Begin with Beauty
an appeal to artists by
ELISE MATICH | Educator + Editor
ON EASTER SUNDAY, 1939, Marian Anderson sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her access to their segregated concert hall. Although the legendary contralto made no mention of prejudice, privilege, discrimination, or injustice, her performance was one of the most powerful repudiations of racism in American history. Anderson needed no lexicon of victimization. The beauty of her voice and the dignity of her bearing belied the narrative of racial inferiority eloquently and unequivocally.
Art is a perennial tool of protest because of its ability to expose the most entrenched of social ills. Not all art, however, takes up the corresponding challenge of transformation. There is a tendency in contemporary art, in particular, to merely unsettle. In our anger at injustice, we attempt to shock others into awareness of suffering and inequality. We boldly upend established mores, but neglect the more sober work of articulating coherent alternatives. This approach is cathartic, but infertile. By taking dissonance as our starting point, we alienate the very people whom we desire to persuade. Rather than opening others (and ourselves) to new philosophies, we merely provoke defensiveness. We hurl our indignation against blank walls and into echo chambers of our own ideas.
It is easy to appall. It is far more difficult, but infinitely more fruitful, to astonish. That is why the most powerful, enduring art is beautiful. Beauty thrills us into vulnerability and conversion. Like the lover who lets down her defenses at the sight of her beloved, we surrender ourselves to the possibility of regeneration in the presence of authentic beauty. Art moves us most deeply when it elevates us, exposing the contrast between what is and what can be. Like Anderson’s performance, such art humbles rather than shames us. It offers our aspirations as the antidote to our imperfections.
If we, as artists, hope to inspire transformation, we must begin with beauty—not with aesthetics in the eye of the beholder, but with imagery of our common humanity. We must begin with pathos and hope, passion and sacrifice, weakness and redemption. We must respect difference, but not mistake it for identity. We must recall that we are first of all human, and that each of us has a share in the agonies and ecstasies of such a brief and bewildering existence.
Marian Anderson began with beauty, and exhilarated a nation into introspection. She presented artistry so arrestingly beautiful, and in such stark contrast with the ugliness of prejudice, that she compelled her audience to account to their own better angels. Our battered time aches for beauty as much as any other. Dear artists, begin.
Enjoy footage from Marian Anderson’s 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert.