Elizabeth Alexander on How Great Artists Orient Themselves to Light of the World

“Art that speaks to any of us always comes from a very particular place, and then we find ourselves in it in some kind of way.”


Elizabeth Alexander on How Great Artists Orient Themselves to Light of the World

It is the mark of a great writer to envelop in language a universal yet ineffable human experience, to give shape and voice to the silent ether of our most cavernous interiority. Among the most inarticulable of those interior experiences is the power of art and the profundity with which it works us over, which some exceptional minds have attempted to articulate — pioneering philosopher Susanne Langer in her inquiry into the purpose of art and how it makes us over, Pablo Neruda in his touching childhood parable of why we make art, Mark Rothko in contemplating why people weep before his paintings, Leo Tolstoy in his theory of the emotional infectiousness of art, and Jeanette Winterson in her beautiful meditation on how art transforms us.

The poet Elizabeth Alexander accomplishes this with uncommon elegance of insight in a passage from The Light of the World (public library) — her extraordinary memoir of love and loss.

In this excerpt from her Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman, Alexander reads the passage and tells the backstory of its composition as the final lecture for her Contemporary African American Arts class in the wake of her husband Ficre’s sudden and unexpected death:

Art replaces the light that is lost when the day fades, the moment passes, the evanescent extraordinary makes its quicksilver. Art tries to capture that which we know leaves us, as we move in and out of each other’s lives, as we all must eventually leave this earth. Great artists know that shadow, work always against the dying light, but always knowing that the day brings new light and that the ocean which washes away all traces on the sand leaves us a new canvas with each wave.

This orientation of spirit is perhaps what Dylan Thomas meant when he urged us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Complement this slim portion of the fully transcendent The Light of the World with poet Ann Lauterbach on why we make art and how art makes us and Boris Pasternak on the source of art’s miraculousness, then devour Alexander’s complete Design Matters interview, which flows from politics to mortality to art as a tool of living, and back again:

Art that speaks to any of us always comes from a very particular place, and then we find ourselves in it in some kind of way.


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