This post is part of our Excellence and Equity in Arts for Change blog salon.

Linda Essig raises the question in her blog: Why is beauty, a word often included in definitions of aesthetics, missing from the list of 11 attributes of excellence in the Aesthetic Perspectives framework? It is a question that prompted many conversations during the making of the framework as we wrestled with exclusive connotations of “taste” and what is “beautiful.”

In a previous Animating Democracy blog salon, Alternate ROOTS director Carlton Turner, asked the question: “What is beauty without justice?” He wrote:

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?

In another conversation, Rise Wilson of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation called up the adage, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” to embrace its democratic underpinnings. She held up Pepon Osorio’s reForm installation—a response to the closing of two dozen schools in Philadelphia—as “a full definition of what beauty and excellence are in Arts for Change.” It was visually and psychologically visceral and imbued with meaning based on the reflections of students’ realities and a clear sense of their participation in its making. It engaged the senses by locating the installation in a basement and lobby and not in a gallery. It was well executed.

A couple weeks ago, I experienced artist Nick Cave’s exhibition at Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA. The initial encounter with one piece, “Kinetic Spinner Forest,” made up of thousands of shimmering objects suspended in the museum’s vast industrial space, was beautiful and seductive. But upon closer inspection and with time to absorb, it revealed imagery of guns, targets, tears. A superb museum guide engaged our group to excavate what we were seeing, how it made us feel, and what our own takes were on the exhibition’s visual and sensory revelations. Soon our short opportunity for communal meaning making was calling up the tragic trend of gun violence and had us pondering its implications, all through Cave’s aesthetic immersion.

Nick Cave’s “Kinetic Spinner Forest” at Mass MoCA.

John Borstel, in Aesthetic Perspectives, points out that excellent art “allows for ambiguity, contradiction, and the coexistence of opposites” that “ambiguity, contradiction, and co-existence are essentials for a tolerant democratic society.”

These are but three takes on the place of beauty in the aesthetics of arts for change. In response to Linda’s question, I posit that the sum total of the 11 aesthetic attributes complexifies beauty and provides a framework for reconsidering what is beauty in Arts for Change.