The Art of Democracy: Creative Expression and American Greatness

Do you wonder about the critical role of art in bringing about an equitable civil society? Do you criticize the funding of arts and social change in the face of all other overwhelming needs out there?

To quote the incomparable, inspiring and amazing Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation:

“My friend, Judge Albie Sachs-the great South African freedom fighter and one of Nelson Mandela’s first appointees to the country’s Constitutional Court-was asked the question, and I’m paraphrasing: Is it right for the government to fund art when there is still so much hunger and homelessness?

His answer was: “It’s not only right, but necessary.”

Albie’s contention was simple: Of course, the poor should be fed and clothed and housed; we all have these essential needs.

But all people also yearn for beauty, also long for grace, also have hearts as well as stomachs that need to be fed and filled. And people inevitably create beauty and grace when they lift their voices in song, move their bodies to music, shape color and form on canvas or in sculpture, or use language to tell stories in ways that delight and surprise.

The notion that low-income and working-class people, or people with backgrounds different from our own, do not derive meaning from the arts, or do not value free and full expression-this notion is equal parts insulting and ignorant.

In fact, the arts and humanities are necessary to address a kind of poverty that goes beyond money-a hunger that lives not in our bodies but in our souls, a uniquely human hunger for dignity and for transcendence.

The arts lift us toward this dignity, and open us to this transcendence.

See Darren’s full remarks, delivered recently at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, here.