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 Sarah Ruhl, Sunil Iyengar, and Trajal Harrell. Here, Trajal Harrell shares three experiences–as both observer and creator of beauty–that made him (re)consider its strength, and question its essence. 

Trajal Harrell, Choreographer and dancer

I’d like to talk about three strands of things that go together; the first is an experience of beauty. People told me La Grande Bellezza was a great movie, so I had been saving it to watch for almost a year-and-a-half. Finally, two weeks ago, I put it on. Thirty minutes in I stopped the movie because I wanted to savor it. I felt I had come upon something which reflected a sense of liveness and aesthetics that I could not have perceived before, and it was so beautiful that I didn’t want it to end. But I also wanted to be prepared to see the rest of it; I felt like I needed to wait, because beauty is seductive and it’s also… something I’m suspicious of.

Later, I put on The Skinny, which I thought was just a stupid movie to pass the time. I was quite shocked because it was full of all these beautiful black men and I was like: ‘Oh my god.’ Where have these men been? I was just shocked that I was seeing these men. I started to realize that because I spend a lot of time in Europe, I purposely try to avoid and ignore the Black Lives Matter movement as much as possible, because like Baldwin I’m tired and I don’t want to pay attention sometimes. But I started to think: ‘Have these men been given the chance to think that they are beautiful? Who gives black men the opportunity to really be beautiful?” There are no magazines dedicated to it. There are no agencies dedicated to it. Maybe Kanye West is the first openly beautiful black man in America; maybe he’s the first one to come out of the closet as beautiful. Because black men aren’t really taught that is a possibility for them.

The last thing is about my recent two-year residency at MoMA. I made a piece and I thought it was the most beautiful piece I ever made–so I asked myself: ‘Why?’ I think it’s because I felt like all the things I had been working on–like the voguing dance tradition in relation to the post-modern dance tradition, which obviously has to do with appropriating ideals of beauty–had been boiled down to their essence into something that was pure movement. You know, Martha Graham once said: ‘Don’t forget that orange juice is an abstraction of an orange.’ And I felt like I had finally gotten my orange juice. But I also felt that it was beautiful because it was questioning itself. I was questioning all the aesthetic privileges and hierarchies that had come before it.

Trajal Harrell: In one step are a thousand animals

Trajal Harrell: In one step are a thousand animals

About TrajalTrajal Harrell is a choreographer and dancer whose work has been presented by The Kitchen, New York Live Arts, TBA Festival, Walker Art Center, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Danspace Project, PS122, Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival, and Los Angeles’ REDCAT Theater, as well as in numerous international festivals and visual art contexts. He has received several prestigious fellowships and in 2014 was an inaugural recipient of the Doris Duke Impact Award. He is known for Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, a series of works “created in seven sizes” that re-imagine a meeting between early postmodern dance and the voguing dance tradition. Antigone Sr., the “largest size” in the series, won the 2012 Bessie Award for Outstanding Production. Most recently, Trajal began research examining Japanese butoh dance from the theoretical praxis of voguing. This latest body of work includes Used, Abused, and Hung Out to Dry, which was commissioned by and premiered at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA); The Return of the Modern Dance for Cullberg Ballet; The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai, which premiered at the 2015 Montpellier Danse festival; and The Return of La Argentina, co-commissioned by MoMA and Le Centre National de la Danse.

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