A beautiful & eclectic voice in a family of frameworks
This post is part of our Excellence and Equity in Arts for Change blog salon.
For over 30 years, I have remembered what my exceptional drawing instructor told me in my college freshman drawing class, encouraging me not to analyze and quantify as I created. Finding the flow was so important and allowing for myriad inputs to be channeled into one cohesive art piece required the refinement of gut-based responses, not clear-cut answers. She reminded me that art holds the mystery of the nuances, it honors relationships, and speaks to complexities that words and number often fail to capture.
That being said, I also know of the power of words and how labeling things can help one to see what was once hidden. Eliot Eisner wrote, “Thus, the questions we ask, the categories we employ, the theories we use guide our inquiry; indeed, what we come to know about the world is influenced by the tools we have available” (Eisner, 1998, p. 28). Categories and tools that we develop and use have a huge impact on how we see the world, and what is deemed as “quality” often times can dictate who gets funding and resources, based on those definitions. The Boston Youth Evaluation Project was our collective attempt to build tools while holding the paradox of the whole—knowing that evaluation methods that quantify and divide often do not give justice to the complex relational work that we do but that they do offer benchmarks, ways to see and value the many parts, and ways to improve.
Animating Democracy’s new beautiful Aesthetic Perspectives framework gives voice and importance to the myriad aspects that work together to create strong art for social change. With this lens, it adds important ways of seeing “quality” in general, offering an eclectic voice in the family of other frameworks that describe what quality and excellence is—in product, in process, and in programs. Able also to hold the paradoxes, it states, “Ambiguity, contradiction, and co-existence are essentials for a tolerant democratic society. Art can help us live with the ambiguities and contradictions of our world; it can show us how each thing contains its opposite” (Borstel et al., 2017, p. 11).
Community-based organizations have been attending to the needs of youth, families, and community, creating vibrant art that focuses on social change on very limited budgets while finding ways to meet the demands of so many needs, and often do so with great excellence. The introduction to Aesthetic Perspectives reminds us that it should not be used as simply a way to quantify excellence; rather, it is intended as a tool for inquiry and a guide for description honoring the depths from which this important art is being created.
The diversity of the 150 artists, evaluators, teachers, community organizers, curators, and others who contributed to the framework allows it to be more grounded in its understanding, description, and evaluation than other academic frameworks. This is important as we do not need to create yet another privileged system or scorecard that, as Vu Le points out, those in power “discover” and then use to “judge” creative processes and products; giving the work academic labels, positioning it as new, and then watching it garner attention and resources but not for those that it was designed to serve (Vu, 2017).
By identifying roots of injustices and developing racial equity strategies that frame and inform Creative Youth Development (CYD) moving forward, we can increase the quality in artistic process and products with cultural integrity. Also, while a common language is incredibly useful, each organization must recognize its own dialect and be true to it. The intention of this framework is not to codify or limit, but to invite the dialogue with the art we create and with each other.
Opportunities to question and join a family of frameworks
Whereas good design finds answers and leaves you with few questions, good art asks questions and allows for many answers. Aesthetic Perspectives focuses on ART and offers a wealth of EXCELLENT questions that accompany the 11 attributes.
As we engage in furthering the field of Collective Impact and CYD, we are asking questions and finding this tricky balance of developing a common language that does not “talk over” those who have not been given the mic. In Shawn Ginwright’s book, Hope and Healing, he proposes that “radical healing” recognizes the healing power of agency, voice, and belonging. BYAEP and many CYD organizations also have a focus on youth developing skills, identity, and connection to community where quality relationships are at the center. In order to better address injustice we see and offer true opportunities, it is important for our organizations to truly see the “complex textured reality” that our youth come to us with and how this reality is often embedded in systems of inequity.
The Aesthetic Perspectives framework encourages us to learn more, take risks, and explore the connections of quality between process and product—especially as we see how it might fit in with the diversity of other frameworks (offered below). In this journey of assessing, a more holistic view of “quality” can emerge that honors the metaphor and our complexities with humility, openness, precision, and passion.
This program is like the oldest willow tree on the bank of the clearest river. A protective shelter that provides you with the elements necessary to build a boat for your future travels.
—Gwen, age 17, Raw Art Works
- Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education
- Massachusetts Cultural Council, “Creative Youth Development: Key Characteristics”
- Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs from Urban Youth and Other Experts
- Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change
Käthe Swaback is a member of Americans for the Arts.