A few years ago there was a remarkable exhibit at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery focused on the abstract art of mid-20th century Latin America called “The Geometry of Hope.” I remember being struck by how creative and playful this show was, but also how upbeat and optimistic it seemed to be. It was inspired by the geometry of urban areas really, with all of the vertical lines and grid-like patterns we associate with cities. As the curator of the exhibit noted, the works were “structured around the city as the unit of context. The City,” the curator observed, “is where ideas circulate, where different voices and intentions collide in the same physical space…” To get an idea of how thrilling the works from this exhibit were go here.
Cities are places full of both enormous possibility and debilitating despair. This, too, is reflected in this exhibit. The belief in the idea of progress is constantly being pitted against a stubborn sense that poverty can never be eradicated. This back and forth between the grand potential of modern cities and the seeming hopelessness of ghettoized, marginalized environments is also part of the geometry of hope. Struggling to overcome those patterns is where the audacity of critical hope comes in.
Audacious, critical hope is different from optimism in that the purveyors of this kind of hope make no assumption that tomorrow will be a better day. In fact, it is likely, they say, that tomorrow will be just as grim as today was. But their inextinguishable hope for a better tomorrow derives from two understandings: 1)The challenges ahead are enormous and the odds are against us. We should never underestimate how hard it is going to be bring about positive change. 2)The only way to have any chance of overcoming the obstacles resulting from past racism and entrenched poverty is to struggle and to strategize and agitate for a better world. To encourage people to work together and to use every incentive possible to remind them that bridging the gap between a dark past and a bright future is entirely a function of how committed ordinary citizens are to holding their leaders accountable. When people are willing to raise their voices and tackle the hard challenges that confront them everyday, then hope which is grounded, realistic and critical can produce a difference that mere optimism could never have achieved.