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, Hilton Als discusses the rules of beauty and the impact of personal denigration. 

Hilton Als, Writer and Critic for New Yorker Magazine:

I’ve always been perplexed by the idea of justice in particular, as it relates to beauty or not. I was an art history major at Columbia University and pretty much left studying, and academia, because of two things: One was that I couldn’t cope with connoisseurship, which you have to take if you are going to pursue a PhD in art history; secondly, I was discouraged by a very brilliant art historian who said I would not really be able to survive in the academy—that writing was quite different than having a career as a person who was expert at something. These two ideas forged in my head; that there was a rule for what is beautiful, and that one could be denigrated at a moment’s notice. And these two conversations—one that I had with myself and one with my professor—did everything to change my life. They also sent me back to the person I had been, which was someone who grew up, along with my sisters and brother, under the social welfare system in New York at the time when social workers could come into your house unannounced and look to see if you were being supported by a man; if your mother was working extra hours; and so and so on. They became two political forces that shaped my consciousness that made me understand that the hierarchy of beauty was something that I was dead set against and that beauty, as I perceived it—which was my mother and my sisters—could be denigrated because they had no power.

So this idea of power being related to beauty has always been anathema to me and also something that I criticize quite roundly. But while that narrative is going on, I really do seek what the great poet Marianne Moore called “the strange experience of beauty,” which a destabilizing force. And I believe that that destabilizing force is political as much as aesthetic. So the justice part of that really happens when we look and we’re able to make something new out of ourselves that hitherto was not even perceived by other people or the individual. So let beauty change you; don’t try to change it.

About Hilton: Hilton Als is an author, critic, and artist. He is a theater critic at the New Yorker, where he has been a contributor since 1989. Previously, he was a staff writer for the Village Voice and an editor-at-large at Vibe. He edited the catalog for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s groundbreaking exhibition Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, which ran from November 1994 to March 1995. His most recent book of poetic essays, White Girls, published in 2013, considers race, gender, and history through the lens of personal experience, literature, and art. In 1997, the New York Association of Black Journalists awarded Hilton rst prize in both Magazine Critique/Review and Magazine Arts and Entertainment. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing in 2000 and the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for 2002-03. In 2009, Hilton worked with the performer Justin Bond on Cold Water, an exhibition of paintings, drawings, and videos at La MaMa Galleria. In 2010, he co-curated Self-Consciousness, at the VeneKlasen/Werner gallery in Berlin. Hilton has taught at Yale University, Wesleyan University, and Smith College.

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