One of the challenges of connecting aesthetics and “beauty” to arts organizations is that aesthetics and reason work on different terms. We all know the “reasons” to do things as a cultural manager: To attain or optimize a stated goal of the enterprise; to get work made; to connect it with an audience; to do so efficiently, effectively, in ways that ensure future energy and attract future resources. These are not bad things. And they are useful and measurable reasons to move.
Aesthetic intent, however, doesn’t tend to serve a third-party problem (except by accident). Aesthetics is about the coherence, integrity, and power of the work. I’m not claiming aesthetic work is “pure” and disinterested in its environment — work like that would never be completed or shared or experienced. But its focus is the immediate challenge of the work, itself.
For example, I recall a fabulously acerbic Mark Morris during a talkback after a performance of his dance company. An audience member asked him why, in a certain piece, the dancers had made a certain gesture with their hands. What was the meaning or the reference of that gesture, and how did it advance the intention of the work? He responded with a dry, cutting glare, saying something like “that was what the moment required.”
When I have explained my interest and effort to consider beauty, along with reason, in the design and direction of an arts organization, the first questions back have often been about utility. “Would you do that because the organization would be more effective in its work?” “Do you imagine that leaders with an eye toward beauty would make choices that were more naturally aligned with technical and moral goals?” “Would you do that because it might resonate more deeply with donors or audiences or artists, and lead to more loyalty and resources?”
Maybe. But mostly not. You would do it because that’s what the moment requires.
In a 2013 essay, James G. March (one of the world’s most prolific and respected scholars on organizations, management, and sociology) expressed his own preference for the beauty, rather than the immediate relevance, of ideas. He said:
Scholarship celebrates ideas, and in that celebration it honors beauty not only as an instrument of utility but also as a fundamental human aspiration.
I’m imagining arts organizations that embrace utility, of course, but also beauty or aesthetic elegance in the pursuit of their work. They do not “use” beauty to achieve or align their practical ends. Rather, they strive for beauty because they do, because it is a core element of who they are.
This idea may agitate many colleagues, who may see it as a return to self-regarding arts organizations that seek only to fund their own impulses and not to engage and serve the challenges of their communities (looking at you, Doug). I get that concern. But in a future post, I’ll explore why I believe the aesthetic impulse is not, necessarily, self-regarding.
In a favorite poem by Mark Strand, the poet reflects on his own motion through the world, and what compels him forward. I wonder if our collective actions in the arts, which we often call organizations, might hold similarly complex logics for what they do, and how they choose to do it. Strand concludes:
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
p.s. In this post, and in my evolving work, I am continuing to draw on the extraordinary effort and insight of Diane Ragsdale, and the authors and ideas she brings to my attention. Credit where credit is due!