At her ArtsJournal blog Jumper–“on what the arts do and why”–Diane Ragsdale discusses the importance of beauty in a democratic society, using words and works by HowlRound’s Polly Carl and essayist Elaine Scarry as starting points.
By Diane Ragsdale at ArtsJournal:
A couple of weeks after Polly [Carl]’s lecture I asked the students to read the first 55 pages (sections I-III) of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. My aim was to explore the importance of beauty (in particlar, art and artists) in a democratic society. As President John F. Kennedy spoke in a 1963 speech honoring the life of poet Robert Frost:
If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. … Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society–in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.
In her beautiful book-length poem, interspersed with images, Claudia Rankine raises our consciousness of everyday acts of racism. Two of the sections the students read are, essentially, a record of injurious remarks that Rankine has taken in and a recounting of the anger that has built up over time in response to these humiliations. She gives testimony to these everday shocks to the system as in a diary or logbook: one per page, page upon page. Here are two pages:
Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when a girl and her mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible—I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.
When a woman you work with calls you by the name of another woman you work with, it is too much of a cliché not to laugh out loud with the friend beside you who says, oh no she didn’t. Still, in the end, who cares? She had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right.
Yes, and in your mail the apology note appears referring to “our mistake.” Apparently your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion. This is how the apparatus she propels you into begins to multiply its meaning.
What did you say?
This story was originally published on April 29th, 2015.