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Talking to Strangers: Art and Democracy in These Times

Gennaio 31, 2020

By Claudia Trezza.

Political philosopher Danielle Allen and visual artist Theaster Gates picked up on this year’s Academy theme, “Encounters,” to delve into a conversation on democracy, art, and social activism.

The professional biographies of the two speakers provide just a small glimpse into the depth and span of their curricula: Allen holds two PhDs, one in classics and another in government, and directs Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics; Gates is a policy professor at the University of Chicago, as well as a sculptor, musician, and urban planner. The two spoke of the meaning and acts of democracy, as well as its erosion, from the time of the ancient Greeks, through the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, to the various contemporary crises in the world. They also talked about Chicago, where the two first met a decade ago.

Speaking at the American Academy in Rome’s Villa Aurelia on January 16, Allen pointed out that over 40 million people are currently enslaved throughout the world—including 1.9 million in the US. She described hearing about modern enslavement for the first time in 1997, when she read about a group of women being walked naked across the stage in an auction for sex slaves in Milan. Asked about the differences in slavery today compared to past slaveries, Allen said, “It costs less to buy and sell slaves today. It’s cheaper,” adding, “it’s a horrible thing to say.”

Allen presented a grim picture of the state of democracy today. Quoting a recent Pew survey, she pointed out that fewer than 30 percent of millennials believe democracy is necessary. “You can’t keep a democracy if people don’t want one,” she said.

But there were some glimmers of hope in the conversation. Those bright moments came when Allen talked about the role of art and artists in changing society’s values and revamping what she referred to as the “democratic energy.” Echoing a point she made in “The Road from Serfdom,” an article published last month in the Atlantic, Allen made the case that value systems in the US and across the world have shifted since the 1970s, when traditional social norms were abandoned and political leaders were replaced by technocrats whose decisions are often detached from politics and the democratic will.

To make her point, she introduced Theaster Gates, referring to him as a “propheticlike figure,” an “agent” capable of making changes through labor and “raise buildings from the dead.”

Gates described his path to founding his organization, the Rebuild Foundation, which is focused on redeveloping and creating cultural spaces and initiatives in under-resourced neighborhoods. He explained his decision to continue living in his neighborhood, on the South Side of Chicago, even after gaining notoriety as an artist and securing a financial situation that would have allowed him to move to a wealthier neighborhood (but “the people there,” he said, “didn’t necessarily want me there”.) Instead of moving, he decided to stay, “as a political act,” he stated, and now he is involved in building cultural centers, developing art programs in schools, saving trees, and training “sisters” in his neighborhood the art of carpentry. His goal, he said, was “to see how much beauty could be generated.”

Yet Gates worried about his projects being too limited in scope and wondered whether such things could happen on a bigger, worldwide scale. But Allen stressed the importance of actions such as Gates’s not so much for their replicability but for their ability to change the underlying societal values in which decisions are made. “These acts are not necessarily global in their activity,” she said, but “global in ideology.”

The two speakers and friends, both current Residents at the Academy (Allen is the Esther Van Deman Resident in the Humanities and Gates is the Mary Miss Resident in Visual Arts), bounced back views about policy, ideals, and hope, defining democracy as “an egalitarian empowerment of a citizenry” capable of “expanding our horizons” and building “structures of power-sharing to dissolve hegemony.” Allen discussed the impellent need to rebuild a majority that cares about democracy and that participates in the democratic process. She is currently redesigning the civics curriculum for public schools to make children active participants in political life. (“We realized, there is nothing about America in the world,” referring to the current curriculum.)

Once again the American Academy in Rome displayed the breadth of its themes and the versatility of its community, proving the central role it plays in Rome’s intellectual and cultural scene. As AAR celebrates its 125th anniversary, its theme “Encounters” seeks to underline the interdisciplinary exchanges that take place here, between artists and architects, classicists and composers, writers and activists, and drivers of change.

As Gates described it “the Academy is a world where the life of the mind is celebrated.”

The conversation was part of the 2019–20 season Conversations/Conversazioni: From the American Academy in Rome sponsored by the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.