To All the Futures We Can Imagine

8.3 / Art can’t do anything if we don’t.

To All the Futures We Can Imagine

By Jen Delos Reyes March 23, 2017

I have been spending time recently reading the letters of influential Southern writer and activist Lillian Smith. I am working on a lecture for an upcoming symposium on arts and social change organized in her honor. Smith’s life work was dedicated to ending social and racial injustice. She did not see a division between art and politics and in her own life did not see the role of artist and activist as separate. Most people, she felt, are too quick to separate means and ends. In a letter that she wrote to an editor at the New York Herald Tribune, Lewis Gannett, she reflected on what the role of artists should be in a politically tumultuous, strained, and divisive America, “But of course there are times when we can take no more. We must have something to cheer us, to divert, amuse. But we should not ask our serious artists and novelists to be ‘good therapy’ for us; nor should we ask them to show us the ‘best America’—whatever that is. It isn’t fair to ask an artist to do anything but reveal to us human experience as he knows it; as he has felt it, dreamed it, experienced it."1 Smith believed in the power of letters to affect change, and letter writing was part of her activism. Post-election many of us have also been writing letters, mostly to our local representatives.

In 2015 I attended one of Fred Moten’s lectures at which he read several gorgeous, rich, and vulnerable emails he had written to his friends and colleagues. His words reminded me of how I want to communicate and how I want to reflect on what I encounter in my life. Inspired by his talk I began a mostly weekly practice of writing letters to beloved friends scattered across the world. Letter writing is a form that I have come to embrace and use often for communication; the form lends itself to intimacy, to a kind of address that feels deep and direct.

From one of Moten’s poems:

the absence of your letter

shines in absent distance.

I, too, fall behind on writing these weekly letters. I sent my last just after the US election:

November 13, 2016

Distant Friends,

I began writing you this letter last Monday in the dark, flying somewhere over this country between Seattle and Chicago. I tried to finish this letter at my desk at work on Wednesday, but disbelief paralyzed me, as did my state of shock following the election. As a mixed-race woman of color who is also an immigrant, I am terrified. As someone who already regularly encounters threatening acts of street harassment and aggression, the current uptick in violent acts toward POC and WOC in America is horrifying. As someone whose friends are mostly women, queer, trans, or people of color, I am worried about all of us. As an art educator and someone whom some see as a leader in my field, people are already looking to me and asking what we are going to do to organize around this, and all I want to do is take a moment to grieve, even though I understand the fierce urgency of now.

As if this week were not hard enough, I am devastated by the death of Leonard Cohen, which was only amplified by my ultra Canadian leanings. He was a true inspiration for so much of what I have done. The night I heard the news I read two Cohen books in bed and cried.

A mentor and a former grad school committee member has been battling cancer for the past 15 months and posted a beautiful and heart wrenching update about survival, democracy, and the fear that he had that as he cast his ballot for Clinton: that this would be the last election that he would participate in. As a professor of social practice, he wrote that he is always engaging with the idea that narratives can be formed in social space through the work of the imagination—that poetry can affect encounters. In the words of William Carlos Williams, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably everyday for lack of what is found there.”

On the last date I went on, I pulled a James Baldwin reading out of my bag. I had wanted to share with him a quote from Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process,”

The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.2

I reread Baldwin this week, feeling hopeless and concerned for the failing of the human race. I was really struggling with what role art could play in making true change. I recalled Theodor Adorno’s line to Walter Benjamin, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” Bertolt Brecht offers an antidote and much needed reminder:

In the dark times 

Will there also be singing? 

Yes, there will also be singing.

About the dark times.3

In the wake of Cohen’s death, one of the most circulated quotes has been, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” In these dark times, we must remember that there is always hope, and that in the small gaps, in our beloved communities, and in the spaces of resistance, we will find the light.

