In December of last year as part of our ongoing Art of Change initiative, we brought together a small group of experts and thinkers in a range of fields—psychology, economics, art, philosophy, public policy–to discuss the topic of beauty. The goal was to ask how we might more effectively articulate, value, and nurture beauty as a basic need and right. 

The conversation had two parts:

  • Making the case for why beauty is essential to the health of human beings and society, and how it can be a catalyst for justice.
  • Expanding the space for beauty in our contemporary discourse and policymaking, and understanding the role of art and artists in that shift.

For the next few weeks we will be sharing contributions on the topic by some of the participants in the convening, including Polly Carl, and Diane Ragsdale. Here, Alexandra Vazquez discusses the wonders of a radio mega-mix that highlights the people, places, and things of the Big Apple. 

Alexandra T. Vazquez, Associate Professor of Performance Studies at New York University

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. 

About Alexandra: Alexandra T. Vazquez was born in Miami, Florida. She is associate professor in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. Her book, Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music (Duke University Press, 2013), won the American Studies Association’s Lora Romero Book Prize in 2014. Alexandra’s work has been featured in the journals American Quarterly, Social Text, Women and Performance, and Journal of Popular Music Studies, and in the edited volumes Reggaeton and Pop When the World Falls Apart.

We’ll be posting responses to this discussion triweeklyhere on the site. Follow us on Twitter at @ArtofChangeIs to share your own ideas.