Arts and Social Justice: Searching for a Framework to Describe Quality

Posted by Chris Dwyer, Oct 29, 2015 0 comments


I’ve been engaged in planning and conducting evaluations for several decades now and I’m still intrigued by the intellectual puzzles involved even in the smallest evaluation project—especially the challenge of answering the related “compared to what?” and “how meaningful are the results?’ questions. Both are essential for determining the value (e-valu-ation) of the program or idea being evaluated.  Consider:

Principal: Students in the arts education program improved their attendance rates this semester, but how do we know if the increase is important?

Arts administrator: The audience gave high marks to the performance but how do their ratings  compare to others they’ve seen?

Artist: How does the artist judge the development of her own choreography?

Funder:  We can only fund a small number of grants, so which ones have the best chance of making an impact on participants?

These are very different questions, suggesting different types, methods and complexities of evaluations, but they all hint at the need for a way to ground the meaning of evaluation results with a comparison, a standard or an agreed-upon expectation. “Standards” of comparison guide the users of results, helping them gauge the trade-offs in making changes. In evaluations with traditional quantitative designs, the standard is typically expressed statistically, i.e. the difference between groups is (or is not) statistically significant--a relatively straightforward determination based on well-known benchmarks. 

Figuring out standards that apply in the descriptive and qualitative evaluation designs that we often use in the arts can be more challenging. The criteria or standards used to make judgements are often implicit, and may not be made clear at the outset of an evaluation. As an evaluator who often uses qualitative designs, I’m always on the lookout for ways to think about standards in arts and culture contexts.

 So I’m interested in various theoretical frameworks and research findings that can help me gauge the importance and meaningfulness of results. For example, I might use a theoretical framework to create rubrics by which to assess development of a dance performance. I’m likely to ask multiple field experts to apply rubrics, looking for convergence and divergence in experts’ judgements on standards to help me interpret the data.

Knowing of the need for well-thought out frameworks, I’ve been enthusiastically pursuing the development of a set of standards that could be used to understand, describe, and assess the value of those arts initiatives that have social justice purposes. With a few others from the Evaluation Learning Lab, I’ve taken on the task after listening to the frustrations of artists who feel the distinguishing characteristics of their work are not apparent to others. Could we create a framework of features that would be expected in high quality arts-social justice initiatives?  . . .a framework that I could use to describe and compare different projects, for example?

We listened to descriptions of well-regarded arts and social justice initiatives and discussed their qualities—attempting to distill in words qualities we are currently labelling authenticity, commitment, sensory experiences, emotional responses, disruption, and so forth.  Because the words we use to describe the constructs behind the qualities are necessarily “loaded,” building a framework can be slow going. We have found it necessary to spin out longer discussions of each construct, but continue to weigh each word—a tedious process.  But we persist--as the examples below from our framework-in-progress illustrate:  


Authenticity. Aesthetic processes, choices should be accountable/responsible to and gain credibility and potency from what is true and authentic. The power of the work to convey its message lies in deep commitment to the focus of the work—a community, issue, population, tradition, locale, situation.

Disruption. Disruption or challenge can function as aesthetic qualities in terms of both form and content. Content-wise what the work disrupts can include status quo positions of law, policy, or social interaction, dominant stories and power structures, norms of who gets to tell the story or who has access to self-expression. In terms of form and delivery, a work can disrupt artistic conventions of its genre, standards of what is considered beautiful or pleasing, or the ways that the art encounters its audience. To call attention to a need for change, or to bring about change, requires a challenge to the status quo. In functioning disruptively art can expose what has been hidden, posit or model new ways of being and forms of action.

Emotional Responses.  Participants and viewers may have a wide range of emotional responses to a work of art. The range of intended emotional responses can be very wide and, of course, may vary by components of a work. An artist may be seeking emotional responses that range from joy, wonder, sadness, fear, anger to ambivalence and alienation. In order to inspire action toward social justice ends, an art work needs to connect deeply with participants and viewers. When individuals’ emotions are engaged, the experience that the emotion is paired with becomes more memorable.  A number of neurological studies have demonstrated that emotional connections are memory-enhancing.

Sensory Experience. Artists may take deliberate advantage of the potential of some sensory channels to strengthen participants’/viewers/ experiences and the power of the messages or intentions of an art work. Maximizing sensory experiences may have special importance for reaching some individuals, including those who have cultural histories and expectations that connect or conflict with the artists’ sensory choices. Strong sensory experiences have the potential to create greater impact for the message or intention of the work. A sensory experience or response has the potential to allow individuals to retain impressions of sensory information after the original stimulus has ceased and then transferred to long-term memory.  


Intrigued by the possibilities?  Stay tuned for the rest of the framework.

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