Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts Institute for Community Development and the Arts, fosters arts and cultural activity that encourages and enhances civic engagement and dialogue. It is based on the premise that democracy is animated when an informed public is engaged in the issues affecting people's daily lives. The arts and humanities can contribute unique programs, settings, and creative approaches that reach new and diverse participants, stimulate public dialogue about civic issues, and inspire action to make change.
A year ago, New York City voted in its first new mayor in 12 years. The city council election resulted in new members in almost half of the 51 seat council. It was an exciting time for the progressive communities—for all those that have fought for social change through the fields of education, immigration reform, fair wages, affordable housing or, of course, the arts. While the Mayor’s new platform addressed many of these items, it did not include an arts agenda or integrate a strategy to use arts and culture to support a more just and equitable city for all. Over the past few months, I have seen NYC—its new administration and city council—struggle with finding new frameworks. I have been thinking about how the aesthetics of language and framing influence how we understand our communities, their challenges, opportunities, the role of arts, and how policies may be considered. One example of this is how NYC is grappling with the broken windows theory and its legacy. Read the rest of this entry »
I am the Executive Director of Lanesboro Arts, a multidisciplinary arts organization founded in 1980. Lanesboro Arts fulfills its mission to serve as a regional catalyst for artistic excellence and educational development in providing diverse art experiences for people of all ages through visual art galleries, the performing arts, an artist residency program, public art, and educational outreach. Last year, Lanesboro Arts programming involved more than 180 volunteers, 300 artists, and 30,000 audience members. In 2013, Lanesboro (pop 754) was named one of the Top 12 Small Town ArtPlaces in America, a recognition determined by the number of arts opportunities per capita. Read the rest of this entry »
Scene: a regional workshop on arts engagement. A funder is speaking with conviction about the fact that her foundation is focusing their arts grantmaking strategy on engagement. Engaging new people. Engaging more diverse people. Engaging people actively in the arts. Any questions?
One, from a museum director. The question that comes up every time, the question so big it deserves the impropriety of all caps: BUT WHAT ABOUT QUALITY? Read the rest of this entry »
When I was asked to write an entry for this blog salon, I was excited. When I noted the topic, aesthetics and social change, I was alarmed. In trying to analyze this instinctual sense of danger, I realized that the root of my feeling was my conflation of aesthetics with judgment.
The term aesthetics, like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes (take a look at this chapter by art history and education scholar Terry Barrett for a great discussion of the concept’s many dimensions). To consider aesthetics largely in terms of assessment and discernment is limiting, but not unusual. Read the rest of this entry »
The question of aesthetics in socially engaged art is as fraught and enduring as our varied understandings of what constitutes critical discourse.
In a society so fully enveloped by the market-driven logic of Late Capitalism it is nearly impossible to relate to any work of art in a non-transactional context. We are told we are consumers purchasing experiences at a premium. “Cultural Authorities” tell us we are incapable of assessing the value of “art product” ourselves and so are provided with “reviews” that are little more than consumer advocacy, in newspapers such as the New York Times that are little more than lifestyle guides for the privileged. Read the rest of this entry »
There is a productive conflict at the root of any discussion about aesthetics and social practice that I would like to focus on.
On one hand, attempting to articulate anything about the aesthetics of socially engaged art entails confronting a frustrating lack of structure. Anything can be art, and aesthetics can be so broadly defined as judgments of sentiment and taste. Who doesn’t have those, about anything and everything? We don’t quite have a formal analysis of social practice that we all agree upon—no singular framework for seeing and locating the aesthetics in a socially engaged art project. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been in a bunch of fistfights. I fought many years into my adult life. After brawling, me and dudes in my crew would slip from the scene, hit a diner, order burgers or late-night breakfasts, then tell stories of what just went down. We recalled the damage. We reconstructed the fragments of how the fight started and who was where and what happened in what order. We talked about what startled us and even what amazed us or made us laugh. Mostly, fear, sorrow, and regret went unsaid. Then, we all went home.
