Striking A-Chord

Last night, husband and I attended the Atlantic Council Annual Awards Dinner (our first black tie event since moving to DC), as the guests of new friends here. The Atlantic Council promotes constructive US leadership and engagement in international affairs. It’s non-partisan in weaving a network of world leaders who together aim to “bring ideas to power and to give power to ideas.” Last night’s big shindig selected and celebrated impressive individuals who’ve contributed in outstanding ways to 21st-century challenges.

The Distinguished Humanitarian Leadership Award went to Bono (introduced by a surprisingly small Senator John McCain). The lead singer of U2 (with over 140 million albums sold and 22 Grammys to his name) has forged a phenomenal path as an activist against AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa. Bono spoke about the successes of his ONE and Product (RED) campaigns, which have diminished Third World debts and raised money for AIDS drugs respectively. His words were full of character and conviction, tripping off his tongue in catchy couplets. He talked about America as “an idea” plump with potential to inspire all, provided that idea renewed itself continually in the context of today’s fast-flux world. He quoted the well-known words of past Presidents (labeling them “great lyrics from the American songbook”) as templates for action in our times. And it was when he mentioned that “liberty, justice and equality” are as crucial to world affairs as “rhythm, melody and harmony” are to a smashing song, that today’s painting popped into my mind.

Hot Chord (1965) is by the African American painter Sam Gilliam (b. 1933). Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Gilliam grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. Like Alma Thomas (see Feb 13), he settled in Washington, DC to teach art in the public schools. He’s associated with the Washington Color School and is broadly considered a color field painter. Gilliam’s work experiments with color and abstraction, making those two things the subjects of his art: Hot Chord captures the lyricism of this approach. A bright, blocked-out background of red platforms a zinging strip of stripes dashing across on a diagonal. Is it any wonder that I thought of Gilliam when Bono brought up the “bright line” that divides the functions of ‘peaceniks’ like him and military men (of whom many were in attendance last night)? Gilliam’s “bright line”, with its mobility and momentum, evokes the “separate yet shared path to development” that Bono’s activism is all about.

President Clinton closed the night when he accepted his award for Distinguished International Leadership. His lead motif was the extreme “interdependence” of our age, telling us that his choices now are informed by one straight question: “will this positively affect our interdependence?” Even Clinton’s theme of interdependence tugged me back to Gilliam’s picture, with its strumming strings lined up in positive, parallel formation. On a stringed instrument, chords are corrupted if even one string breaks: that’s interdependence in musical terms. Thus Clinton’s words were well-matched with Bono’s aural analogies.

The cultural critic and author Eleanor Heartney has said that Gilliam’s works are shot-through with meaning that’s “woven into the structure… as part of their strivings for unity and their measured accommodation of freedom and order. [They’re] painstakingly orchestrated to create a sense of internal harmony. Planes are locked together in compositions full of internal rhymes and rhythms.” Dynamic harmony, whether in music or world affairs, seemed to be the theme of the evening, as emphasized by a powerful performance by the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal on guitar. And what’s more, when George H.W. Bush appeared on video to introduce his friend Bill Clinton, I couldn’t help but be struck by the patterning of his favourite tie…