National Arts and Humanities Month: From climate change to racism, how the arts can save us

·5 min read

Our forests burn, and floods threaten us again and again. Another historic hurricane makes landfall. We brace ourselves for extreme heat, extreme cold. We brace ourselves as the pandemic makes its grim march into another winter. We brace ourselves for the race-based hatred and violence still rife in our day to day lives.

For the past year and a half, the inter-connected emergencies of climate change, a relentless public health catastrophe and ongoing racial injustice have been especially acute. Together these crises are so harrowing and so overwhelming that many of us find ourselves unable to make sense of what we are experiencing.

Salvation is not a word to be used lightly given the crises we face. But even as we come together to address them – through civic engagement, through work toward racial justice, through the development of new technologies and scientific breakthroughs – I believe that it is the arts and humanities that can save us: the essential us, the who-we-are-as-human-beings us.

October is National Arts and Humanities Month, and as a poet, scholar and philanthropic leader, this is what I know well: In times of chaos, it is the arts and humanities that grant us the knowledge and the insight to understand what we are experiencing in the world around us.

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They help us make sense of what seems senseless. They steady us, give us context, connect us with those who came before, and show us imagined futures. They both reveal and affirm meaning in everything from the songs we sing to the dances we dance; they give us solace and hope. Relentless global turmoil may dizzy us, but with the arts and humanities we are never lost. Now is the time to hold fast to them.

The arts have no bounds

In past moments of vast societal upheaval, we have often turned to the arts and humanities not only to better grasp who we are, but also to grasp at envisioning a better future.

In the 1930s, Pablo Picasso’s painting "Guernica" conveyed the horrors of war more powerfully than many narrative accounts; John Steinbeck’s novel "The Grapes of Wrath" illuminated the experience of Dust Bowl migrants, leading to congressional hearings on labor laws; and Billie Holliday recorded and performed the song “Strange Fruit,” bringing broader awareness to anti-Black racial violence throughout the United States.

Pablo Picasso's 'Guernica' was inspired by the Nazis' 1937 bombing of the town in Spain's Basque region, seen at Museo Reina Sofia.
Pablo Picasso's 'Guernica' was inspired by the Nazis' 1937 bombing of the town in Spain's Basque region, seen at Museo Reina Sofia.

In the 1960s and 1970s, new scholarship and inquiry about who we are and how we learn about one another led to new humanities fields like ethnic studies and gender studies. At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the extraordinary AIDS Memorial Quilt and the life force of work of artists such as Keith Haring helped define the epidemic as belonging to all of us.

Today, works like those of Jennifer Packer’s painting "Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!)," a mournful meditation on Breonna Taylor, underscore the magnitude of ongoing racial violence and galvanize us to keep working to eradicate it. Others, like Maya Lin’s "Ghost Forest" in Manhattan, underscore the magnitude of global warming. By immersing us in trees decimated by climate change, "Ghost Forest" viscerally conveys our vanishing forests while also summoning forth questions about how we might address that loss.

Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old first responder, was killed by Louisville police officers in her own home on March 13, 2020.
Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old first responder, was killed by Louisville police officers in her own home on March 13, 2020.

The arts and humanities know no bounds – they offer us both the relief we crave in chaos and the rigorous thinking we need to comprehend it. Throughout the spring of 2020, as ambulance sirens blared continually in New York at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a cello suite or a painting vibrant with color gave many of us in the city solace beyond words when words could not say enough. Throughout my years as a teacher and a scholar, it was the texts of far-seeing thinkers and the found records of voices otherwise hidden in our history that illuminated the irreplaceable power of humanistic critical thinking and cast even greater light on the connection between our current calamities and those of the past.

Create something new

As a poet, I keep learning those histories, hearing those voices, and attempting to envision the world as others once did: enslaved Africans mutinying on the ship Amistad; Black schoolgirls seeking an education in the 1800s; civil rights activists hard at work in the 1900s.

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By granting new knowledge and new understanding of the human experience, the arts and humanities empower us to create something new – whether something as individual as a new poem, or something as collectively vital as a new path forward from our global emergencies.

I’m reminded of their enduring resonance whenever I read Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)” from 1968. As she writes:

“I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.

I would call my friends on other devices;

They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.”

“Slowly I would get to pen and paper,” Rukeyser’s poem continues, “Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.”

The poem concludes:

“In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,

Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,

Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.

As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,

We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,

To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile

Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,

Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means

To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,

To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.”

When I read these words of Rukeyser’s from 1968, I better understand the world of 2021.

Elizabeth Alexander in New York City.
Elizabeth Alexander in New York City.

There is much to unsteady us right now, but there is also much to sustain us. As we work to resolve the tremendous challenges we face, my hope is that we will immerse ourselves in and gain strength from the arts and humanities. They can help us nurture the collective fortitude and imaginative vigor we need to envision a better future. They can help us make that vision our future reality.

Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, scholar and president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – the largest funder of arts, culture, and humanities in the nation.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: National Arts and Humanities Month: Without art, we have no future

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