The Case for Complexity

Posted by Mike Blockstein, Jul 28, 2017 0 comments

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

I’m a visual artist. On behalf of Public Matters, I’ve presented in both art and non-art contexts on “the ethics and aesthetics of place.” Ironically, I’m rarely, if ever, asked to address the effectiveness of the visual strategies or the aesthetics of our work. Public Matters embeds artistic and creative practices into disciplines and sectors outside the arts: public health, urban planning, education, and transportation, among them. Our work blends participatory art, learning, civic engagement, and leadership development to focus on equity, health, and social change. The work is ambitiously long-term, place-based, and complex. We work at a scale that fits the ambitious nature of social change. We build cross-disciplinary partnerships and consider long-term strategies. We hold ourselves to high visual and aesthetic standards. The arts are integral—not incidental—to our social change goals.

Where the “art” lies, though, is grossly misunderstood or under-appreciated, with folks likely falling back on norms identified with a concrete visual product and failing to understand that the art is an intrinsic part of a multidisciplinary process and practice. I wonder if it is perhaps embedded so deeply that it’s buried.

Joking aside, this is why I welcome Animating Democracy’s framework, Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change. The perspectives—not strict guidelines, but factors to be put into play—embrace a complex, variable approach to effective arts for change work. It matches how Public Matters assesses our work: no one aspect is weighed alone without addressing the totality. The multiplicity and range of attributes is important for a deeper, more nuanced understanding of arts for change. They can help to broaden appreciation for, as well as evaluation of, arts for change.

Public Matters’ work is iterative. We don’t start with a preset “look,” idea, or feel. The ethics and aesthetics of place require listening, learning, and looking first. It requires the framework’s cultural integrity and its openness to be humble, to embrace and value that community members and others have expertise that may differ from and supersede ours. The work should be rooted in, reflect, respect, and speak to community and its context.

We’ve launched projects by issuing an actual creative license to each youth participant. At first, they don’t know what to make of it. They’re excited because it looks like a fake ID. But we have to explain what “creative license” means because no one has given it to them before: it’s permission to exercise agency and initiative, to take risks, and to fail. Artists working in social change need creative licenses too. They need to be granted by partners, funders, peers, community members, and themselves.

Change requires doing things differently, in new, creative, and risk-taking ways. Public Matters wants to see the arts recognized as a critical element of civic life and of a healthy community. Doing so requires pushing beyond standardized conceptions of who or what an artist is and does. The Aesthetic Framework can play a role in this conversation by expanding the appreciation of what this work entails and what it can achieve. Openly embracing risk-taking is essential, within the arts and in partnerships with historically risk-averse disciplines and agencies seeking better outcomes.

Therefore, I believe the framework can be an aid in working with non-arts partners. We’ve worked on public health projects that, while focused on health behavior changes like healthy food access or tobacco control, are driven and ultimately defined by data collection and public health measurements. They would benefit from a more holistic assessment strategy that also values the integral role of the arts in the work. Perhaps the framework might also promote greater esteem for the arts within and beyond its sector.

There are two other attributes that should be considered.

The first is time. While time is implicitly linked to the attribute of commitment, it’s different. Arts for change requires time. From our experience, it often takes six months to a year simply to build trust and a working relationship. Work that is in the second year or later of a collaborative, participatory process is profoundly deeper, richer, and better executed. Time of course is linked to goals, ambition, funding, and structure. What is a reasonable and fair amount of time to achieve the goals—whether social, aesthetic, or both—of a work or project? How much time is needed to learn about a community, participants, and/or partners before the “art” even happens? To effectively build relationships? Has the artist used time effectively? How might a project’s impact change if given more time?

Sustainability should be considered too. “When is the work finished?” is a difficult and important question. Stickiness, another of the attributes in the framework, differs from sustainability. Sustainability requires structure and thinking about the importance and limitations of the artist’s place in a social context.

What are the moral and ethical responsibilities for artists engaged in arts for change? When other stakeholders are involved and impacted, is it ethical to end the work without addressing sustainability? When the social change needle hasn’t moved much? What standards should all participants—artists, funders, and partners—be held to? What’s fair to ask of them? I hope that these, um, “sticky” questions will become an explicit part of gauging excellence in arts for change. 

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