Like artists, lawyers must interpret and decipher the world around them, said Andrew Manuel Crespo ’08, professor of law, during his Last Lecture for graduating Harvard Law School students on April 14. And like artists, Crespo said, lawyers can help reimagine that world too.

“I’m not an art historian. I’m not an art connoisseur. I’m definitely not an artist,” Crespo told his audience of third-year students, but “I admire a skill that I know I don’t have.”

A few years ago, Crespo began featuring pieces of artwork as focal points on his course homepages. Initially, he did so as a way to add some visual interest. But he soon started to see connections between those works of art and the broader messages about law he hoped to convey to his students.

Two pieces in particular “capture something meaningful” that Crespo “was trying to teach that went well beyond doctrine or logical moves,” conveying something about what he thinks “it means to be a lawyer and to appreciate the art of being a lawyer.”

Birmingham (1964) by the renowned artist Jack Whitten is a three-dimensional painting in which the artist applied aluminum foil onto plywood and painted it a deep black. In the center, the foil is peeled back in a rough circle, as if struck by a bullet, revealing yellowed paper beneath. The paper is creased and wrinkled, faded and browned, and partially obscured by the foil, making it challenging to discern. But upon close inspection, one can make out a recognizable image, a photo from The Birmingham News depicting a young Black protestor being attacked by a police dog during Commissioner Bull Connor’s infamous response to civil rights activism in 1963.

Crespo said he appreciates the work for multiple reasons. For one, he observed that “it captures how much things haven’t changed,” as he showed an image of the militarized police response to civil rights protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

More symbolically, Crespo said that the physicality of Whitten’s painting conveys the work it takes to expose injustice, literally peeling back layers to reveal what is underneath. In this way, Crespo said, Whitten’s work’s mirrors the way lawyers must look at the world.

“Injustices can be right in front of your eyes, plain but unseen, or out of focus or even covered up,” he said. “That does not make the underlying injustice any less real. In fact, it makes it more problematic, because before you can do anything about it, or even try to do anything about it, you have to see it. … And sometimes you even have to persuade other people that it’s really there.”

Crespo next referenced a painting by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon called Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (1805/06). Recalling a trip he and his wife had taken to Paris a decade earlier, when he was working as a public defender in Washington, D.C., Crespo described coming upon the large painting at the end of a long hallway in the Louvre:

“I just sat on the bench across from this painting and looked at it for a long time. And I was moved. Because when I looked at this painting, I saw an homage to public defenders,” he said. “Divine Vengeance, pursuing crime, sword outstretched, ready to smite a man running away from a dead body, and Justice, arms outstretched, interceding, shielding, protecting the man from that vengeful sword with a torch, shedding light as if to say, ‘let’s pause; let’s learn what might have happened here.’”

But then, to Crespo’s surprise and disappointment, he realized when reading the painting’s label that the artist had assigned the figures the opposite roles. It was Justice who held the sword, ready to strike, and Vengeance who lit the way. Justice led by Vengeance: not exactly the due process he had imagined.

And yet, Crespo said, he still views the work today the way he first saw it — as offering a vision of justice that acts as a check on society’s vengeful tendencies. “And I think that too is an essential lesson about what law is, and about what being a lawyer is,” he said. “It’s about interpretation and reinterpretation. It’s about giving an account of what is, but also of what can be, and what ought to be. It’s a normative enterprise, and one in which the authors of what came before us are not the owners of what meanings necessarily follow,” he said.

As a lawyer, Crespo said, “Like an artist, you have to pay close attention to detail, even to process, like Jack Whitten. You also have to be creative. And you have to remember that part of what you are doing is not merely interpreting the world around you, but reinterpreting it. And in so doing, helping to create it.”

After his lecture, Crespo left time to reminisce and connect with graduating students — and to congratulate them on a job well done.

“I know that I’m not speaking just for myself, but for so many of your teachers these past few years that you’ve been here with us, when I tell you that one of our greatest joys is seeing what you create after you leave and go out into the world and into your professions,” said Crespo. “I just want to say, again, thank you for letting me spend this time with you, not just today, but over these past few years.”