Art & Justice at The Atlantic Festival.
On October 4, 2018 I had the honor of opening the Atlantic Festival Race + Justice Summit held at the National Portrait Gallery. Below is a copy of my remarks.
Is Democracy Dying? Not if you consider the best of today's artists, whom I would suggest are like the canaries in the coal mine -- warning us of changes to the social structure and the mood of the people. The artists’ role is to observe their surroundings, highlight beauty when they can and ugliness when they must. Connecting people to each other through the very act of being human, and giving power to free expression, not just privilege. If you were to look in our galleries right now, you would see both – those who traditionally had their portrait made: white men who owned land, and those whose presence was literally erased.
The Black Out: Silhouettes from Then to Now exhibition focuses on the structural dichotomy of black versus white, not just in terms of white paper and black shapes– as is demonstrated by this month’s Atlantic Magazine cover—but the practice of keeping select racial histories in the dark. To see the 18th century silhouette of Flora, a nineteen year old enslaved woman “profiled” – for this is where the term derives--next to her bill of sale for example, juxtaposed next to MacArthur Fellow Kara Walker’s 2013 installation of “savages” and “civilians” is to draw a straight line from the racism of the past to today.
As Jill Lepore, emeritus board member of the museum in her astounding new book These Truths writes: “Stories are full of power and force: they seethe with meaning, with truth and lies, evasions and honesty. Speech often has far more weight and urgency than writing;” but perhaps more memorable I would suggest, is art.
Art, to paraphrase Picasso, is a lie that illustrates the truth. If you have a moment, walk through the Unseen: Our Past in a New Light exhibition to see the paintings of Titus Kaphar who questions the power structures behind the United States, especially the Presidents—who incidentally was announced this morning as a MacArthur Fellow, and whose painting “Behind the Myth of Benevolence,” 2014 also featured on page 82 of this month’s Atlantic, can be seen in our galleries. (I’d love to say we planned this combination of Titus’s installation at the Portrait Gallery, the shout-out in the magazine, today’s panel on Race and Justice at the Atlantic Festival sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and the announcement of the MacArthur Award – but that would be untrue. None of us were that coordinated or clever!)
Also in Unseen are the historical photographs of Ken Gonzales Day who in removing the bodies of Mexican-Americans lynched on the West Coast in order not to re victimize the victims-- forces us to confront the grinning faces of the violent mobs who posed for their pictures and sent souvenirs home to families and friends.
We as a country cannot just intellectualize, and act – we also need to feel ---to employ visual artists, musicians, performers, writers, poets and film makers--to connect the logos to the pathos, as outlined in Jeffrey Goldberg’s introduction, also the mythos – the mystery and unboundedness of the human spirit. To step outside of comfort zones and be confronted and uncomfortably reminded—that the “portrait of America” has never been only about meritocracy but also social access, racial inequality, gender difference, religious preference and political power.
As we approach Columbus Day, increasingly being recognized as a day of Indigenous lamentation that prophetically coincides with the 50th Anniversary of this museum’s opening in 1968; we need to remember that we did not “find” a “New World” but invaded an old one, we aren’t just a world leader but a global participant, and in the end as we enter this world with nothing, and leave this world with nothing -------- it’s what we do in the middle that counts.