Michelle Bulla, February 2021
Aesthetic Force, defined: quite literally, the power of art to move you.
Inclusive of moving your mind, your body, your thinking, your opinion, your policy, your perspective, your reception, your comprehension.
To move one’s comprehension is to move their being. Their way of being, their mind to being, their heart, beating one’s being.
As people immersed in literacy and the power that growing in literacy is the meaning, the praxis, of being, this is not a new concept.
But for me – and maybe for you, too – it is a new term.
We have Dr. Sarah Lewis, Associate Professor at Harvard University in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Department of African and African American Studies, to thank.
That, and my near-obsession with the interviews of Brené Brown through her Dare to Lead podcast where I listened – twice – to her conversations with Dr. Lewis prompted by her book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (2015), where I heard the term.
In Part II of their conversation on January 25th, Dr. Lewis defines the concept of “aesthetic force” as “the internal shift that happens because of the power of the arts that shifts your critical awareness and perception of the world.” They use this concept to explain and discuss how art – more so than reason – has inspired change.
It is the most perfect label for what books – and paintings and poetry and architecture and sculptures and drawings and music and design – can and have done for us. It is what inspires us as educators to bring certain works of art into our classrooms: move – by extending an aesthetic force on – our students.
I have been thinking about the power of art – specifically the power of poetry – to move people as an English teacher, lover of poetry and facilitator of students creating art in response to art for a long time.
And now, ever since the address / poem / spoken word / command to attention that flowed like rivers of poetic perfection from Amanda Gorman on January 20th at our most recent presidential inauguration, many more people are thinking about it, too.
Over half of my department of English teachers brought Amanda Gorman and her stunning work of aesthetic force into their classrooms to move their students in the days and weeks since.
In the true beauty and power of the internet and teachers writing and publishing and sharing on what feels like limitless platforms, there are now limitless ways you, too, educator, can bring “The Hill We Climb” and Amanda Gorman into your life to move you. Into your classroom to move your students.
That is magnificent, and moving and worthy of discussion and celebration.
But I want to address a bigger picture.
Aesthetic force was on full display that cold January 20th day in Washington, D.C., and educators and devotees reveled in the display, the celebration, and the re-centering of the arts as a requisite component of and contributor to inclusive social and political progress.
From JLo’s performance of traditional songs interspersed with her Latina heritage in language and call to celebration, to her costuming in sparkling white, simultaneously symbolic of rebellion and the power of gender equality and women’s suffrage, with her high-necked, ruffled jabot blouse calling to mind powered, white, male-dominated, law-making aristocracy and claiming it proudly as an artist and woman of color whose unabashedly loud voice quite literally has commanded hundreds of thousands from hundreds of center stages, we could not help but celebrate the arts – aesthetic force – reclaiming their space as supporter of and sequel to art-centered progress.
The day was filled with resplendent celebration of the arts in the performances of the National Anthem by Lady Gaga, decked quite lavishly in a golden dove (the resurgent spirit of aesthetic force so potent that no small Twitter surge sprung up, presuming the dove to be a mockingjay, alluding to the symbol of rebellion from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games); of Amazing Grace by Garth Brooks, dressed in the equally American uniform of jeans, dress blazer, cowboy hat and boots; and even in the benediction in the power of the spoken word in poetic prayer and blessing and invocation of Rev. Silvester Beaman.
Even Bernie represented! And mittens and teachers and art-for-charity broke the internet as a result.
Art is giving. Giving is receiving. Receiving is creating. Creating is aesthetic force.
The force, the cycle, fuels itself, spins faster with more use, doesn’t care which catalyst you choose to hop on the wheel because it doesn’t matter to the art. Eventually, it doesn’t matter to you, either. You are caught up. Moved. Moving.
And of course, there was young and hopeful Amanda Gorman, dressed in her favorite yellow, wearing the caged bird ring and earrings gifted her by Oprah Winfrey in recognition and honor of previous inaugural poet, Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Incredible and moving, until you learn (as I just did), by the aesthetically poetic they-call-me-I-call-them-stand-on-their-shoulders-bring-it-full-circle-force, that Oprah had also sent a gift to Angelou in celebration of her poem and performance for the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
Power passed precipitates poetry. Progress presupposes perfection.
Gorman brought her jewels and colors to the podium and performed in rhythmic, spoken word and verse her dreams, history, and vision for America, the Unfinished with such power and aesthetic force she became the first – hopefully of many – poets to be part of the opening of an event with a wider, bipartisan audience: the SuperBowl.
I know I am not the only one who eagerly tuned into the pre-game show of an event I don’t have to work hard not to watch even while present at SuperBowl parties (pre-COVID, of course).
The inaugural celebration continued that day with a televised, streamed, socially-distant euphony of artists and performers from all over the country, representing much of our cultural diaspora, and it came to a close with an image the aesthetic force of which is already under review by historians and art-lovers world-wide: President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. dancing in his new living space while holding his infant grandson, surrounded by his Doctored partner and remaining family as Demi Lovato in pixie-pink hair, dressed in a recently iconized costume of power for women – the pantsuit / power suit – and sharing “stage” with every-day citizens in their hero’s costumes of scrubs, Native American regalia, and casual streetwear, covered one of my favorite songs by Bill Withers, Lovely Day.
Made by stars and home-town folks, clothed in couture and uniforms of servants, in service of the celebration of life, of love-is-love love, of unity, of the simple complexity that is this country in all its blemished, unfinished, marching-toward-the-future form, the arts are back. Center-stage.
May the force be with you, too, on this and every lovely, aesthetically-profound day.
Michelle G. Bulla is a high school English teacher and the 9-12 department chair at Monroe-Woodbury High School in southern Orange County, NY. She’s also a Teacher Consultant with the Hudson Valley Writing Project, and a member of the Executive Board for NYSEC. Find her on Twitter @china93doll or via email at email@example.com. Soon, you’ll also find her at www.TranscendingPedagogy.com