Validating the Democracy of the Arts

Posted by Mr. Eric Booth, Jul 26, 2017 0 comments

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

By happenstance, my career has had me working back and forth between high arts institutions and community-based arts learning programs. The question of who gets to judge quality has not been some abstract intellectual debate in my life; it has been a power struggle, with profound emotional, social, and financial consequences.

For a very long time, the criteria for excellence in the arts have been owned by a particular body of experts who generally have a condescending view of the quality of art developed in community-based and social change programs and projects. These credentialed “experts” hold to a definition of quality largely based in an “art for art’s sake” paradigm. However, this definition loses the connection with the vast majority of people who live in the country, as well as the vast range of arts that is produced here and the range of reasons for which people make art. Art is for many sakes, including but not limited to art’s sake (whatever that restriction means in practice).

The control of the definitions of quality have disempowered art that is made with a focus on social change. In other writing, I propose that the field of teaching artistry serves seven different purposes. Artists are hired to accomplish many things—only one of those purposes is art for art’s sake; the six other threads represent different ends artists work to achieve.

For decades, the field of artists who work with people in community and education settings has been balkanized into “teaching artists,” “community artists,” and “social practice artists,” and more. These are false (and disempowering) separations—the same individuals often switch between the different roles! Aesthetic Perspectives supports the work of artists who work in multiple settings and for various goals because it expands the ways they can describe, celebrate, and even assess the range of accomplishment they witness every day. Instead of being forced to identify success only in terms of traditional formal criteria OR in terms that are considered weaker and “fluffy” by established institutions, these artists now have an inclusive range of criteria that more honestly and helpfully reflect the work they catalyze. Informally, the vast majority of Americans carries an inclusive set of criteria for what they find aesthetically meaningful, and now we have a clearer way to include the broad public that artists engage with in all conversations of quality.

Teaching artist Karis Crawford on the first day of her program, El Sistema Kenya, in Nairobi, 2014

Some people assume the intellectual-sounding word aesthetics implies exactly this kind of protective, institutionally-monitored definition of excellence, when in truth, aesthetics opens up exactly the opposite: a wide breadth of application. Etymologically, aesthetic means simply “to perceive,” not “to have a refined sensibility with intellectual justification.” In my view, aesthetics and arts for social change began some 350,000 years ago (as pigments found in caves in Africa suggest) or 30,000-40,000 years ago (as bone flutes suggest), and they reached an early apex in Paleolithic caves, where it is unlikely that credentialed experts determined which painters got the prime cave locations for their bison images and got extra meat as remuneration.

The arrival of Aesthetic Perspectives marks a major change in our arts landscape—a democratizing moment, when the hegemony of the established industry controllers is expanded to provide additional valid criteria to judge excellence. This contribution does not challenge or threaten art for art’s sake and its pursuits; it simply challenges their sole control of ways to determine quality. There are multiple purposes for art-making, and there are now multiple ways of determining, celebrating, and funding quality.

“Funding” is a key tension point around this issue. As of now, foundation funding for arts for change programs is minuscule compared to that which flows to the art for art’s sake industry. And this is where we all can make a difference. As we take seriously the attributes of excellence offered in this research, and as we apply them, share them, and challenge funders to consider them, we may begin to expand the ways that arts monies are distributed. This marks the turning point, when the current one-party system of the arts moves back toward the democracy of artistic endeavor that worked for so long in human evolution.

Can you see yourself in conversation with colleagues and funders about these 11 attributes of excellence in art for change processes and products? If so, thank you for becoming part of the solution.

Eric Booth is a member of Americans for the Arts.

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