The Beauty in Change: Considering Aesthetics in Creative Social Change Work
“This feels a bit like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole,” said one contributor to this week’s blog salon on the role of aesthetics in arts for social change work. Indeed, it is no light matter. Despite this, we are pleased bring you 17 thought pieces from a diverse lineup of artists, cultural leaders, funders, and activists who have weighed in on why and how aesthetics are important in understanding, valuing, and advancing arts and social change work.
The questions we posed catalyzed some interesting critique and debate. In the weeks since we set them down on the page and said “Go!” to our generous bloggers, I’ve been thinking about these questions. I’ve thought about the time, in my days as an editor in graduate school, I went to bat for a piece on the 2011 Egyptian Revolution because it was urgent and moved me, despite falling short technically and in clarity.
I’ve thought about reactions I have observed in others: the older gentleman complaining about the “theatrics” and “stylizing” at a youth poetry slam—one in which a young man’s body literally became his poem to his absent father—all shake, and rage, and love. A performance that gave me chills.
I feel strongly that art born in response to violence, or neglect, or social stresses—urgent art, art that must be, art that represents survival—cannot be talked about or assessed within the traditional parameters of aesthetics, steeped in western, imperialist ideals. If the art itself bucks against this very system, represents people or populations held down by this system, then how can we assess the art under aesthetic parameters created by that system?
Over the course of this week, you will read many posts that ask for and propose revision. The salon is proof that the field is hungry for new ways of talking about and assessing artistic works rooted in social change.
Today we open up the discussion with Arlene Goldbard, who urges us to live into the questions instead of seeking definitive answers, and Denise Brown of the Leeway Foundation will speak to the bias in prevalent aesthetic frameworks and the validity of other aesthetic realities.
On Tuesday, Animating Democracy Co-Director Pam Korza maps the aesthetics and social change conversation back to 2001, and we'll hear from poet Aracelis Girmay who considers the aesthetics of the work of the Turf Feinz as an example of the tending to memory and sorrow needed in response to the violence that has taken the lives of Sean Bell, Mike Brown, and Oscar Grant.Nato Thompson of Creative Time meditates on the aesthetics of politics, art, and communications, social impact designer Annie Wu offers her thoughts on the aesthetics of social impact design, and Bob Leonard, theater director and professor at Virginia Tech and a founding member of Alternate ROOTS, suggests that, ultimately, our response to art should be as organic and passionate as the oral tradition’s call and response.
On Wednesday Alternate ROOTS Director Carlton Turner asks “What is beauty without justice?” Poet Patrick Rosal meditates on poetry and the traditions of American violence, and Deborah Fisher, from A Blade of Grass, suggests that aesthetic judgment of social practice needs to be grounded more consistently in the voice of the participant.
On Thursday, Culturebot Arts & Media founder Andy Horwitz calls upon us to move beyond the familiar, to interrogate our own understanding and practices in order to re-imagine beauty. Anitra Budd, Editor-at-Large of Coffee House Press, considers how aesthetics are wrapped up in our capitalist system, John Davis, Director of Lanesboro Arts, shows us how aesthetic frames were essential in helping integrate the arts into his community’s master vision plan, and we republish Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 piece on quality.
Wrapping things up on Friday, Amy Sananman, Director of the Groundswell in NYC, advocates new assets-based metaphors as an aesthetic strategy in public discourse and policy, Jen Delos Reyes gets at the topic by answering our prompt questions as a pop quiz, much like how she quizzes students in her History of Socially Engaged Art course, and Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, proposes aesthetic indicators of a pluralistic We.
I am moved by—and excited about—the deep thinking that each one of our contributors exercised in taking on our aesthetics theme. They responded to our questions with more questions. This is the way we move the conversation.
When we talk about assessing the aesthetics of work rooted in social change, I believe it must be as poet John Haines has said of the role of the critic: “to provide a space in which creation can take place, a clearing in the imagination.” It is not about shutting down, but opening up. Not about the fist, but instead the fingers—reaching out, or intertwining with another’s. This conversation is as much about the heart as it is the head.