Written by Michelle Dezember
“Art is the highest form of hope.” —Gerhard Richter
Some of the most exciting conversations I have with the public about art happen right after we open a new exhibition. When I see the artwork installed for the first time, I almost get butterflies noticing elements that seem familiar and foreign. While this romance of discovery is possible after dozens or even hundreds of encounters with an artwork, surely the first experiences are heightened by an awareness of all there is yet to know.
On November 5, 2016, I gave my first tour of a new rotation of exhibitions here at the Aspen Art Museum. It included Danh Võ’s We The People (Detail) (2011) in the museum’s Roof Deck Sculpture Garden, an installation I was eager to discuss. The copper sculpture is part of the artist’s long-term project to re-create the Statue of Liberty in 1:1 scale, but rather than exhibiting the work as a complete reconstruction, Võ exhibits it in pieces around the world. Our group was silent as we approached the sculpture. Even after I shared the artist’s interests and intentions, the four visitors and I scanned the surfaces of the sculpture, knowing there was something more. Something still unknown.
The artist John Outterbridge once said, “Art has the audacity to be anything it needs to be at any given time.” As the sensational events of the election would unfold over the next few days, I considered more deeply Võ’s decision for his project to be shown as fragments, incomplete, and against our expectations of the icon’s typical display. I wasn’t so much in search of answers as I was of perspective—to know that I was part of something, much like the piece of a larger puzzle.
As I thought about this dichotomy, I remembered Rebecca Solnit’s writings and her ability to capture seemingly contradicting ideas, such as finding oneself in the process of getting lost. Serendipitously, this year, she wrote a new foreword to her 2004 book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Solnit’s treatise on the radical possibilities of hope argues, amongst many other things, that we lose hope because we lose perspective. And just as my encounters with art continuously provide perspective, I believe that they also provide hope.
Hope, like art, is many things to many people. But it also is, quite often, unavailable to many. In a recent Gallup study of K–12 students’ perceptions in my community, Aspen Community Fund’s Cradle to Career Initiative found that local Hispanic students reported much lower on feelings of hopefulness than both white students in the same community and Hispanics across the nation. As I consider how the museum can respond to despair, it is important to recognize what hope is not: it is not a simple solution, nor to escape from reality. In a recent essay for the New Yorker, Junot Díaz responds to a woman who reached out for advice and solidarity:
“But all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also hope. What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’” (65)
Similarly, Solnit, well versed in the inequalities of our world, does not believe that hope is capable of erasing injustice, but rather “is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act” (xiii). How are these perspectives of hope provided by art?
To propose the power of hope for the practice of art museum education, I have drawn from Solnit’s writings to select three conditions that are necessary for its survival.
Twenty-four-hour cable news networks propagate a desire for immediacy, as does social media’s ability to constantly refresh content. How does this urgency affect our ability to reflect? Perhaps newness ignores the generosity of history, forgetting the lessons learned through even the most challenging moments. To revisit the popular proverb “time heals all wounds,” it is important to recognize that what we do with this time determines how we may benefit. If we are to passively await a solution, then we dwell in the state of victimhood. But by recognizing our participation in a continuum of unfolding of actions, we are offered the bountiful gift of history. This also applies to having hope, which can be positioned as movement toward a positive, healing future.
Solnit identifies the ground condition for hope as the belief that anything is possible because we have no guarantee of what our futures hold. Time is a necessary ingredient to progress, for it allows us to prove our commitment to our values as we respond to challenges. Having hope asserts that we matter and our aspirations matter through our sustained engagement with them. It also, however, needs to embrace the fact that we might not know our impact for some time. As Solnit explains:
“It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.” (xiv)
This suggestion runs counter to many learning evaluation strategies, which often seek to immediately understand the outcomes of our programs that we design around or measure against. Having hope requires patience, for the fruits of our efforts may only be discernible far into the future, if we stay dedicated and attentive.
Hope is equally weighted in the present as much as the future. Emily Pringle, Head of Learning Practice and Research at the Tate, is a critical friend with whom I exchange conversations about our field. She once explained the dangers of worry, which by its nature takes us out of the present, either by reliving the past or by forecasting the future. This is not to say that the past and future are unworthy of attention, but rather that productive means of addressing them can be found from the vantage point of the present. In 1970, anthropologist Margaret Mead sat with writer and social critic James Baldwin in a public discussion later published as A Rap on Race. During their conversation, Baldwin quotes a poem written by an incarcerated teen who had effectively lost all hope. Baldwin’s stance on the preservation of hope was to say, “If we don’t manage the present, there will be no future.” The coexistence of our attention on these contradictions is precisely the dynamic that makes growth possible.
To be whole, we must recognize that we are fragments. Võ’s We The People is an extraordinary example of embracing contradiction: a monumental figure in a small scale, a symbol of unity shown as a fragment, a familiar icon that is not entirely recognizable. Solnit equally encourages us to resist the desire to consider our world as static, and rather, to appreciate its dynamic inconsistencies. She uses the example of paradise, which in her opinion is not a fixed place, but rather the very pursuit of it through hope. More plainly put, “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible” (77). It is possibility that gives us purpose, and it is imperfection and not knowing that allows us to learn.
As social creatures, it is rarely enough to accept that we don’t know—we constantly strive to make sense of the world and our place in it. And while it is easier for us to grasp that the future is not yet written, it is more challenging to posit that history does not have a conclusion. Artists candidly embrace that which they do not know about the past, present, and future in order to make works that show us something in an entirely new light.
Just as art begins with not knowing, so should our experience of it. Within this context, we return to hope, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but retains qualities of both in order to navigate the unknown. Solnit elaborates saying:
“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.” (xiv)
The two qualities are necessary: optimism (often conflated with hope) believes in progress; and pessimism believes in a need for caution. While the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned for his neo-Marxists beliefs from 1926–35, he maintained sanity through covert writings that were later published as The Prison Notebooks. In them, he wrote that he found hope through “the pessimism of the intellect, [and] optimism of the will.” Similarly, how can we find hope in difficult moments with our museum learners? According to Gramsci and Solnit, the key is embracing that which we do not know. We must not take any knowledge as a given, but rather observe it as cautiously as a pessimist and as unguardedly as an optimist.
As art museum educators, it is not enough to recognize the power or responsibility that we have to positively influence our learners. We must act to create opportunities for them to find hope. Art provides a wonderful vehicle for us to do this, functioning much like an activist. When we engage our community with art, we make producers of meaning, not simply consumers. Solnit summarizes our call to action:
“How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners? Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.” (7)
How can we give more time for hope to play out? Where do we embrace contradictions, and where do we shy away? How can we find power in not knowing?
About the Author
MICHELLE DEZEMBER is the Learning Director at the Aspen Art Museum, where she oversees all aspects of education, public programs, and interpretive projects. Previously, she was Deputy Director of Programming and Special Projects at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, where she also served as Acting Director and Head of Education. She has also worked as a museum educator in California and New York, and as a Fulbright scholar at the Museum of the History of Immigration in Barcelona. She holds a dual degree in Art History and Sociology from Santa Clara University, a diploma in Visual Cultural Studies from the University of Barcelona, and an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester.
Featured Header Image: Participants of Aspen Art Museum’s Art Studio after-school workshop for K–4 grades working on a collective artwork inspired by Danh Võ’s We The People.