"What if one primary goal of justice were to create a world in which all people can experience and create beauty?" Sarah Ruhl
In December of 2015, as part of the Art of Change initiative, we brought together a small group of thinkers in a range of fields—psychology, economics, art, philosophy, public policy–to discuss the topic of beauty. We were starting with a contention that contemporary society has overvalued economic growth and technological innovation, equating these with progress in human development and prioritizing them at the expense of the things that in fact make life worth living—such as human connection, beauty, nature, love, and art. We know that material wealth does not lead to happiness, yet our hyper-capitalist society has made it increasingly difficult to talk about and champion the more humanistic elements of life as worthy of investment and development.
Our goal was to invite people with vastly different perspectives to discuss how we might more effectively articulate, value, and nurture beauty as a basic need and right, and why it would benefit us as a society to do so. The conversation had two parts:
- Exploring why beauty matters, and how beauty and justice are interdependent.
- Expanding the space for beauty in our societal discourse and policymaking.
We asked, in the words of Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, what it might take to build “an economy of empathy?”
The convening attendees were incredibly generous with their thinking, and we share some of their statements below about what beauty means for them and how it relates to justice. A full list of participants, agenda, and selected resources is here. For more from participants, including Charles Eisenstein, Hilton Als, and Krista Tippett, download the PDF on the right.
“I’d like to share one moment, and one thought.
Thirty years ago, I was sitting in the front row of the Berlin Philharmonic, near the very end of of the Mahler’s Second. At the word auferstehung—“resurrection”—I burst into tears. The soprano looked at me, and then she burst into tears. The performance was disrupted.
The thought—and you’re not going to find this congenial—but beauty is dangerous. Beauty, unlike almost anything I know, gets under the cognitive radar. It enables a message that you might resist to become believable. We’ve talked about Picasso and Douglass, but we need to be reminded of Leni Riefenstahl and Stalin. That both Hitler and Stalin thought they were in the service of social justice. Both of them used that word. And Riefenstahl and Stalinist beauty is a vehicle of propaganda. We live in a society in which there is huge disagreement, maybe not around this table, about what constitutes social justice. And therefore, we have to be aware that what we are talking about is double-edged.”
Claudia made a video offering for her introduction on the relationship of whiteness and beauty in our society.
"I’ve had so many moments of beauty in my life, but one of the most moving was when my daughter decided she wanted to play guitar (I play too when I’m not doing economics). She’s very driven—she started lessons and practiced all the time—but she’s also very shy. Last year, at the annual birthday party we have for my older son and I, she played a song for me in front of 50 people. It was a huge deal for her, and such an important, multi-dimensional moment: The music was beautiful; the fact that somebody young finally gotten to the point that she could make art and lose herself in music was beautiful; it was such an intergenerational human experience, and I realize not everybody gets to have those.
I diverge a bit from the usual economist because I work on well-being, happiness, and peoples’ capacity to lead fulfilling lives—and I think beauty is included in that. Lately, there has been a lot of talk in my profession about putting wellbeing metrics into our official statistics, in the context of two different types. There is Benthamite wellbeing, or how people experience their days: Are they content? Are they worried? Are they anxious? Are they stressed? But then there is another dimension of wellbeing which encompasses how people evaluate their lives as a whole—their opportunities in life, their ability to imagine what their life will be like, what their opportunities will be like. That also includes Aristotle’s concept of eudemonia, which is purpose or meaning; if you think about the pursuit of happiness in the Jeffersonian sense, he was talking about this Aristotelian kind.
My latest book, Happiness for All?, is about the inequality of wellbeing in the United States. I’ve studied wellbeing around the world in very poor countries and very poor contexts, you often find very poor people who report to be very happy; they aren’t starving, they have their friends and family, they’re alive that day—in the moment, they are okay. The extent to which poor people live day to day—with lots of stress, no insurance, and a lot of uncertainty—means that they don’t have the luxury or the capability to plan their lives; to think about the education and opportunities their children will have; or will they be able to play a beautiful guitar song; or have the luxury of taking guitar lessons.
There was a recent study of the most searched words on Google by people who live in the “easy” places to live in the United States and in the “difficult” places to live—say, the Northwest, DC, and Portland versus Baltimore and Detroit. And in the difficult places to live, the words were “stress,” “religion,” “antichrist,” “diabetes,” “guns,” “video games,” and “fad diets,” by people living with stressful, short-term horizons. The words in the easy places to live were “baby bjorns,” “baby ipads,” “foam rollers,” and exotic travel destinations like Machu Picchu (I’m from Peru so I like this one), by people who were investing in their own health, investing in knowledge, investing in their children’s knowledge, and in broadening their horizons by seeing beautiful things. Two different worlds and yet these are people in the same country. In my view, the fact that there’s so many people in the US now who are compromised in their ability to lead to this broader dimension of wellbeing or deeper dimension of wellbeing is an injustice, and I think it links to beauty."
"Let me start by quoting Elizabeth Bishop, who once wrote to Robert Lowell:
“Oh heavens, when does one begin to write the real poems? I certainly feel as if I never had. But of course I don’t feel that way about yours. They all seem real as real and getting more so. They all have that sure feeling, as if you’d been in a stretch when everything and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry, or not material, seemed to be poetry. If only one could see everything that way all the time. It seems to me it’s the whole purpose of art. That rare feeling of control, illuminating. Life is alright, for the time being.”
