Image Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons
bell hooks’s contributions to feminist thought and race politics are widely known, as are her rigorous theoretical works and academic scholarship. While I have read and learned much from her art and political criticism, what has moved me most recently are hooks’s personal reflections on the quotidian spaces of Black life and culture.
In particular, hooks’s Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (1995) includes essays and interviews that highlight the potential for aesthetic enrichment in everyday life. hooks’s writing about arts education in elementary schools, visual culture in Black homes, and the discovery of beauty in the commonplace is as refreshing as it is vital for contemporary readers of all races and generations.
It is in these discussions that I feel hooks’s commitment to art practice and social equality most keenly. Her granular descriptions of the cultivation of aesthetic experience model the possibility for a more creative, and thus holistic, society. What we do in our schools and homes, hooks claims, matters just as much as what artists and curators do in their studios and museums. Rather than thinking of aesthetic experience as a realm exclusive to those who have ascended to an economic, educational, or social position of privilege, hooks invites all of us to pursue art in our everyday lives.
Just as importantly, hooks supports creativity in others, especially young people. In her essay “Workers for Artistic Freedom,” she writes:
There is no artist deemed “great” by the art establishment who has not received affirmation, whether given by a family member, a friend, or a patron. If a cultural climate of support is established at the outset of a young artist’s commitment to doing art work, there is much greater likelihood that this work will develop and mature . . . Funders can discover gifted children who lack the means to pursue their work by sending artists, paid as consultants, to schools . . . I am not talking here about the giving of large sums of money to individuals, I am talking about buying paint and paper for a child for a number of years.
With these simple but specific instructions, hooks highlights the psychological and material forms of support without which a young artist cannot identify, let alone thrive, as such.
In interviews with other Black women artists, hooks emphasizes how important early examples and mentorship are to young creative people who need to learn the skills of their craft, and then begin to see themselves as artists. As an educator and mother of an elementary school-aged child, I was struck by this perspective. How often have I known that my daughter’s friends are gifted artists? But have I ever bothered to find out if they have support to hone their craft—materials, books, or contact with local artists—in and out of school?
I’ve simply never asked or offered anything beyond sincere praise. Yet, I study, teach, and write about art, and live more meaningfully because of its presence in my life. In her discussions of arts education, hooks showed me how my passion for art can, and should, align with my broader social responsibilities. She illustrates how to be curious and offer practical help without being patronizing. Avoiding both nostalgia and resentment, hooks revisits her own early years as a budding artist in order to elaborate the forms of infrastructural and intersubjective support that children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and especially girls, need in order to validate and refine their talents.
In her desire to invite readers into the daily life of Black people, hooks also teaches us how, in addition to school, the domestic sphere can be a space for visual politics, creativity, and beauty. Her essay on photography in Black homes sheds light on a space I am relatively unfamiliar with, but one which shares a photographic tradition with my own upbringing in an Indian immigrant household. She emphasizes the importance of self-representation in amateur pictures taken by Black families. She writes,
Cameras gave to black folks, irrespective of class, a means by which we could participate fully in the production of image . . . When we concentrate on photography, then, we make it possible to see the walls of photographs in black homes as a critical intervention, a disruption of white control over black images. . . Displaying these images was as central as making them. The walls of images in Southern black homes were sites of resistance. They constituted private, black-owned-and-operated gallery space where images could be displayed, shown to friends and strangers.
I immediately saw the walls she described as those of my own childhood homes.
In this passage, hooks revealed to me what my parents were very likely doing and why. The use of domestic space for the visual reflection of one’s own culture, especially a culture that lacks representation in the public spaces of popular media and advertising, can support and legitimate one’s difference from those prevailing norms. The style, clothing, and documented rituals and activities, not to mention the predominant representation of color, alter the visual landscape and mirror back to a home’s inhabitants the pleasures and priorities of their lives. I love that here, as in her discussion of arts education, hooks appropriates the privatized spaces of capital, transforming Black homes into self-supporting gallery spaces.
Along with the cultivation of art practice in quotidian spaces, hooks also celebrates the need for beauty, and opportunities to access it. Whether through beautiful objects, well-designed spaces, or creative accommodations to limited resources, hooks unequivocally celebrates the power of beauty to bring joy and meaning to one’s life. In “Beauty Laid Bare: Aesthetics in the Ordinary,” she writes, “My grandmother and her daughter, my mother, did agree on the basic principle that beautiful objects enhanced life, even if their aesthetic standards were different.”
Notably, hooks contrasts the value of beauty with consumerism and materialism. “Learning to see and appreciate the presence of beauty is an act of resistance in a culture of domination that recognizes the production of a pervasive feeling of lack, both material and spiritual, as a useful colonizing strategy,” she argues. Just as photographs of Black family life resist the reductive and harmful stereotypes of a racist society, so too does the intentional pursuit of beauty reject the deadening passivity of capitalist consumption.
Indeed, hooks sees beauty as a virtue that can be found in art, but also in the everyday and the natural world. She celebrates “the insistence that elegance and ecstasy are to be found in daily life, in our habits of being, in the ways we regard one another and the world around us. It is sacrilege to reserve this beauty solely for art.”
With singular examples from her own life—her grandmother’s quilt-making, the luxurious feel of fine fabrics like cashmere or silk, the care given to the planting of flowers, or the intoxicating smell of lemon verbena soap—hooks demonstrates that the discovery and cultivation of beauty in everyday life start with volition to recognize its value. The experience of beauty, then, may not require possessions at all; there can be the beauty of behavior and bearing, the intention of being with others in a beautiful way.
What inspires me about hooks’s insights into the everyday spaces of life and learning is how she balances a firm demand for the material and symbolic support needed to address systemic inequality with a confident faith that the potential for talent, beauty, and creativity exists everywhere. She is acutely sensitive to the particular needs of the under-privileged. But she is also universal in her belief that, by virtue of being human, we all have the capacity to be inventive and participate in aesthetic experience.
At once highlighting the limited resources that a racist, capitalist society offers to its marginalized subjects, and supplying myriad strategies for overcoming that scarcity, hooks anchors her political theory in the intimate and personal spaces of families and children. Activism, she suggests in these essays about beauty and art practice, doesn’t just take place in street protests. It can occur every day, in radically decisive ways that alter one’s imaginative and actual life. She writes, “[W]e are led to believe that lack of material privilege means that one can have no meaningful constructive engagement with one’s living space and certainly no relationship to aesthetics.”
Whether through arts and crafts, architecture, style, cooking, or the giving of gifts, hooks insists that aesthetics can define anyone’s life, regardless of class, race, gender, sexuality, or age. What an exciting idea and how desperately we need to hear and believe it now.
Monika Gehlawat is a Professor of English and the Associate Director of the School of Humanities at the University of Southern Mississippi where she teaches and writes about contemporary literature and art.