Beauty and the “We”

Posted by Roberto Bedoya On November - 21 - 2014
Roberto Bedoya

Roberto Bedoya

“Our experience of the beautiful in the recognition of models that make world and community is restricted to the moment when these worlds and communities present themselves explicitly as the plural” – Gianni Vattimo

“We is not the plural of I” – Emmanuel Levinas

Beauty and the We. Beauty as an articulation of the plural, announced in engagement practices, is the experience I know and have been lucky to support in my career. Most recently, as the Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council. Our team has supported 66 projects since 2010 that advance civic well-being, civic engagement, and community building of the We through the arts. Most prominently, this happens through the PLACE (People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement) Initiative, our placemaking/civic engagement platform. These projects create art experiences that shape the identity of place, present visions and manifestations of social cohesion, and activate democracy so as to build and animate the commons. And where is Beauty in PLACE? Read the rest of this entry »

Pop Quiz: Socially Engaged Art and Aesthetics

Posted by Jen Delos Reyes On November - 21 - 2014
Jen Delos Reyes

Jen Delos Reyes

I received an invitation to participate in this blog salon on the relationship between aesthetics and arts in community development and social change work by way of my work as an artist and organizer around socially engaged art, however my response is most informed by my work as an educator.

From 2007-2014 I served as the co-director of an MFA program focused on art and social practice. The mantra of the program could have easily been that art and social practice starts and ends not in rarefied spaces, but out in the world. The students did not receive studio spaces and instead created their work out in the world through collaborations and partnerships, embedded in communities. The program sought to educate and activate students to develop and utilize their artistic skills to engage in society. It is the kind of education that created engaged citizens. But perhaps the most important aspect of the curriculum was that it asked artists to consider their relationship to and placement in society. So the core questions of this invitation, “But what happens when we assess art not just for art’s sake, but also for its civic purpose?” was a familiar one. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s time to Replace the “Broken Window” with a “Scaffold Up.”

Posted by Amy Sananman On November - 21 - 2014
Amy Sanamman

Amy Sanamman

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 »

The Beauty of Change: Re-imagining Small Town America

Posted by John Davis On November - 20 - 2014
John Davis

John Davis

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 »

But What About Quality?

Posted by Nina Simon On November - 20 - 2014
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 »

Re-Imagining Beauty, Embracing Complexity

Posted by Andrew Horwitz On November - 20 - 2014
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 »

Seeing Power and Possibility in Socially Engaged Art

Posted by Deborah Fisher On November - 19 - 2014
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 »

A Brute in America: Poetry and an Interrogation of Violence

Posted by Patrick Rosal On November - 19 - 2014
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 - 2014
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


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 »

Calling Out to the Old Radical Herbert Marcuse

Posted by Bob Leonard On November - 19 - 2014
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 »

Not Just Pretty: Aesthetics in Social Impact Design

Posted by Annie Wu On November - 18 - 2014
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 »

The Aesthetics of Politics, Art, and Communications

Posted by Nato Thompson On November - 18 - 2014
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 - 2014
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 »

Finding Beauty In Another Reality

Posted by Denise Brown On November - 18 - 2014
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 »