Bishop describes so accurately the feeling an artist or an audience has when seized by the feeling of beauty: That life actually is poetry; that life is alright for the moment.
Now I want to tell you about another woman poet I know. Jennifer June Buckley is a poet of rare gifts and embodies Bishop’s vision of seeing life as poetry much of the time. I met her twenty years ago at a creative writing class I was teaching for developmentally disabled adults in Blackstone Valley Industries in Pawtucket, Rhode Island—a place not known for its beauty. Jennifer—who has Down Syndrome—wrote constantly in remarkable streams about the beauty of ordinary life and the people she knew. Here is one of her poems:
“Keeping a journal/looks like a white bird/I am your friend/I am your girlfriend/I am your boyfriend/I am in the hospital/very long time/Saw my doctor/I was six years old/I forgot tell him/Happy Valentine’s Day/Name is Dr. Phillip Lucas/Came my rescue.”
She startled me into beauty. She made me see beauty in a place full of cigarette butts, unpleasant smells, and the promise of burned Dunkin Donuts coffee after longs stretches of monotonous piece-work. She made poetry that transformed everyday life. Her poetry could shake a cynic by the shoulders and say: “Pay attention to beauty.” It is the power of close observation suffused with love.
We are also talking today about justice—not helpfulness—but I do think that when we talk about social justice and art we are also talking about equality and access and helpfulness and usefulness, rather than seeing art as encased in a platonic and hermetic vacuum apart from the people who are served by it.
When writing my play The Oldest Boy, which featured a reincarnated Tibetan Lama, I called many people in the Tibetan community for help and insight. I’ll never forget when I wrote to a Tibetan scholar who wrote back immediately: ”I am happy to talk with you as your play might benefit other sentient beings.” I thought: “Oh my. He is assuming that art is helpful.” When we rehearsed The Oldest Boy at Lincoln Center we had two Tibetan Lamas come visit and answer questions and bless the room. At one point, Lama Pema looked at us keenly and said: “Art and religion aren’t very different.” Then he started laughing and said: “And someone’s got to do it.” Then he laughed some more. His laughter held conviction that art and religion are difficult and also essential to a culture that values consciousness and gentleness. He said: “For Tibetans, culture is our capital. We have an economy of culture.” He told us when the Dalai Lama went into exile after the occupation of Tibet, the first thing that he did was to set up a training program in India to preserve Tibetan dance, music, and art. The first act of the nation in exile was not to set up an army, but instead to preserve culture.
This confidence in art’s helpful quality is not a deeply held conviction in this country—though it might be a deeply held unconscious belief held by artists—but it’s not confidently articulated in the culture at large. In our culture, art is often defined by its very uselessness; but artists know that art is not useless, or else they would not make it. Audiences know that art is not useless, or else they would not come. What if one primary goal of justice were to create a world in which all people can experience and create beauty? If empathy for the other is a precondition for justice, and if beauty creates empathy, then perhaps in a world of diminishing empathy and increasing violence, we all must make more room for art."
"Beauty does not lie in waiting for our discovery of it. It can’t be managed and refuses function. It encourages anti-colonial sensibilities towards all things. I want to suggest an available model that flows through you even if you don’t tune in—the experience of the DJ Alex Sensation Show on La Mega 97.9—a very important radio station in New York—Monday through Friday from 11am to 3pm. He does something called the Mega Mezcla during his workaday set. Roughly translated, it’s a “Mega-Mix” of different things: pipes out from the half-open door of a delivery truck; speakers behind the counter at the corner deli; toll-booth operators on their choked up radio. The sensation of listening to this reminds the city of how its function gives workers a place to keep functioning.
He will tenderly and exuberantly shout-out carpenters and bodegueros; daycare workers; housekeepers; home health aides; secretaries and bakery employees; body shop garages and carwashes; with their migrations, and the chords they strike as the city. The Mega Mezcla testifies to the ordinary and dramatic and forced and chosen ways that many have arrived to New York to make it swing; it’s a joyful and difficult beauty that messes with anyone who tries to lament the city’s long-gone energies. DJ Sensation offers a platform for Latino health; this radio show signals New York’s real bohemia.
In contrast this bohemia, there are those who would discipline and deny such beauty without regard for killing it. In too many academic parts across the ideological spectrum, beauty and aesthetics have long been considered suspect, or made to mean something singular, or used as trade to back up an argument. So it is vital to take cues from all the adjunct artists and residents in our institutions, and the worlds made by those like Sensation’s Mega Mezclas that teach us we’ve too long ceded talk of aesthetics, of aesthetic traditions, to those who are invested in deracinating them and taking away our humor. I want to hold on to a sense of health that doesn’t depend upon diagnosis from an outside expert, but one that embraces the bad diagnosis, rejects wholeness, or even being well, and instead finds in immigrant brokenness, in the bad diagnosis, in this music, the beauty of rebellions from several antiquities and continents against undifferentiated masters. DJ Sensation makes a dance floor of their graves."
There are indications that we may be seeing a shift, a kind of pushback against the hyper-capitalist and materialist values that so dominate our society today. There is growing interest—not only among spiritual leaders, artists, and philosophers, but also among economists, social scientists and policy makers—in more holistic approaches of thinking about personal and social development. These approaches recognize our deeper humanity, and challenge the premise that maximizing economic value is or should be the primary project of our lives as individuals and as a society. This may influence how we understand the value of culture, and culture may be a powerful agent for propelling this shift.