Art, Identity, and Activism: Cornel West MLK Keynote Speech by Natalie Ma
“Don’t reduce my calling to a career. I had a vocation. Not just a profession. I had a life task,” Dr. Cornel West boldly declared, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to a rapt audience. On January 23, Dr. West spoke at RISD as the 2019 Martin Luther King Series Keynote Speaker. While Dr. West is a philosopher, a political activist, a professor, an actor, a musician, and an author among other things, he talked about the importance of understanding who you are on a fundamental level, rather than defining yourself through external means, such as a career.
Addressing the students of RISD, he spoke about how people should aim to get a “deep education”. Going beyond a sense of prestige or success, he argued that the aim of education should be to undergo a metamorphosis. By training their senses of empathy, learning how to engage in dialogue with people of different beliefs, and sharpening their critical consciousnesses, he argues that people should “learn how to die in order to learn how to live”. This metaphorical death of letting go of their old beliefs and their old selves results in a transformation — the birth of a newer and stronger self. He often spoke about the concept in art education about going beyond the superficial, beyond one’s image, to become a new person on the inside, and to make art that matters. According to Dr. West, beauty and goodness in art are rooted in terror and trauma. Work that does not stem from pain in some way is inferior in that it becomes commodified and easily consumable by the public. To me personally, I’m not sure if I agree that important art must be related to the artist’s suffering in some way.
Dr. West mentioned the idea of kenosis — a idea originating from Christian theology about emptying oneself in an act of sacrifice. He declared that rather than any physical object produced, the sum of your life is what you live for and what you will sacrifice for it. He drew the connection to artwork easily, comparing this concept to making art that is inspired from one’s personal identity. He urges students to “give it your all”, citing Dr. King’s life as an example of how one should live. According to Dr. West, though Dr. King died at 39, doctors thought his body was of that of a 65 year old man. To Dr. West, this philosophy of starting with the cup full and ending it empty is how people should live.
Based on that analogy, I would argue that this concept of suffering for the sake of art is an unhealthy way of thinking about art making. In my opinion, pain is not always directly necessary for making good and important work. However, I realize that another way to interpret this concept is that if art is created for the purpose of affecting social change, the art is created from suffering because the need for social change is rooted in social suffering. Pain is not necessarily on a personal scale, but also that of an entire group of people. However, in that case, I question the distinction between art created for social change, and the commodified art that Dr. West decries. Art is created for many reasons, and I think that even if it does not serve a greater purpose in the context of society, it might not have been created for a materialistic purpose either. Regardless, I agree that drawing from one’s own identity and trauma is a crucial part of making work and is often what gives a piece genuine meaning.
One of the most important parts of his speech to me was, “the condition of truth is letting suffering speak”. In my Democratic Erosion class, we studied the conditions of a constitution liberal democracy and discussed symptoms of democratic backsliding, and how liberal rights to speech is a crucial part of a democracy’s baseline. The fact that creating artwork and expressing one’s identity can be an act of rebellion is an important point to make to students at RISD. When reflecting on autocracies like China where my parents are from, where censorship is incredibly prevalent, making and spreading banned content is already one form of resistance. Even remembering and discussing controversial events like the Tiananmen Square massacre is already an act of rebellion. Artwork as resistance is recognized as a threat, as shown in how activist and artist Ai Weiwei is well known for being highly critical of the Chinese government, but he has been beaten, arrested, and his bank accounts hacked as a result. Art as activism can be powerful, and in the context of the United States, it makes me wonder how we as students can use art as a tool and have a political effect on the world around us.