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 Anna Marazuela Kim, and Gladstone “Fluney” Hutchinson. Here, Steven Tepper talks about the importance of inclusionary arts education and the inherent beauty in photographic portraiture. 

Steven Tepper, Dean, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Arizona State University

I’m a sociologist and public policy scholar, and recently made dean of Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, which is the largest design and art school in a research university in the country. And it’s a remarkable place that informs how I think about justice.

Traditionally, universities improve their rankings by excluding more and more people. In our ASU charter, we have defined ourselves against the metric; measuring ourselves not by who we exclude, but who we include and how well they do.

Arts and design training has largely been seen as the privilege of those that can afford both the education—it’s the most expensive education of any discipline the arts degree—and the opportunity cost. Many families don’t feel like they can afford to send their kids to get an arts degree, and I think that is a huge cultural crisis for America when our storytellers don’t represent the demographic of this country. In the Herberger Institute, we have twelve-hundred Latinx and Native American artists—the most in this country. We have almost forty-percent first-generation students.

I’d like to share a beautiful story from a photo exhibit that a senior, Amanda Morales, presented last year: Twenty unbelievable portraits of women who are, or were, teenage mothers, and their children. Amanda was the daughter of a teenage mom and lived with this stigma, but these photographs turned something that society has basically told us is shameful into something unbelievably powerful. She gave humanity back to these moms and these children with such care; she showed the courage in their faces, and the optimism; the love; he hope—all the things we think are missing from that idea of teenage motherhood were there. So for me it was seeing something beautiful in something we might otherwise see differently.

About Steven: Steven J. Tepper is dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, the nation’s largest comprehensive design and arts school at a research university. He is a leading writer and speaker on US cultural policy, and his work has fostered national discussions around topics of cultural engagement, everyday creativity, and the transformative possibilities of a 21st-century creative campus. Prior to his appointment at ASU, Steven was on the faculty at Vanderbilt University where he was a chief architect of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy, a national think tank for cultural policy and creativity. Steven holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a master’s in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a PhD in sociology from Princeton University.

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