If you need me, I am here continuing to shine as bright as I can,

Letter writing is not only part of my personal life and activism, it is also often part of my job. I live and work in Chicago where I am the Associate Director of the School of Art & Art History at UIC. The other week I was charged with keeping on top of the letters that we mail out to newly admitted students. We’d sent a round of letters out in October and we needed to ensure that the next round reflected the current post-election moment. In a conversation with a colleague I said that we should include a line about art being more important than ever before. They laughed and suggested that we would follow that with “Just kidding!” because we’d never say something so trite. The thing is, I would. I believe that art is more important now than ever. I know it is idealistic, but I understand how Smith felt when she reflected on her own idealism, “I am often called an idealist because I refuse to give up big ends for little ones. I am an ‘idealist,’ but a pretty tough one, I think, who believes that just to be smart isn’t enough, nor is it enough to be right. One must be both right and smart, and one can be both."4 Part of my idealism is that art can be both a deep reflection of one’s personal experience and individual expression, as Smith said, and also, as Smith exemplifies, a mantle of one’s political commitments.

What follows here is the letter I would have sent to all of the newly admitted students choosing to pursue a life as an artist at this time.

February 24, 2017

To a Young Artist,

Each year I return to a letter written by Yoko Ono that is addressed as this letter is. I read the letter myself as a reminder, but also share this letter with all of my students. Ono writes that no matter your age, you are young to have decided at this time in your life to be an artist. She outlines how incredible this path that we have chosen for our lives is: that we will unfold the infinite mystery of life and share it with others, that no matter how many people our work reaches, its existence will influence the world, and that even if we remain unknown, our work affects change. She explains that we must be caring of what we make and that it will bring back to us ten-fold what we have given out. If we give out junk, we get back junk. If we give out confusion, we give ourselves confusion. If we give out something beautiful, we get back ten times that beauty in our lives. How she closes the letter makes my eyes well with tears year after year, “You are now like a tree in the park. Your existence is making the city breathe well…By the way, my many thanks to you for being an artist. I am aware that I am one of the many, many people who gets the benefit of your decision. I wish you great success. I love you!”5

I am also thankful to you for your decision to be an artist, and look forward working alongside you as you explore what it means to be an artist in these politically contentious times. Artists are needed now more than ever before. Southern social justice writer and activist Lillian Smith, an inspiration to me, remained adamant that artists cannot and must not separate their art from their politics, and that through radical imagination and creativity artists affect social change and build a more just and equitable world. 

In this moment of political urgency, I turn again to Smith’s words written to a friend, “I find it hard to sit here on the mountain writing about philosophical matters at such a time. So once more, I must cry out a warning to my beloved people. Our art must at this moment function as a warning cry.”

When I was in art school I was critical of the curriculum. I found it to be antiquated: today artists no longer need to learn how to draw a nude, how to produce a color wheel, or to master perspectival drawing. As artists we need to learn how to look. This looking must reach beyond the page; we need to really see the world around us. We need to understand political spectrums, not just grey scales and color wheels. We must be able to communicate and connect with a wide variety of perspectives, including those which differ from our own. As artists develop their craft and hone in on concepts, we should focus on context, publics, and social function. Pushing art students to move beyond learning the basic rudimentary skill building we associate with art making is urgent. Understanding that artists need different skills today is urgent. We need artists to understand social systems, political and legislative structures, to be skilled in non-violent protest and demonstration, and to understand how to organize creatively in their communities.

This should be the basis of all art education today.

In The Journey (1954) Lillian Smith wrote: “To believe in something not yet proved and to underwrite it with our lives: it is the only way we can leave the future open.”6 By committing your future to becoming an artist you are underwriting the belief that art matters with your own life. Your decision makes me hopeful for our future; in whatever direction your work develops, you are influencing the world. Art can be a rallying call to action, a beacon. Art exercises our imaginations so we can envision other ways. Art keeps the future open. As of the date on which I wrote you this letter, 1347 days in the current administration remain. As hopeless as these times can feel, remember that each one of these days holds the possibility of a new future, and that part of your work as an artist is to create that future.

To all the futures we can imagine,
Jen Delos Reyes


  1. Eugenia L. Smith, How am I to be Heard?: letters of Lillian Smith (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 140.
  2. James Baldwin, “The Creative Process,” in Creative America (New York: The Ridge Press, 1962),
  3. From Brecht’s Svendborg Poems of the 1930s, and shared by several different contemporary artists in correspondence with the author.
  4. Margaret Rose Gladney, ed., How am I to be Heard?: Letters of Lillian Smith (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 92.
  5. Gregory Amenoff, Letters to a Young Artist, Peter Nesbett, Sarah Andress, Shelly Bancroft, eds. (New York: Darte Publishing, 2006), 81-82.
  6. Lillian Smith, The Journey (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1954).

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