I cannot help but imagine that for many of Cantor’s visitors, Jacob Lawrence’s Promised Land will be either a pleasant but brief walkthrough or a pit-stop on a touristic visit to Stanford Campus. My visit to the newest of Cantor’s exhibitions felt far from an afternoon gaiety—standing before the work, I felt myself scouring it, searching it for a much desired answer to what has lately, to me, become a terrifyingly pressing question. As a young and not fully self-realized artist, I looked to Lawrence through his work, asking of him, “How does one recognize that they are meant to be an artist? And when they do, how to they go about becoming authentically that?” He would, after all, be a great person to ask.
Recently, I had come across the answer to this question in the work of another accomplished artist, James Baldwin. Baldwin, a contemporary of Lawrence, wrote rather than producing visual work, and gave me some pretty straight answers to this terribly loud question, that seems to be blaring in the back of my head at all hours now that graduation from college is approaching. In his 1963 speech, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” Baldwin asserts that only “an artist can tell… what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it…” and that “the price that [the artist] has to pay…is a willingness to give up everything…” Thus, Baldwin’s artist is an individual who is gifted with the ability to tell of life and how to endure it authentically, one that does this by sacrificing everything else. Those are some pretty tough stakes– would Lawrence agree, would he modify this definition of an artist?
To answer this question, I will break down a few of the key works within the exhibition, starting with “Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis.” This series of silk screens is formatted as an illustrated book. The book is composed of eight silkscreens, each accompanied by segments of text from the King James Bible. These illustrations and their accompanying text are didactic—that is, a concept from the Bible is broken down, illustrated, and made both visually and textually accessible to its audience. Each segment is numbered chronologically, as if the narrative had been converted into an outline or visual chart. Notably, the subject of the series is not creation itself, but the preacher that is able to deliver the sermon of creation to a congregation. These impassioned preachers are depicted as gesturing towards an audience that faces their church’s windows. Within each of the window frames, the seven stages of creation and their conclusion are illustrated. The visual pun within the work is the placement of the Genesis scenes within each window frame—conveying that through each preacher’s efficacy as a sermonizer creation is nearly conjured before the eyes of the congregation.
Within the series, the preacher is the model of Lawrence’s ideal artist. According to Baldwin’s definition, an artist can tell of life and the experience of enduring it authentically. Each impassioned preacher is an artist that meets this criterion, so effective in their ability to sermonize creation that their congregation is transported into the story itself. The preacher (artist) can enable their congregation (audience) to look outwards, and envision an alternative version of reality than that which is tangible to them–hence their gaze through the window, towards something that exists outside of the space of the church. “Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis” demonstrates that Lawrence is in agreement with one of the tenets of Baldwin’s ideal artist, the ability to authentically tell of “what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it” or to authentically weave the human condition.
What about Baldwin’s notion that an artist must be willing to sacrifice all in order to authentically create work? “The Legend of John Brown” is the didactic historical series of twenty-two silk screens to immediately follow in the exhibition space, and conveniently seems to speak to this. This series of illustrative prints is similarly structured to that of “Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis.” The narrative drawn upon in this series is the life of John Brown; the accompanying text consists of numbered lines of a poem on Brown written by Robert Hayden. The series functions as a brief biography or portrait of John Brown. The final print in the series shows the hanging of Brown, having made the ultimate sacrifice for his supreme cause of abolition. This work centers around a narrative that tells of one that sacrifices all in order to live up to one’s values– within the piece Hayden recounts each of the sacrifices Brown made in order to live up to what he saw as his sole purpose, to abolish slavery. The work reads as a series of episodes, of Brown setting plans in motion, making sacrifices, and then being met with failure. In a sense, what is shown is exactly what Baldwin identifies as a defining characteristic of an artist, one that will sacrifice everything and occupy the margins of society in order to accomplish what they see as their purpose.
Lawrence does, however, provide within his work a modification of the Baldwinian artist. In addition to being able to weave the human condition authentically and to put this cause above all else, is the ability to lead as an instructor. Each series is formatted in a didactic way, Lawrence offering accessible narratives to his audience. The content of each series also centers on individuals shown leading—the preacher “instructing” Genesis to the congregation and John Brown spreading the word of abolition. It is no surprise that Lawrence would find necessary in the role of the artist the natural tendency to lead through instruction—during his lifetime the artist himself taught at many universities.
After many fraught moments spent trying to squeeze the exhibition for answers as to how a young person might determine whether or not they are an artist, and how to dedicate themselves to that pursuit, I left in agreement with something critical. Though Baldwin gives great advice in his speech, Lawrence takes it a notch further. The artist is not simply a gifted creator that is willing to completely dedicated themselves to their craft, the artist has the imperative of teaching others throughout their lifetime, whether it be about their craft or through their craft. Lawrence certainly did both.
Promised Land: Jacob Lawrence will remain at The Cantor Arts Center until August 3.