Of Distinction: Community-engaged notions of value

Posted by Ananya Chatterjea, Jul 24, 2017 0 comments

This post is part of our Excellence and Equity in Arts for Change blog salon.

Animating Democracy’s new Aesthetic Perspectives framework spawned multiple parallel scenarios in my head. In one, I was continuing my conversation from a few weeks ago with a foundation grant officer, who told me that their organization was “not so interested in social justice”; you simply had to “have artistic excellence.” I had presented my most cogent argument that artistic excellence is often conceptualized in dangerously narrow ways, to the detriment of appreciating arts and social justice work—only to be brushed aside. Perhaps you can think of your work as “community art” then, the officer suggested. How about “community-engaged professionalism?” I countered. The conversation stalled. I remembered falling deep inside that sinking feeling we all know.

What would have happened if the framework, offering many different ways of reading “excellence” in socially engaged art, had been at my fingertips then? What if I had shared the document, demonstrating a growing understanding among arts leaders nationally? Would the shift of the argument from my single voice to a larger community of artists and leading thinkers in the field have recalibrated the power dynamic? Convergences create energy, shift listening.

Number one action to take with the Aesthetic Perspectives framework: Build power by repeated citation.

In another scenario, I was continuing a passionate argument I’d been crafting in a grant application about how the effectiveness of social justice choreography could not be measured through a head-count of the “converted.” Creative processes require repeated engagement over time, accumulating individual small changes in understandings of beauty, meaning, and power to effect larger paradigmatic shifts.

How might it have been if I had referred to the aesthetic attribute of stickiness?

Memorable aesthetic features—a phrase, a powerful visual image, a musical hook—can become representative of larger and more complex concepts … Stickiness may raise the participants’ or audience’s consciousness or shift their attitudes but not necessarily motivate action.

Change, justice, equity are processes that take time. Subterranean shifts in consciousness that are near impossible to trace externally grow over time into streams of internalized conviction that sustain larger shifts of public opinion. So often these shifts are provoked as we are moved, perhaps disturbed, by artistic experiences. Stickiness, in my experience, is less about virality, and more about growing and nurturing roots.

From "Just Breathe," a performance in collaboration with Tony The Scribe, in the parking lot of a high school in Rondo district of St. Paul, where African-American communities were devastated by the building of Highway 94, causing huge environmental injustices. June 2017 (Ananya Chatterjea, Alessandra Williams, Sophia Hill, Felicia Perry)

I realized something from the many experiences my mind conjured up and restructured while reading the framework. (By the way, in all of them I got the last word, producing the document with a flourish, as if offering incontrovertible proof of truths articulated by experts in the field.) Those of us working in social justice art often find ourselves incredibly alone. And perhaps that is the nature of directing our work towards justice and systemic change; we inevitably find ourselves placed in opposition to the mainstream and lacking support. So many of us can relate to those moments when we talk to funders, presenters, those in positions of power serving as gatekeepers, and feel pushed to the edges of valuation of our own work. We know that what we are doing is important, but (a) the continuous lack of support and resources, and (b) the established system of gaining validation by funding support, often breed terrible self-doubt.

An ongoing purpose of the framework: Prevent gaslighting of artists. When we are thrown in the face of institutional denial and when self-doubt threatens, let us refer to the Aesthetic Perspectives framework to remind ourselves of internal markers and shared re-conceptualizations of value.

What will be crucial for the long-term effectiveness of this framework is that it is seen comprehensively, as positing a set of indicators of excellence whose success is in the chemistry of their juxtaposition. For instance, it is only when risk-taking is assessed in relationship with cultural integrity and communal meaning, that we can avoid producing art that is cool, ironic, critiquing state power, but lacks consideration of how aesthetic choices might affect an already vulnerable community connected to the issue. Think, for instance, about the recent turmoil created by the installation of visual artist Sam Durant’s Scaffold, a large structure made of gallows, in the Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden. The piece’s reference to the gallows used to execute 38 Dakota men in 1862—the largest mass execution in history—deeply insulted and outraged the Native community. Scaffold certainly offered disruption and provocation, but at the cost of tremendous pain to the community who are indigenous to Minnesota.

An important protocol for applying the framework: Notice the network of excellences. Be alert to how the aesthetic attributes work in relation to one another.

Lastly, in coda, an instigation to think more about the intimate, urgent, yet troubled relationship between artistic excellence and arts for change. Because I create social justice choreography, I am quite often invited to dance at organizing events, with no production support, on hard cement floors, and no technical rehearsals. Sometimes we choose to dance for audiences who really understand, support, and need the work, but our knees are in pain from the hard floor. Often, the organizations who invite us truly have limited resources. At other times resources are hard to justify because it is “art,” delivering no easily traceable conversions to an urgent agenda of change.

From Kshoy, 2010, inspired by women's work with land and histories of creating homes. (Ananya Chatterjea and Sherie Apungu)

I understand. But it is my conviction, that whether we are dancing in parking lots, on streets, in city parks, or on the concert stage, we must support our communities to understand that excellence requires preparation and labor on many fronts. Maybe it means helping audiences to shift their thinking about arts as solely entertainment. Our pre-show and community framing and publicity may need to be more carefully thought through. And we must ask for all the kinds of support and conditions that will allow us to reach for the excellences we value. It is only when fully fleshed out ideas are articulated through powerful metaphors, clarity, beauty, and power, and are supported by the necessary production conditions, that we realize the opportunity of changing the minds of our audiences and bringing them along with us.

Distinguish this work! Insist on community-engaged professionalism as a term and way of working that embraces the synergy of artistic excellence and art committed to community values and change. 

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