But What About Quality?

Posted by Nina Simon On November - 20 - 2014No comments yet
Nina Simon

Nina Simon

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 »

Ae$thetics and Social ¢hange

Posted by Anitra Budd On November - 20 - 2014No comments yet
Anitra Budd

Anitra Budd

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 »

Andy Horwitz

Andy Horwitz

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 »

Deborah Fisher

Deborah Fisher

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 »

Patrick Rosal headshoast

Patrick Rosal

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 Without Justice?

Posted by Carlton Turner On November - 19 - 20142 COMMENTS
Carlton Turner

Carlton Turner

what is beauty

without justice?

a hollow shell.

a shallow façade

anxiously anticipating

time’s decay

exposing the space

where it’s soul should be

-me

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 »

Bob Leonard

Bob Leonard

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 »

Annie Wu (2)

Annie Wu

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 »

Nato Thompson

Nato Thompson

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 »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

A Tending

Posted by Aracelis Girmay On November - 18 - 2014No comments yet
Aracelis Girmay

Aracelis Girmay

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 »

Denise Brown

Denise Brown

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 »

Living Into The Questions

Posted by Arlene Goldbard On November - 17 - 20141 COMMENT
Arlene Goldbard

Arlene Goldbard

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 »

Alicia Gregory

Alicia Gregory

“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. Read the rest of this entry »

Clay Lord

Clay Lord

The pursuit of forward progress in issues of diversity, access, and equity in the arts in America is a difficult and frustrating business. A conversation that starts with, say, a lack of racial diversity on an organization’s staff can quickly move from hiring practices to a perceived lack of qualified candidates of color in the pool, to a discussion of the systemic devaluation of the arts as a career option in certain populations, which may or may not stem from systemic inequalities in the American education system surrounding arts education, which in turn is representative of a society built from bottom to top on the creation of privileged class predominantly defined by the unequal distribution of wealth and access to opportunity across hundreds of years and dozens of generations. And suddenly you aren’t talking about a problem you can do anything about, and you feel either overwhelmed or off the hook. What can I do about that, anyway? Read the rest of this entry »