What I Learned at the Learning Lab: a Few Thoughts on Art, Equity, and Social Justice

Posted by [email protected], Oct 30, 2015 0 comments

I want to live in a world where there’s room for both studio artists and community artists.

I really want to live in a world where artists have the freedom to move back and forth between those two perspectives and – especially – to allow those two perspectives to inform one another.

I believe in art for justice’s sake, in art for learning’s sake, in art for discovery’s sake, in art for empowerment’s sake. I’d like to believe that when we say “art for art’s sake” we could mean any or all of that.

The world needs artists who make work from a position of ethical conviction and moral certitude. We also need artists to make work out of ambivalence, uncertainty, and unknowing. Art has many kinds of power.

I want the idea of art and social justice to be able to thrive at all points on the spectrums that these ideas imply. Art has many roles to play in the progress toward equality.

***

I am thinking that the idea of social equity is convergent: We work toward a definition of equity that is complete and absolute, singular, allowing no exceptions. But aesthetics is divergent: Art in a diverse society must allow for plural and coexisting aesthetic perspectives and multiple, even conflicting, definitions of what constitutes excellence. One of the challenges in the notion of art and social justice lies in holding in a single moment the convergence of equity and the divergence of aesthetics.

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Based in Philadelphia, the Leeway Foundation focuses on making opportunities for women and trans artists that inspire positive social change. On day one of the ELL, Leeway Executive Director Denise M. Brown offered some innovative ideas from the Foundation’s history and grantmaking practice. Example: Instead of a conventional artist’s CV listing gallery exhibitions, advanced degrees, and publications, they ask applicant artists to submit an “experience page” noting ten incidents that have helped to shape their artistry and activism, and expanding on one in a story. Some artists don’t like this. “May I please also submit my CV?” they ask. “You may,” says Denise, “but no one will look at it.”

God, how refreshing! What a simple but radical notion this is. A philanthropic organization takes the lead in pushing for a new, equalizing description of what constitutes meaningful experience for an artist, one that potentially promotes change in how artists can think about themselves and how arts systems could about artists. As I listen, I wonder what it would mean for galleries to embrace this idea or for MFA students to develop an experience page as part of their artistic training.

On day two, another of the conveners, José Serrano-McClain, reports on some phone conversations he’s been having during the gathering with colleagues back at the Queens Museum of Art where he is Community Organizer and Corona Studio Manager. They’ve been working to develop the call to artists for a new exhibition program and struggling over the question of how artists should represent themselves in their applications. Based on Denise’s presentation, José proposed the concept of the experience page, and it was enthusiastically embraced by his team.

I see a game-changing idea making small, incremental, powerful progress. Maybe that is how change happens.

***

Risë Wilson of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation enjoined us to question our use of the word “aesthetics” as insider-speak that reinforces a sense of privilege. What’s the alternative? Lisa Yun Lee, Director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois, Chicago, suggests “artistic excellence,” and that generates some productive conversation around the table. Though I allow that there are many different ways we could define and describe what we mean by excellence, it doesn’t quite sit well with me, as I worry that the notion of excellence will limit us to score-keeping, and comparison, and quantitative measure. Then later in the conversation, and in another context, someone asks the question “What is the beauty you experience?” It strikes me that perhaps that’s the most plainspoken way to talk about the ideas we’re trying to get at when we say aesthetics, and maybe we could take it one step further:

What is the beauty you experience and how do you experience it?

Is it…

Physical response?

Verbal response?

Mirror action, or the impulse toward mirror action? (as in “I want to move like that” or “I want to make something inspired by that.”)

Emotional change?

Imaginative leap?

Self-affirmation?

Self-challenge?

What else?

Maybe that’s a way of talking about aesthetics and measuring aesthetic experience. I want to keep thinking about this one.

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