This past winter, I experienced a work of art that set me on a path that I know I will be on for a while. The performance work was Carrie Mae Weems’ Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, presented at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. At its core was one question, “What is grace?”
Her questioning the meaning of grace stuck with me long after that night at the Kennedy Center. The next time I came across the concept was in the writings of Friedrich Schiller. He sees grace as the beauty of movement guided by moral disposition and the beauty of frame (frame being form) under the influence of freedom. I could not let go of either Weems’ or Schiller’s ideas. Grace opened a new avenue of possibility within the realm of beauty for me. Grace became a type of beauty that is fully “interested,” in the Kantian sense. I came to understand grace as a transformative quality. A thing’s gracefulness is contingent on its functionality in making a positive mark in the world. It is imagination that is an individual’s freedom, which gives way to transcendence beyond the limitations of any apparatus, institution, grid or given grounds. Grace is transcendent agency made possible by imagination.
At the same time that I was obsessively reading and rereading Schiller’s notes on grace, with Weems’ question still on my mind, the Nasher Sculpture Center announced a Call for Papers for the Nasher Prize Graduate Symposium. The 2018 recipient, Theaster Gates, was to be awarded for his innovations in sculpture; and five students would be selected to present research papers centered around his work. I decided to submit an abstract, because I had already been thinking deeply about what I perceived to be gracefulness at play within his brand of abstraction. His process of making embodies transformation and movement, reclaiming discarded objects and spaces to remake them into beautiful forms that are intentionally assigned an active social function: cultivating relationships of care around an art object in order to build community. In his reclamations of discarded objects and spaces, which he typically finds in African American contexts, Gates describes his restoration of care and agency as “making Black matter, matter”.
To my surprise, I was invited to share my ideas on the graceful nature of Gates’ mark-making at the symposium. On Thursday, April 5, I joined four women living in different parts of the world, in the presentation of our papers in Dallas, Texas. We each were given 30 minutes to present, not including the moderated Q&A. The questions I received are still turning in my mind:
“Could your stance be too idealistic?”
“When you say Gates makes Black matter, matter, what constitutes Black matter? And is it still Black matter if the form is actually an object of oppression?”
“Doesn’t Theaster Gates’ work demand reparations? How should I, as a white man, approach his fire hoses? Shouldn’t I feel guilty for those injustices?”
“Considering the current climate, is grace a strategy for political movements to adopt into practice?”
Thankfully, our Independent Study presentations during our New York City residencies thoroughly prepared me for the experience. Sitting in the hot seat, I recalled all of the papers presented in our seminar, all the thoughtful questions asked, and the constructive feedback given. All of it was invaluable to channel as I stood my ground.
I credit the IDSVA process in making this feat achievable. The entire experience was exhilarating. The challenge was inspiring. And grace remains an obsession that I feel compelled to continually explore.