Finding Beauty In Another Reality
decade ago, when the Leeway Foundation decided to support artists and cultural producers interested in community transformation and working at the intersection of art, culture and social change, there were a lot of questions raised about the aesthetics of such work. The general presumption of the majority of our critics was that our interest and appreciation for the aesthetic value (aka artistic excellence) of the work would be lost and, as a result, the nature of the work we supported would take on a more didactic form. This was a nice way of saying it would be bad art, because there seemed to be a belief that both things – beauty and social change intent – could not exist in a work of art or cultural act that would satisfy an aesthetic ideal.
There are so many definitions swirling around – relational, social, cultural, but most often we speak of aesthetics as if there is a single context that should inform our relationship to beauty that presumes a common framework and set of experiences. Perhaps in a way there is; or rather, we’re taught to recognize high art and fine art traditions as the standard by which every other form of artistic and cultural expression’s value is judged. Artists who use different modes of creating, who have a different vocabulary, who make a familiar set of aesthetic choices (to them, their families, their communities) illuminate the beauty they find where they are. It takes shape as culturally specific, community-based, and engaged work; work that articulates and reflects struggle; work informed by identity, politics, or socio-economic circumstance; work that intends to give shape and voice to hidden realities on the margins and further outside the circle.
In this context, how can we as ‘outsiders’ assign value, aesthetic or otherwise, to the power and beauty of this work to the people it represents?
The more I involve myself in conversations about the nature and substance of aesthetics as it relates to ‘socially engaged’ art and cultural practice, the more I find myself thinking of a quote I read recently, “That beauty applied to some things and not to others, that it was a principle of discrimination, was once its strength and its appeal. Beauty belonged to the family of notions that establish rank, and accorded well with a social order unapologetic about station, class, hierarchy, and the right to exclude.” (Quote from Susan Sontag’s, An Argument Against Beauty) So, given what Sontag’s suggesting, how do we engage with the aesthetics of this way of working without bias?
At Leeway, it’s important to us that we create a framework for decision-making that acknowledges that bias – how power and privilege play out in who gets to claim space as an artist. I tell panelists that our process asks for their curiosity and willingness to believe that another reality is not only possible but also valid; and I encourage them to take risks as they imagine what could change in the world if these artists accomplish what they’ve set out to do. I ask them to honor the honesty and bravery of the applicants, to hold their stories and let them lead us into their communities and their hearts. In my experience, if we do that they will always show us where beauty lies.