April 26, 2018

How Do We Know What Beauty Is?

A Toast to Mona Lisa

A Toast to Mona Lisa

Art is a process and it is a product.  They cannot be separated and eventually we wind up asking the question, “Does this painting, this song, this sculpture work? Is there beauty?” In community life we face the same questions.  “How do we recognize or describe the beauty of community?  How do we know when we have succeeded?”

Now here comes the old saw.  “How many people does it take to create a painting?” (Give me a drum roll.)…”it takes two people, one to paint the picture and the other to tell her when to stop.” Ba dump bump. I have a hard time knowing when to stop.  Knowing when another stroke would be too much.

Measuring beauty in art and community is endless. It is like watching Russian judges at an Olympic figure skating competition.   “How the hell did they come up with that score?”  In community building, measurement is often done by those who are paying for particular changes.  The boards of foundations, the United Way, and government agencies who provide funds decide what success looks like and how to measure it. Community residents, who are often being counted on to do the changing, sit in the stands and wonder who these judges are and how they came up with their notions of success.

Art that matters, does so when the painter and the viewers of the painting experience some fundamental change, not when a panel of art specialists scratch their heads and write notes on their rating sheets. You know good art when it moves you. Good art is apparent when it holds your attention and when it says something to you that awakens you. The success of art is very personal.

It is true in community change. I know we need measurement in community building.  Tons of money is spent to make communities better.  Nonprofits claim they know where to itch if you have the scratch. But what matters most is when the change resonates in the people living in the neighborhood who feel better educated, or even safer to walk the streets. So, who holds the system accountable?  How do we determine whether or not these investments result in better conditions and better people?  The answers are not easy, but I do know that more and more technical power, and bigger and bigger computers will not result in better parenting, more successful teaching, or safer streets.  I also know that unless those who live in communities determine what matters to them, all of the organizational reporting in the world cannot trump lethargy and hopelessness.

I am not naive.  Those spending money need answers to replenish the money to keep programs alive. But what really matters is what happens on the streets of everyday life. That is where the beauty is.


  1. McKenzie says:


  2. Anita Beaty says:

    Wow. You hit the nail on the proverbial head. Miss you.


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