Yes Justice, Yes Peace: The Role of Art in Confronting Inequality

2016 Frances Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold Endowed Lecture
Rothko Chapel, Houston, TX
Monday, October 3, 2016 – Remarks as prepared

Good evening, everyone. 

Thank you for the introduction. And thank you for the extraordinary honor of joining you in the name of the incomparable, legendary Sissy Farenthold, who just turned 90 years old yesterday.

Sissy, you have served as an inspiration to me and countless others—a Lone-Star North Star, guiding our higher angels toward progress, no matter the barriers in the way. From your time in the Texas House of Representatives, when you fought for economic opportunity and civil rights for women and children, for Mexican-Americans and African-Americans, to your fights for human rights around the world—be it as part of the Helsinki Watch Committee, or the Institute for Policy Studies, or the Nairobi Peace Tent. 

Sissy, I think it’s safe to say that we probably would not see a brave, bold woman running toward the White House if you had not blazed the trail first. And so, on behalf of countless friends and fans, thank you.

It’s also wonderful to be with you all, this evening, in the special and unique Rothko Chapel. This is a sacred place—where so many spiritual leaders and Nobel Laureates have traveled, where thousands have prayed. As many of you know, this hall is the crown jewel of the de Menil family’s philanthropy, affixed right at the intersection of arts and social justice. And it’s this relationship—the interplay between art and justice, the extraordinary symbiosis that this chapel embodies—that I would like to discuss with you this evening.

Dominique de Menil once described how some people feel as they take in this chapel—as it charms, and challenges, and changes them. She said, and I’m quoting:

“They feel plunged into the night. Indeed it is the night—but not quite. Even in the dim light, purplish color slowly emerges from the darkness…it is predawn.”

This description feels so apt for this place, but also so appropriate for the moment in which we find ourselves.

Right now, our country and our world can feel plunged into night, into many kinds of darkness. Just turn on the news! We feel that darkness when we see videos of police violence against African Americans, or when we hear that police officers have been killed while defending peaceful protesters in Dallas. We see that darkness around the world, when immigrants and refugees are vilified, and when entire religious groups are denigrated because of terrorism perpetrated by an extreme, radicalized, fanatical minority. We see the darkness of racism and sexism continuing to metastasize throughout our politics. We see the darkness of fear and hate wielded as a weapon to divide us.

Of course, there is also our own ignorance—which keeps us in the dark, and prevents us from confronting uncomfortable truths about privilege, and injustice, and inequality in our daily lives.

Even in Houston, we see some of this darkness. Yes this city is one of our nation’s most diverse, but also one of the most segregated. Yes this city is one of the nation’s fastest growing, but we also see rampant economic disparities.

So, the question we must ask is how do we look at the things that might cause us despair, and see reasons for hope? How do we take the world as it is, and imagine what it could be? In other words, how do we stare into the darkness, and see the dawn?

In my own life, one of the most powerful ways to see that light—and to live by it—has been through the arts.

When I was a child growing up not far from here, in Liberty my grandmother worked as a domestic in the homes of wealthy families in River Oaks—not far from where the de Menil family lived. And sometimes she would bring me back art magazines from the homes where she worked. I poured over the glossy pages of those magazines. Page after page… hour after hour… my mind visited worlds from which I otherwise would have been excluded.

In many ways, because of the arts, my economic situation never limited my expectations for myself. The arts broadened my horizons, and my very sense of the possible. So I am a fervent believer in the transformational, uplifting power of artistic expression. And I think Sissy herself put it best, in a reflection on feminism, delivered more than 30 years ago. She said,

 “Imagination invites one to envision possibilities other than the status quo.
We have had the expansion of ‘respectable thought’ to include imagination and vision.
Actually, they offer world peace in the only place it can begin: the heart, the mind, and the dream.”

In other words, the only place that peace—and justice—can begin is in our hearts, and in our minds.

And so it’s no coincidence that Dr. Martin Luther King’s most famous speech about Civil Rights begins with a dream. It’s no coincidence that artists and activists both envision and enact “possibilities other than the status quo.” And it’s no coincidence that, at the Ford Foundation, when we talk about supporting these visionaries on the front lines of social change, we include artists who push us to think radically and deal with our uncomfortable reality—who interrogate the world as it is, and imagine how it could be.

And throughout our history, we have seen artists, cultural leaders, and their ideas, together play an integral part in building a wide range of social movements, from the Civil Rights Movement to the Arab Spring.

Now, the reasons for this are many—but among them is something simple and profound, art not only creates feelings of possibility; it also engenders feelings of empathy.

Mrs. de Menil once wrote, “through art … God constantly clears a path to our hearts.” Rothko himself put it differently. He said, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” He also added, if you “are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!”

The point of Rothko’s work is not color relationships—but human relationships, the relationship between the artist and the observer, between people who share an experience of a particular painting, or photograph, or performance… and who leave with a shared, and expanded, understanding of the world. And in this way, the point of all of our work—in art, and in social justice—is creating these human relationships. It’s opening up our imaginations so that we can see ourselves in the place of others, understand their experience, and, hopefully, make it better.

Of course, we must also work for adequate representation. We must model the equality we wish to see in our world, and elevate voices and visions different from our own.

When the de Menil’s opened up their revolutionary exhibit in the DeLuxe theater 45 years ago—one of the first racially-integrated, contemporary art exhibits in the country—they opened up perspectives of so many here in Texas. And, in turn, they did for Texas what art can do for the world. They took their privilege and turned it into public good—and now we can enjoy their collection and enlarge our consciousness.

When Dominique put together her seminal volumes “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” she said,

“they are for all those who need to know about the past in order to keep fighting for the present and the future.”

And so we keep fighting.

When Sissy Farenthold helped women in the Peace Tent in Nairobi express their joy through music and dance and art, she helped us recognize our interconnectedness and shared humanity. And when she told gay rights activists here in Houston, “No one is free unless we are all free”, she expressed the kind of radical empathy required to bring people and movements together.

These two incredible women, each in her own way, have held up the mirror to our society—and challenged us to imagine a better world, even when others might have turned away.

I’m sure some of you know this story:

In 1969, not long after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the de Menil’s wanted to donate a sculpture, Newman’s The Broken Obelisk, to the city of Houston, in honor of Dr. King.

At the time, the city refused.

Not long after, the sculpture came here, to the Rothko chapel.

While it might not be physically outside tonight, it’s clear and present to all of us. Because, yes, we might see the Broken Obelisk, and think of it as broken.  But when I see it I can’t help but imagine it as incomplete. Because there is so much more work to be done.

So whether it’s Dr. King, or Mrs. de Menil, or Sissy Farenthold, or any of the other visionaries and artists fighting for social justice throughout the world, we know—by reason and intuition, alike—that art has a role in advancing justice.

As Dr. King himself once said,

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

And it’s incumbent upon us to remember—especially in these times—that division, and bigotry, and racism, and blame, and ignorance cannot make any nation great. Only empathy can do that. Without art, there is no empathy. Without empathy, there is no justice. But with all of us, working together, we can make our vision into reality. We can make those human connections, and achieve justice once and for all. And we can march proudly out of the darkness, and into the dawn we have imagined, and brought into being, and brightened for one another.

Thank you. 

I so look forward to this conversation.