“Beauty was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.”– Toni Morrison
Talking about beauty in our work on human rights or social change may seem odd, but that might be because we tend to associate beauty with an ideal or an industry, rather than a way of being and acting in the world.
Much of our work focuses on raising awareness about the ills – and ugliness – we see, and for a good reason. So when we think about beauty, it tends to be the ideal vision of a future we hope can replace the present reality. But beauty and ugliness are not separate, neither in space nor in time. If we could recognise their interplay, perhaps we could think about what it might look like to do beauty.
We are slowly understanding that our wanton disregard for the planet is leading us towards catastrophe and that perhaps if we could only see and experience the beauty of the natural world, we may be more inclined to protect it. But could we also think about beauty in what we do and how?
A necessary step is of course to liberate ourselves from the patriarchal, capitalist and colonialist hold on beauty: one which imposes expectations of beauty on (mostly) women, from a limiting white heteronormative perspective, one which encourages women to buy expensive stuff and go through procedures that will allegedly help them adhere to that ideal.
So how can we reclaim beauty from the industry? Beauty isn’t simply something to look at, or to own, it invites all our senses. If we think about aesthetics, which is the study of beauty, art and taste, the word refers to the senses; how we perceive, how we feel.
We have to see the lie behind the beauty narrative, and as Minna Salami says, “to see the lie is to disempower it.” Beauty, she writes, is not about conforming, it’s about rebelling against conformity. That beauty has to be seen as an active position, not as a passive subversive position.
Throughout history there have been many groups and individuals challenging and subverting this mainstream narrative about beauty, especially within the arts, a sector which is expected to push or break boundaries society imposes.
William Morris, who founded the Arts and Crafts Movement in late 19th century Britain believed people should be surrounded by beautiful things, regardless of income. His philosophies about art and his political beliefs were thoroughly intertwined because he opposed the ugliness of the social injustice he saw as a result of growing capitalism, and the ugliness of modern visual arts.
More recent examples can be found among queer or Black communities. The Black is Beautiful movement that started in America in the 1960s alongside Black liberation movements, wanted Black women and men to free themselves from racist Western expectations of beauty and feel empowered both inside and out.
So how can beauty be an intervention? There is a tendency among activists and nonprofits working on behalf of others, to self-impose a certain amount of suffering or ugliness. Perhaps it’s a way of hiding our shame, guilt or privilege, thinking ‘how can I be happy or have a great time with so much suffering in the world?’ But our proximity to suffering doesn’t make us better equipped to challenge it or alleviate it, it just creates more suffering.
So what if we imagined our relationships as an act of beauty? Krista Tippett suggests that perhaps beauty can be a bridge we walk across to each other, that “[t]o attend to the beauty in the other is to redirect the trap of “charity” and “development” in the century past – to become unable to define and reduce other human beings as problems to help and to solve.”
Beauty can also be a healing process. Philosopher Josep Maria Esquirol who writes about the concept of poiesis, the act of bringing something into the world, says that we come into this world as wounded souls and we heal through creative, poetic actions, and these actions of creating beauty transform and heal us and enable us to grow into communities.
This may be why we are seeing new webs of initiatives around the world that try to embrace the arts or creative work with movements for solidarity. Beautiful Trouble, a group of artists and organisers, work to bring more creativity to grassroots movements through tools like collective liberation and militant creativity, based on the belief ‘that creativity, humor, joy, and mischief have a role to play in the struggle for a better world.’
There is beauty in how we move, how we speak, how we collaborate. Beauty is something we can build and grow. It’s how we show up against all odds, it’s how we keep trying different tactics despite defeats. It is how we can work through and with the horror and the violence to build anew.
In the words of Minna Salami: “Do beauty like your life depends on it, because in many ways it does. All our lives do. Beauty in action is art, and the more we strive to make of life art, the more beautiful our world and we ourselves become. I have never seen a person, no matter what age, look, ability, height, this or that, be passionate about life and not be beautiful.”
Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes