NOTE: This post was written for Animating Democracy’s Excellence and Equity in Arts for Change Blog Salon July 24-28, 2017. You can also find it there.
I was honored that Animating Democracy chose to debut the new Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change at the recent Pave Biennial Symposium on Entrepreneurship and the Arts, and doubly honored to be invited to contribute to this blog salon. The latter gave me the incentive I needed to review the entire compendium as well as several of the companion guides. Aesthetic Perspectives is described as “a guide for description rather than a scorecard.” This is an apt explanation; it provides a framework for use by an evaluator rather than a rubric for evaluation itself. As such, there are aspects of Aesthetic Perspectives that are particularly useful or important and a few elements that raise some questions for me.
First, what I love:
- Equity is a core value
- Process is as important as product
- Agency is with the creator rather than the evaluator
- By defining aesthetics as “how creative expression stimulates our senses, moves us, and makes meaning in the world” the framework avoids the challenges of the Eurocentric approach of many arts evaluation processes.
Then some questions:
- Why apply these frameworks only to “art for change?” Couldn’t/shouldn’t the same framework be equitably applied across all of art-making?
- Will funders and policy makers buy into the kinds of qualitative assessments that are likely to result from using Aesthetic Perspectives to design an evaluation plan?
- Why is “beauty” (a word often included in definitions of “aesthetics”) missing from the list of 11 attributes, especially if the creator rather than the beholder can define it? (Perhaps I answer this question myself in #4 above.)
By coincidence, I reviewed Aesthetic Perspectives on the very same day I read a critique of the Australian/UK Culture Counts initiative. The two initiatives appear to be polar opposites. Culture Counts is “a digital evaluation platform for measuring cultural impact.” The first of its principles is to “standardise the definitions of indefinite terms like ‘quality’ so as to create a common descriptive language.” But, as Aesthetic Perspectives co-author John Borstel’s frequent collaborator Liz Lerman recently said to me, “naming is not a neutral act.” So, where Culture Counts attempts to standardize language, Aesthetic Perspectives provides a menu of language to chose from. In doing so, the creator, the audience, the funder, and the evaluator have a tool to observe from a more appropriate distance, or, as Andrew Taylor recently wrote, “We must learn to step back far enough to see, without ego, what’s before us, but not so far that we lose our human and humane response.”
Although Aesthetic Perspectives may not include the “standardization” some traditionalists (especially in the policy space) may desire, it does seem to provide a humane framework for assessing not only art for change, but creative practice writ large.