 Optimists issue, guest-edited by Ava DuVernay.

After reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, and watching Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary 13th, Aggie was horrified by the state of the criminal justice system and the implications for her own grandchildren, six of whom are black. So, after decades of charitable donations to museums, she chose to direct her philanthropy toward justice.

In 2017, Aggie sold one of her prized works of art—Roy Lichtenstein’s Masterpiece—and used some of the proceeds to establish the Art for Justice Fund, which is now investing more than $100 million towards criminal justice reform. While patrons of the arts are typically more focused on paintings and buildings, Aggie has created a platform for them to join her in contributing to meaningful, systemic change.

That day at San Quentin, our guide was a man whose life could not have been more different from hers. He was black, convicted at age 16, now serving a sentence of 35 years to life. His beard had grayed. As they talked—Aggie in a stylish but practical vest; her tour guide in a jacket labeled “prisoner”—I felt anguish, but also optimism. These two people, with such vastly different lives, were standing shoulder to shoulder and committed to the same arc of justice.

Like our forbearers a half-century ago, today we find ourselves in a moment of possibility, but also one of uncertainty and upheaval. In such a moment, free, full, and creative expression can inspire and embolden us. It can connect us to each other and build momentum for change. And it can fuel our collective optimism. Art may well imitate life, but it also imbues it with a radical kind of hope—for each of us, for our communities and country, and for generations to come.

See the 2019 Optimists issue, guest-edited by Ava DuVernay.

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