A Stanford Law School seminar explores the arts through live performance

By Richard Ford, George E. Osborne Professor of Law

When I signed on to be a resident fellow at Kimball, Stanford’s arts-themed dorm for undergraduates, I set out to meet people from Stanford’s art community. Stanford Live’s Executive Director Chris Lorway was kind enough to meet with me to tell me about the 2019–20 season and mentioned in passing that this season in particular could tie into a class quite nicely. I assumed he meant a class in the theater or music department, but I began to think about how to incorporate some of what he was describing into a class I could teach, and the idea of a class on law and the arts began to take shape. I thought about the importance of art in sustaining social movements: in providing emotional respite in difficult times, in communicating the goals and moral claims to an often skeptical public, and—perhaps most important—in helping to define those goals and moral claims by giving voice and shape to the most-profound yearnings and human needs.

Manual Cinema's No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks brought a stunning set of actors working in shadow, hundreds of handmade cutouts projected on a screen, and the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks to portray a national struggle for racial justice. Photo by Allie Foraker

A year later, I met a group of law students and undergraduates enrolled in Law, Politics, and the Arts at Bing for the first of several wonderful and thought-provoking performances. I have to admit that I still wasn’t 100 percent certain how to approach the class—I am not an expert in performing arts or music—but to my great delight, the class practically taught itself. Our first performance, The 1960s: The Years That Changed America by the Kronos Quartet, tied in the centrality of African American spirituals to the civil rights movement and the avant-garde of the counterculture with references to Mahalia Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Everly Brothers, George and Ira Gershwin, and a moving talk by Martin Luther King Jr.’s speechwriter Clarence Jones. I was inspired to create a Spotify playlist of some of the music that the Kronos Quartet had reinterpreted—the first of what turned out to be several playlists I sent to the class.



“Each performance offered a chance to deepen our appreciation for art and its centrality to political struggles and social justice.”


Manual Cinema’s No Blue Memories about the life of African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks carried forward the theme of art in the struggle for racial justice but from an entirely new perspective, bridging poetry, live music, cinematography, and shadow puppets. (You will have no idea how these go together until you see the performance, after which it will all seem an inevitable match.) To discuss this performance, I invited Matt Smith, professor of German studies and theater and performance studies, to join a class discussion after the performance. Several students mentioned that the show prompted them to read Brooks’ poetry, either for the first time or to reacquaint themselves with it. One student wrote of the performance, “No Blue Memories was one of the most memorable performances I have ever seen.” Another wrote, “I see Gwendolyn Brooks as a model to follow as I begin a career serving immigrants. Although she was not necessarily working to create broad scale change, her poetry shed light on daily life for minorities in her community, and her education and empowerment work had a deep impact on individuals.”

We enjoyed Laurie Anderson’s playful, poignant, and challenging performance art and poetry. One student wrote afterwards that “for that hour and a half in the Bing Concert Hall, I felt like I was part of something special, something bigger than myself.”

Laurie Anderson and cellist Rubin Kodheli performed at the Bing in January 2020. Photo by Joel Simon

We saw a terrific multimedia show centered on the underappreciated work of James Reese Europe and a fascinating discussion of powerful women in the ancient world by Kara Cooney, professor of Egyptian art and architecture at UCLA. One student wrote that these performances “prompted me to reflect on the importance of art as an educational tool to build more- accurate historical accounts that recognize figures and moments in history that are often forgotten.”

Each performance offered a chance to deepen our appreciation for art and its centrality to political struggles and social justice. I learned a lot myself from the performances and from my students (one of whom will join our student staff at Kimball next year). Making my way to Bing in the evening, meeting a group of enthusiastic and engaged students, and enjoying a series of world-class performances taking place in our own backyard was a truly enriching and an “only at Stanford” teaching experience.

Following the Kronos Quartet’s performance of Peace Be Till, Martin Luther King Jr. speechwriter and Stanford Scholar-in-Residence Clarence B. Jones was welcomed onstage for a few words. Photo by Allie Foraker

I approached the class with excitement and some degree of trepidation because I had never taught such a class before. I can say with some confidence that the class was a success—not so much because of my skill as a teacher but because of the quality of the performances and the skill with which they were organized and selected. I could attempt to wax eloquent about my conception of and ambitions for the class, but the students did a better job describing it than I could. I’ll give one of my law students the last word: “Thank you so much for creating and teaching Law, Politics, and the Arts. It has been one of the best parts of Stanford for me, and I hope other students get to experience the course in the future, as there’s really nothing else like it at the law school.”