Priceless: On the Power of Art

I believe in the power of art! I believe in the effective force and the potent impact that excellent art can make on aesthetic, social, and political issues.

I recently stumbled over a text of mine on the potential power of art, written and published in 2005, and which I offer here for discussion:

‘Culture’ is a broad and vague concept. Contingent to particular interests, it is often misinterpreted and becomes prey to various prejudices. No doubt the notion of culture is closely related to our general upbringing and education. That is why it thrives—at least at first sight—in affluent circles. However, by expanding this concept and seeing it as the creation and transformation of consciousness, these parameters change. We can only create a committed cultural awareness if we also take into serious account the ethical aspect of culture, which in turn is intimately related to aesthetics. The simple fact of knowing Michelangelo’s David and its whereabouts does not, in itself, constitute a qualitative sign of cultural awareness. I want to delineate how the aesthetic component can be a starting drug or a Trojan horse for the creation of cultural awareness. I am convinced that aesthetic culture is something innate in human beings; something that exists, albeit in a diffuse way, as a latent and real need—or as an unsatisfied desire—in every social milieu. Even at the poorest levels.

As a notable example, let me tell you about a work by the Puerto Rican artist Chemi Rosado Seijo, who chose a community on his island for an interesting experiment. His socio-aesthetic project was based on offering the inhabitants of El Cerro—in the municipality of Naranjito—to paint their houses green. Each family could choose their favorite shade of this color for their home. Together with a group of artists, they painted the first house. Others followed, until they completed 200. The project unleashed a strong process of self-identification and social integration in the village. They began to argue, fight, understand, and ponder, since it was about creating something that surpassed the gray monotony of the everyday; it was about doing something crazy; it was about immersing a whole village in green in order to paint a picture.

The process involved all the community’s residents, who engaged in a close-knit and enriching interaction for months. In accordance with Joseph Beuys’ concept of art as “social sculpture”, the entire village transformed its visual, aesthetic, and social features into a continuous process. For the first time, they thought intensely and passionately about the aesthetic appearance of their place, which thanks to this transformation acquired a new and different aspect. Through the observation and subsequent evaluation of the before and after, the residents acquired the capacity to perceive their reality with greater transparency and intensity, in terms of housing and lifestyle, and as individuals as well as a group.

El Cerro, Puerto Rico, Photography: Courtesy Chemi Rosado Seijo

Their socio-aesthetic stance gradually changed. They came to know how to differentiate one green tonality from another; how to differentiate their past village from the present one, and this one from the village that it would be turning into. This process may seem insignificant, but its real meaning is powerful. Only after I learn to differentiate, will I be able to change something in this world. But for this to happen, I must have the desire to do so and this desire can be awakened through aesthetics and art. In other words, by engaging in a discussion of beauty versus ugliness—i.e., on issues not directly related to primary human needs—they dared to initiate a dialogue that may seem superfluous, though in reality it is not.

In this way, with a very simple action, an awareness on their capacity for aesthetic differentiation was created—an awareness directly linked to the capacity for social differentiation—which in turn triggers further reflections and ensuing political actions. The residents were thus endowed with a renewed self-esteem. An ethical value was gained. The important qualitative step was to discover this value in a specific situation; to recognize, and to continue to understand that it is a fundamental, absolute, and sustainable value; opposed to merely materialistic or ephemeral values. In other words, to perceive and deal with the aesthetic qualities of our surrounding world can serve as a Trojan horse that will infect us with aesthetics. And I’m not talking about a bronze statue in front of the Mayor’s Office, but about projects generated and created through personal and collective initiatives.

This inevitably results in stronger social connections and in a constructive discussion related to that which exists and pertains to us, as well as in a critical analysis of what concerns others. For example, in a dispute about “my shade of green is more beautiful than yours because …” I have to defend, uphold, and even reconsider my newly acquired point of view. And it may be that, in the end, I may pick a different green than the one I had originally selected. With that, I got involved in a different discussion: not of everyday necessities, but more critical and oriented toward values ​​related to aesthetics and so-called “good taste”. From the beginning, I have placed my personal taste in the balance, through a discussion that automatically leads me away from seeking to merely cover my basic everyday needs. Only when I have gained this self-esteem will I be able to recognize and respect the values ​​of others. And with this, we have landed in the very heart of the constructive development of all social cohesion.

 

 

  1. I really like the idea of a collective challenge when it comes to improving the aesthetics of a communal space. It does create a more interactive dialogue rather than simply being presented with what someone pronounces to be art in an “artistic” environment. Food for thought, Hans!

  2. The old Bauhaus idea that beautiful design makes even people more beautiful in terms of taste and social competence remain a nice utopia. Perhaps because people’s participation was not part of the concept. Maybe it will work better in Puerto Rico!
    If people are involved in an interactive process, if they can chose and decide, I am sure the idea of raising awareness through aestetics will work much better. So let’s wait and see, if there will be visible results like better comunication, less crime, more attentive cooperation.
    Good luck. I am corious!

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