The Arts, Optimism and Imagining What Can Be

I recently had the opportunity to revel in “The Art of Optimism,” the focus of TIME Magazine’s special double issue, dated February 18-25, 2019. Edited by award-winning, writer/producer/director Ava DuVernay, this issue is an antidote to the derisive and divisive narrative currently dominating our landscape and a call to both envision and promote the arts “as a weapon for dynamic optimism.”

The issue profiles 34 people who are changing how we see and engage with the world. The diversity of those profiled is mind-boggling—they range in age from 18 to 94. They include filmmakers, directors, painters, photographers, dancers, poets, actors, musicians, editors, gallery owners, chefs, foundation heads and the head of a school; they come from backgrounds that thread together America’s broad array of humanity—race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, ability, national origin, economic status and political beliefs.

What I loved and what moved me most about this article was the conviction of each of those profiled to use their platforms as champions of art and culture to touch the lives of others; open doors for others; and inspire change through their actions. As Chris Jackson, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Penguin Random House imprint One World, describes it: “In this moment when a lot of people are feeling despair, I get to participate in imagining what can be.”

What do these “envisionaries” see? I’d like to share a few points that struck me as important to not only remember, but also embody:

“Optimism is our instinct to inhale while suffocating. Our need to declare what needs to be in the face of what is. Optimism is not uncool; it is rebellious and daring and vital.” Guillermo Del Toro, Oscar-winning filmmaker

“My ancestors went through slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, and yet managed to come out with some of the best music, art and culture that the world has ever known…the history of black excellence in America gives us a template for how to fight—and how to not be demoralized by the fight. Laverne Cox, Actor/Activist/Producer

“More often than not, I find that it is art’s defiance and empathy—its defiant empathy—that shakes me and wakes me…Art may well imitate life, but it also imbues it with a radical kind of hope—for each of us, for our communities and our country, and for generations to come.” Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation

I also like how Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, describes Leonardo da Vinci as an innovator, whose insatiable passion for learning, opened pathways for modern science, medicine, engineering, as well as the arts. Lena Waithe, screenwriter/producer and actor, talks about her efforts to locate and open doors in Hollywood for “artists who are rebels,” who want to “make art that will stick to people’s ribs.” And Clay Benskin, a self-taught, street photographer and building superintendent whose warm and insightful images of life have been featured in both the New York Times and Times Magazine, reminds us of the ultimate democratic nature of art and its ability to showcase our common bonds.

I also was encouraged by the remarks of Damian Woetzel, President of Julliard. The school is responsible for educating and fostering future generations of artists, and its core values include teaching their students that “artists are also citizens” and should use their work to impact the community.

This special issue of TIME is a celebration of not only optimism, but also the very real and tangible ways that the arts pave the way, and can lead us from despair and doldrums to joy and hope. I urge you to run to your nearest library or bookstore and devour the article with the spirit, as Ms. DuVernay writes, that “Art calls to the optimism within us and beckons us to breathe.” And then let’s share the breath of optimism by widely extending invitations to our venues of culture and the arts to all communities, to all people and empower them “…to wonder, to dream, to debate, to laugh, to resist…(and) to imagine.”