The inner life for people of color contains whole landscapes. Read the rest of this entry »
what is beauty
a hollow shell.
a shallow façade
exposing the space
where it’s soul should be
In defining aesthetics, beauty is often a central criterion. However, the concept of how beauty is determined is extremely flawed. So much of our understanding of what is beautiful is informed by traditional images and ideas celebrated by the dominant culture. So in unpacking beauty and its connection to aesthetics in America, a country deeply wounded by white supremacist ideology, we have to ask: who gets to define what’s beautiful? Read the rest of this entry »
The definition of aesthetics drafted for 2014 ROOTS Week seems to have stood up usefully: “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.”
This statement was crafted as a positive strategy to counter the common assumption that aesthetics is way of thinking devoted to the establishment of standards of excellence or criteria of evaluation, all too often predicated on the dominant culture. The strategy seemed to work at ROOTS, where the conversation has advanced past defensive posturing to a pretty vital engagement with learning how to talk about the actual sensory and emotional experience of conceiving, making, and receiving art, especially in the context of ROOTS’s artistic commitment to working for social, economic, and environmental justice. Read the rest of this entry »
Though the practice of design encompasses both form and function, conversation about it often circles around aesthetics—the graphics of the next iOS operating system, for instance, or the sleek lines of the newest Tesla model. In these instances, we assume that the objects are going to work; no one doubts whether or not the iPhone can accommodate newer iOS versions or whether the vehicle can actually carry people. When we discuss design in the social sector, however, this premise is problematic since whether or not a design solution meets a user’s needs can’t be taken for granted.
What role, then, do aesthetics play in social impact design? Read the rest of this entry »
When we begin to wrap our heads around the fact that culture-making surrounds us on a daily basis, and that everyday people are now both consumers and producers of symbolic production, we can then more accurately approach the question of aesthetics and politics, and begin to see how it operates around us daily.
The question of aesthetics and politics is certainly not new. It has been both a productive and destructive line of inquiry throughout much of the 20th century, much debated between Bertolt Brecht and Theodore Adorno, and the Constructivists and social realists of the Russian Revolution. It sat at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, was rife throughout 2nd wave feminism, was a central concern of the Zapatistas revolution, and was prominent in so many other social movements. It is a question that is as clumsy as it is urgent. It is neither new nor resolved.
This is all to say: if the topic of aesthetics and politics gives you a headache, find odd comfort knowing that you are not historically alone. Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »
I begin with that which is languageless. Gesture, wordless calls of grief or joy, exclamation, a dancer’s body moving in time. What John Edgar Wideman calls, in his essay “In Praise of Silence,” “the entire body’s expressive repertoire, subversive, liberating, freighted with laughter, song and sigh, burdened and energized by opposition.” Which means: not words alone, but every mark we make in the landscape, in the air. I begin here because when I think about the art and resistance work I am most enlivened and taught by this moment, I think about the Turf Feinz and Yak Films. Read the rest of this entry »
A decade ago, when the Leeway Foundation decided to support artists and cultural producers interested in community transformation and working at the intersection of art, culture and social change, there were a lot of questions raised about the aesthetics of such work. The general presumption of the majority of our critics was that our interest and appreciation for the aesthetic value (aka artistic excellence) of the work would be lost and, as a result, the nature of the work we supported would take on a more didactic form. This was a nice way of saying it would be bad art, because there seemed to be a belief that both things – beauty and social change intent – could not exist in a work of art or cultural act that would satisfy an aesthetic ideal. Read the rest of this entry »
The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers. – James Baldwin
Baldwin’s epigram reminds us that to thrive, we must be able to see through imposed realities and prefab solutions. We may be tempted to seek definitive answers, but what we really need now is to live into the questions.
To inhabit questions means to first unpack their assumptions and implications.
What’s the context for an inquiry into aesthetics and social justice? When I speak on this topic, someone from the “establishment” arts world always asks me this: “What about standards? What about excellence? A lot of this work isn’t very good.” Read the rest of this entry »