Why Beauty Matters: Teresita Fernández on the Value of Broken Objects and Art as a Springboard for Equity

Image credit: Ostracon bearing the name of Aristides, 483-482 BC at the Ancient Agora Museum in Athens via Wikimedia Commons.

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, artist Teresita Fernández shares her thoughts on the inherent beauty of broken objects and the relationship between beauty and equity. 

Teresita Fernández, Artist

There’s a certain very beautiful Ancient Greek ostrakon from 487 BC at the Metropolitan Museum. An ostrakon is a piece of broken pottery which was used to write short notes on. Ostrakons were also the way Ancient Greek citizens would vote, by simply choosing a piece, writing the name of their candidate of choice and literally casting it into the heap to be counted. You could also vote for whomever you wanted to get rid of, which is where we get the word ostracize, beautiful etymology.

I was intrigued by the idea of how what seemed broken was transformed into a meaningful gesture that would essentially build consensus. We are taught to think that what is broken is useless, hopeless, or ugly. And so when we set out to create change we are, as artists, always aware that there is a great mute discomfort that lives alongside beauty.

The most resonant and enduring of values, like freedom, are always appreciated in dramas of separation, loss, longing, and brokenness. It’s why something sad is also beautiful. It’s why when I walk through a museum and see an unremarkable European object made of gold, I am brought to tears also seeing and feeling in that same object the obliteration of an entire civilization’s material culture, melted down, indignant, powerless.

In Japan, where I’ve lived, there is a reverence for the beauty of mending, a broken bowl would be valued precisely because of the exquisite nature of how it was patched with gold. Often we try to repair broken things in such a way as to conceal the fracture. But the tea masters understood that a conspicuous beautiful repair actually adds value. The wound being not forgotten, but incorporated into what makes it beautiful. A kind of redemption.


Image credit: Nanking reticulated basket, c.1750 via Wikimedia Commons

Witnessing beauty is an active form of recognizing yourself in things that are not you. The heartbreaking droop of a flower in an Ikebana arrangement can summon up all of human suffering, coding our shared sense of exile. When we feel this, when we understand things not because we are told to or because read a label, but rather because we sense it, it becomes part of the way we see the world. That recognizing ourselves both in art and in others is what is at the core of art and social justice.

There’s a side-stepping that beauty employs. It’s not that the work is “about” social justice. It’s that the beauty in an artwork can be used as a springboard to attach other urgencies. Beauty seduces, it holds attention. It creates a space and a pause where other messages can be lodged, gently, subtly placed to linger. The word aesthetic, in its original form, actually means to make aware. Its opposite is anesthetic, so if doctors anesthetize people so that they don’t feel anything, then artists in turn must enable them to feel palpably connected.

Image credit: Blind Blue Landscape, 2009 by Teresita Fernández. Commissioned by the Benesse Art Site, Naoshima, Japan. Photo: Noboru Morikawa, via Lehmann Maupin

Image creditBlind Blue Landscape, 2009 by Teresita Fernández. Commissioned by the Benesse Art Site, Naoshima, Japan. Photo: Noboru Morikawa, via Lehmann Maupin

But who gets to occupy the space of beauty? Who has visibility? This year there were 68 violent deaths of unarmed Latinos at the hands of police officers that went virtually unheard of. No hashtags, no witnesses, because those that were present are also undocumented and silenced. No media coverage. I can’t help but correlate that the same lack of presence when I look at the glaring omissions of Latinos in museums across this country. If museums, then, are places where consensus gets made, where we go to commune with visual beauty. Where contemporary culture and ideas about social justice are visually unraveled for us to learn from. What happens when the spaces of beauty are also systematically closed off? That space of access is where beauty relies on equity as much as equity relies on beauty.

About TeresitaTeresita Fernández is an artist best known for her prominent public sculptures and unconventional use of materials. Her work is characterized by an interest in perception and the psychology of looking. Her experiential, large-scale works are often inspired by landscape and place, as well as by diverse historical and cultural references. They present spectacular optical illusions that evoke natural phenomena and engage audiences in immersive art experiences. Teresita has received numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Tiffany Biennial Award. Appointed by President Barack Obama, she is the rst Latina to serve on the US Commission of Fine Arts, a 100-year-old federal panel that advises the president and Congress on national matters of design and aesthetics. In June 2015, Fata Morgana, the artist’s largest public art project, opened in New York’s Madison Square Park. Teresita is currently working on a Ford Foundation-funded artist’s initiative that focuses on the Latino American future in museums and cultural institutions.

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