“The war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”
By Maria Popova
“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their spectacular and searingly timely 1970 conversation about race. But how are we to be clear-headed about our fellow human beings, much less capable of being one another’s hope, if have ceased seeing each other clearly, or seeing each other at all?
That tragic paradox is what Harvard art historian, writer, and former Museum of Modern Art curator Sarah Lewis set out to resolve in guest editing a visionary special issue of Aperture magazine titled Vision & Justice — a photographic inquiry into the black experience in America, fusing the luminous and the lucid, celebration and lamentation, by extending a wakeful invitation to reflect on our shared pursuit of dignity and justice through the lens of visual culture. Inspired by Frederick Douglass’s influential 1864 speech “Pictures and Progress,” the issue became the first in the magazine’s 64-year history to sell out completely.
Shortly after its publication, the Ford Foundation hosted Aperture for an evening of readings and reflections curated by Lewis, starring beloved writers and artists like Carrie Mae Weems (whose recent School of Visual Arts commencement address remains one of the most moving speeches ever given), Margo Jefferson (whose memoir Negroland was among the best books of 2015), and Sarah Jones (whose extraordinary one-woman play will challenge your most elemental assumptions about the fabric of society).
Among the performances, excerpted here with exclusive permission from Aperture, was Chelsea Clinton’s beautiful reading from James Baldwin’s 1962 classic on the creative process and the artist’s responsibility to society, found in the altogether indispensable Baldwin anthology The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library) — please enjoy:
There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.
It is for this reason that all societies have battled with the incorrigible disturber of the peace — the artist. I doubt that future societies will get on with him any better. The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic. And we see this panic, I think, everywhere in the world today, from the streets of New Orleans to the grisly battleground of Algeria. And a higher level of consciousness among the people is the only hope we have, now or in the future, of minimizing human damage.
The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society — the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists — by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.
I seem to be making extremely grandiloquent claims for a breed of men and women historically despised while living and acclaimed when safely dead. But, in a way, the belated honor that all societies tender their artists proven the reality of the point I am trying to make. I am really trying to make clear the nature of the artist’s responsibility to his society. The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never cease warring with it, for its sake and for his own. For the truth, in spite of appearances and all our hopes, is that everything is always changing and the measure of our maturity as nations and as men is how well prepared we are to meet these changes, and further, to use them for our health.
The dangers of being an American artist are not greater than those of being an artist anywhere else in the world, but they are very particular. These dangers are produced by our history… This continent now is conquered, but our habits and our fears remain.
We are the strongest nation in the Western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, to create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World. But the price of this is a long look backward when we came and an unflinching assessment of the record. For an artist, the record of that journey is most clearly revealed in the personalities of the people the journey produced. Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.
Watch the full event here and find reprints of Aperture‘s groundbreaking piece of media history here. Complement it with Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the artist’s struggle for integrity, and his forgotten conversation with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, then revisit W.E.B. Du Bois’s spectacular letter to his teenage daughter about earning one’s privilege.
Aperture is the product of a nonprofit foundation, supported by donations and devoted to championing the power of photography as a force of art, integrity, and cultural change.