Alice Walker once wrote, “If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for.”
Walker is the author of one of my favorite books, The Color Purple. In The Color Purple, Celie, a poor African American woman living in rural Georgia in the 1930s, struggles her way from a place of loneliness, abuse, and being a victim of circumstance to a place of acceptance, finding self-worth, and personal liberation. It’s about overcoming the obstacles in our lives and learning from them. It’s about creating a reality for yourself, not accepting the one that others have forced upon you. Most important, it’s about realizing we are all flawed and, in that understanding, being willing to forgive others for their mistakes.
Although I am a white male, I never took away from the book that it was a “black person’s story.” When I first read it in high school, it had an impact on me because I could identify and empathize with many of the feelings and hardships Celie experienced. They were personal trials many of us have lived through—issues of power and control, of being made to feel less than or unworthy, of learning to trust in your own strength, not what others say you can or cannot do. Celie’s challenges were human challenges. Through her art Walker was able to connect to me as a person.
Each time I walk through the 30 Americans exhibition, I experience that same connection. Although 30 Americans is a collection of works of art by African American artists, the subject matter is often universal. Anyone can identify with issues of race, gender, identity, and history. I, too, ask questions: “Why was I born a male in the United States in the 1960s?” “If my grandparents were Polish, Irish, English, and German, where do I say I come from?” “How does this vessel that houses my soul define me and what I can achieve?” “What is my purpose in the big picture?”
I know that art makes us better. It enlightens us, challenges us to think differently, to question why certain subjects make us uncomfortable, to question what we believe—versus what we were taught to believe—and it makes us explore parts of ourselves that we may have otherwise ignored. It educates us about our history—the achievements and the failures. It reveals truths about the human condition, both our limitations and our amazing potential.
This post is one of a series on staff perspectives of 30 Americans. Robert Mlodzik is Manager of Visitor and Volunteer Services at the NCMA.