Flash Back/Flash Forward: Considering Aesthetics in Arts & Social Change Work

Posted by Ms. Pam Korza, Nov 18, 2014 0 comments

Pam Korza Pam Korza

Flashback: 2002. Aesthetics and related questions of criticism, evaluation, and meaning in community-based arts are grist for a session at Alternate ROOTS’s 25th anniversary Focus on Community Arts South gathering. Participants applauded the assertion that “theory and thinking are not just academic concerns.” They advocated notions of “critical generosity” and “critical intimacy” that fostered more dialogue and border crossing between artists and critical writers in order to capture the intention, complexity, and richness of community-based practices. To prevent aesthetic clichés, stereotypes, and inaccuracies, hip hop dance artist Rennie Harris added that sharing dialogue may require both artists and critics to code switch, and to understand how language intersects with power.

The conversation (captured in a paper by Sonja Kuftinec, Professor of Theater Arts at University of Minnesota titled Critical Relations in Community-Based Performance: The Artist and Writer in Conversation and commissioned by Animating Democracy) raised tensions, but also general agreement in the importance of both self-determined and outside analysis of aesthetic and social dimensions of community-based practice in continually challenging artists and those who engage them toward social good, to “keep thinking.”

The now retired, but still missed, Community Arts Network (CAN) extended the threads of such explorations. And Animating Democracy’s own experimentation with multi-voiced critical writing—Critical Perspectives—launched soon after, tested the idea of a new critical paradigm, seeking to expand the notion of who has voice and authority in assessing the aesthetic as well as civic efficacy of civically engaged arts and culture.

Twelve years later, we’re still at it. In 2014, Alternate ROOTS undertook a year-long exploration of aesthetics in the context of social justice work, offering a point of view at its 2014 annual meeting:  “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. Understood this way, we believe the term can be applied affirmatively and effectively to community-based arts practice for social justice.” (See Carlton Turner’s post and links to ROOTS documentation.)

Others are active in the exploration, including Imagining America through its journal, Public,andNina Simon through Museum 2.0. Andy Horwitz (a contributor to this salon), through his site Culturebot, has examined the possibilities of a more “embedded criticism” in which the writer engages with the artist’s process over time in the dual role of dramaturg and expositor. This past year, Ford Foundation Officer Roberta Uno revisited the “Future Aesthetics” concept at a retreat—Future Aesthetics 2.0—where a decade after the term was first coined and the discussion began, there was renewed interest and confidence in re-engaging “with both the processes and goals of cultural agitation vis-à-vis hip-hop aesthetics” now that a substantial number of influential hip-hop artists have received commissions, been recognized in prestigious venues, and make waves in positions of institutional influence all across the country.

Why take up the subject of aesthetics in arts and social change work? The impact of arts for social change work relies heavily on strong and relevant aesthetic choices and artistic excellence. Pioneering muralist Judy Baca said as part of Animating Democracy’s initial Lab (paraphrasing), that there is such a thing as “mediocre work” in this arena and the community can tell the difference. As art is increasingly engaged to stir hearts as well as minds to activate change in the public sphere, understanding if and how beauty, emotion, form, and content are working to achieve this and be most effective toward our intents is an essential part of our work.

During the coming year, Animating Democracy’s Evaluators Circle and an Evaluation Learning Lab (the latter designed and implemented in collaboration with the Arts, Culture, and Social Justice Network, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation), are taking up the topic of evaluating the aesthetic dimensions of arts and social change work to advance evaluation that embodies values and practices that are congruent with arts and social justice work—equity, inclusion, understanding of context, and the role of art and culture.

Finally, in the context of increasing work happening across arts and sectors such as health, the environment, and community development, Maria Rosario Jackson observed at Animating Democracy’s 2013 Funder Exchange on Evaluating Arts & Social Change, that aesthetics and meaning are not typically thought about or assessed well in other sectors’ efforts. She urged that “practitioners need to articulate aesthetic outcomes and values (as well as community or social change outcomes) so that others don’t do it for them.” This will help ensure that the “scorecard” reflects meaningful artistic outcomes within the community context.

We hope this Blog Salon adds to a compelling conversation in which self determination guides the language, values, practices and analysis of aesthetics in arts for social change work.

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