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 Charles Eisenstein, Sunil Iyengar, and Trajal Harrell. Here, Anna Marazuela Kim recalls her earliest familial experiences with beauty, in both music and literature, as gifts that helped her grow, survive, and thrive. 

Anna Marazuela Kim, Associate Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

I grew up in a small Midwestern town; it was a rough place, devoid of beauty, and ugly with prejudice. It was tough growing up Asian in the wake of the Vietnam War and so much hatred that spilled over towards our family. My parents were immigrants and each had been displaced by earlier, different wars in their countries: my father by the Korean War which he escaped by fleeing North for South and translating for the US Army. He joked he taught himself English by reading Archie comics (which I believed), and eventually made his way, improbably, to MIT. On the other side of the world, my mother survived the bombing of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. She went on to study classical music, which became a lifelong passion—indeed a lifeline for her. Both of my parents lost much in their native countries, but it’s what they carried with them that brings me here today.

My earliest memory of beauty is the sound of my mother’s violin. She played in the basement where she did the laundry and ironing for our family of seven before we got up and the chaos began. And after she put us to bed, there was a laundry chute that connected the basement to my bedroom at the head of my bed, forming a kind of conduit for sound to travel between. And thus my waking and drifting off to sleep—those liminal moments when dream and reality are blurred—were shaped by her music, appearing and rising magically each morning and night, softly filling my room. A performance of beauty, but also of love and perseverance, of transcendence in the face of difficulty. So music was my first, pre-rational training in beauty.

The other was literature, and the encounter with my father’s library; books thrown into boxes he carried with him from two years at Ripon College before heading to MIT. Language had saved my father during the Korean War; it became a similar salve for me. Reading the classics, I discovered a second language of beauty, not only in the imaginary worlds that transported me from the conflicts of my own, but a connection—a deep connection—to world and history; and later, this became a potent resource for weaving my own words and stories to overcome the hatred and prejudice of my peers. These were the twin gifts of beauty bestowed by my parents. For me they are as fundamental as the very life they gave me, forming my capacities for living. I could not have survived and thrived without them.

Now, I’m going to get academic to talk about justice. A long history of beauty in its relation to justice might be traced from the Ancient Greek term “ho kalos,” which denotes a kind of excellence or virtue and is often paired with “ho agathos”—the Good—to Plato, the metaphysical and epistemological unity of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, and the Aristotelian view in the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics that human flourishing finds its fullest expression in the just polis, or society.

In the Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti further develops the connection between beauty and civic virtue, when he argues in De Re Aedificatoria that it is the beauty of a city and its buildings that “makes justice visible.” And then later, Jacques Rancière takes the idea in a more radical direction in The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. And even now, surveys such as ResPublica’s “A Community Right to Beauty” make this point: that beauty is not just the icing on the cake of society, but rather a fundamental source of nourishment everyone deserves. Now on an intuitive level, beauty’s integral relation to justice may perhaps best be seen in its inverse: the ugliness of injustice, the blight of economic and racial slums. Clearly there is a connection between human flourishing and a just society that’s integrally bound up with the built environment and the possibilities it affords. Yet when beauty is ranged against other dimensions of culture, especially those that seem to more directly address fundamental aspects of thriving, such as economics, its significance recedes from view. So it is the aim of my research for Thriving Cities to reclaim and more clearly articulate beauty’s foundational role for cities and to a more just society, as one of six interconnected endowments that form a framework for assessing the vitality of a given city or neighborhood. And by beauty we include the built environment and urban design crucial to the infrastructure of the city, the role of the arts at the level of community, and more broadly the aesthetic orientation fundamental to human life and its capacity to foster attitudes of care for the urban commons.

About Anna: Anna Marazuela Kim is currently an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Since 2011, she has been a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, where she earned a PhD in the history of art and architecture in 2014. She is the lead scholar for research on the role of art and aesthetics in urban revitalization for the Thriving Cities project, which is based there. Her wide-ranging research engages the deep structures of people’s complex relation to images, drawing together ethics and aesthetics, phenomenology, anthropology, religion, and technology. As part of an international network of scholars and curators, she contributed to the 2013 exhibition at Tate Britain, Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, and an edited volume, Striking Images, Iconoclasms Past and Present (Ashgate, 2013). She has been program coordinator for a number of transdisciplinary initiatives, including a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored seminar at the Kunsthistorisches Institut-Florenz on Leonardo da Vinci: Between Art and Science. She is currently co-organizing a symposium on art and terrorism to be held in February 2016.

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