What is Beauty Without Justice?
what is beauty
a hollow shell.
a shallow façade
exposing the space
where it’s soul should be
In defining aesthetics, beauty is often a central criterion. However, the concept of how beauty is determined is extremely flawed. So much of our understanding of what is beautiful is informed by traditional images and ideas celebrated by the dominant culture. So in unpacking beauty and its connection to aesthetics in America, a country deeply wounded by white supremacist ideology, we have to ask: who gets to define what’s beautiful?
Often in conversations about aesthetics the term “artistic excellence” is used as a measure of the quality of one’s work, how an artist has mastered their craft and discipline. Invariably this idea of excellence uses a baseline set by Western European art forms and practitioners in the cultural extensions of those disciplines. Whether intentional or not, this language has awarded structures of white privilege and created barriers to cultural equity and diversity of voice across our field.
I was introduced to the work of Resources for Social Change (RSC) early on in my graduate education in the school of Alternate ROOTS. RSC is a training and knowledge building brain trust developed to learn and disseminate tools for using arts responsibly in community. As stated in the RSC Workbook, written by one of my mentors and heroes Nayo Watkins, RSC is a “mobile lab for arts and activism charged with turning the core values of ROOTS mission into teachable methods and strategies for work by artists and community partners.”
Over time, and seemingly endless discussion, RSC developed a set of principles of community engagement. I will share these principles, as I understand them when reflecting on my own work as a community engaged artist and cultural organizer.
Power – recognizing where power is organized and wielded in a community and pushing structures fore more equitable non-hierarchical distribution of power in the service of justice.
Partnership – respect that everyone has something to bring to the table and everyone has something to benefit from working together.
Dialogue – there is no way to learn in community without the call and response.
Transformation – changing the world starts with changing ourselves.
Aesthetics – it’s not just where you end up, it’s also how you got there.
For the sake of this blog I would like to offer a set of questions using the lens of four of the principles as a way of analyzing and interrogating the fifth principle of aesthetics. I would like to ask questions as a way of thinking about the aesthetic quality of arts practice in community development for social change. For this purpose I will start with a definition that emerged from a conversation during ROOTS Week 2014. Here is a link to a short video for those of you unfamiliar with ROOTS Week.
“Aesthetics are means by which art and art-making respond to and stimulate sensory and emotional experience, and how such sensory and emotional experiences contribute to meaning.”
Power: Who has power in all phases of the artistic/creative process from conception to production? Who has access to it, whatever the “it” is?
Partnership: If you are engaging community in your artistic practice, are you engaging them as source material, equal participants in the development of the artistic product, and/or facilitators in working to define the artistic goals of the work? Is the vision guiding artistic choices a singular one or has the vision been developed in communication with your partners, both arts and non-arts?
Dialogue: Is it enough to have a context of social justice inform your artistic product and can artistic work with a social justice context be complete if it doesn’t create space for a dialogue that extends beyond the relationship of the performance?
Transformation: Are you, the artist, entering your work with the intent of convincing an audience (external) that there is a need for them to change, or is the point of conception of the artistic project an internal call for personal transformation?
Remember, it’s not the role of the artist to personally take responsibility of bringing about world peace, ending hunger or global oppression. But the artist is expected to have an understanding of the contribution their work, in general or an artistic project in particular, is making towards greater aspirational goals than just a performance, or a generic practice of audience engagement.
And being holistic in your approach to artistic practice doesn’t mean trying to solve all problems yourself, but it means that you are aware of both the gaps that exist in the system and the placement of your own work in the larger ecosystem of change.
The role of the artist is to challenge society to remember its history, reclaim its humanity, and fight against the worst of our own self-interest by striving for our greatest collective potential? Artists work to make the common complex in hopes that we can shift, first, our own view of the world and in sharing that with others hope that their gaze will shift. We also seek to decode the chaotic in hopes to offer the inspiration necessary to create a more just and equitable world. We are visionaries with specialized tools that can be harnessed to provide to give the world a glimpse into multiple possible futures. And all that we seek to inspire in others we must first seek to inspire within ourselves. When we do that, we become the personification of beauty!