Aesthetics / Freedom / Land
By Nitasha Dhillon

“Aesthetics” as a philosophical concept intrinsically and intentionally seeks to establish principles and standards upon which form and content, art and performance, beauty and feeling are to be judged/recognized/valued/dismissed as a good or bad art, or not art at all. And in each case such principles and standards reflect, extend, and validate the worldview and value of the status quo of domination and oppression, whether that be Western domination or domination within the Indian nation-state context around caste, religion, gender or class. Thus, underlying “aesthetics” is the idea that there is one world and one center by which things are either closer to or further from the center, from the principle, which then should have us question whose center people/values/taste and who is excluded from this altogether.

I greatly valued and appreciated the Poetics course because it gave me additional words to describe and understand my art practice. We talked about how the pedagogy of Indian classical dance emphasizes correct and accurate poses and movement that must be perfected and mastered. The dance/er must attain mastery by performing within a specific structure which has its own specific ideology, leaving no place for the dancer to get lost, explore, or fail. Aesthetics in this context is suffocating because form and content are decided and determined.

The above is a colonial mode of aesthetics. If one goes against this hegemonic mode of aesthetics by resisting the pursuit of mastery, such refusal generates cracks in the structure which, in turn, allow for other possibilities, meanings, and practices. Dance may no longer be about the pose, perfection, or craft, but about the place, space, relations, meanings, and pedagogies generated. The performance or dance or embodiment is an act of becoming and an active mode of breathing, healing, and relating that is never decided, but rather is always contingent. The place, space, time, audience, performance, and how the dancer moves are all moving variables that are no longer fixed. They are movements and rhythms that do not adhere to an ideology. Instead, they allow for expression in the most honest sense, allowing for freedom to be attempted, pursued, and enacted. As an artist and filmmaker, I have sought to incorporate these ideas in my practice, because they exhibit a generosity, curiosity and openness that nourish my spirit. So rather than seeking perfection I struggle with medium, form and content to accommodate and mold to my feelings, sensibilities, drives and desires in order to create something that I feel should exist but one in which I have yet to experience.

The above has given me additional appreciation for something that Nelson Maldonado Torres has expressed in Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality: “Thedecolonial aesthetic, erotic, and spiritual turn is a shift away from the coloniality of established meanings, of sensing, of feeling, of vision, of gender and other modern/colonial conceptions of the body, as well as a rejection of the modern/colonial hierarchy of human experiences. A decolonial way of sensing or decolonial aesthesis is a key aspect of the decolonization of being, including the decolonization of time, space, and embodied subjectivity, but also of power and knowledge.

Since aesthetics is so closely connected to embodied subjectivity and this subjectivity is at the crux of the coloniality of knowledge, power, and being, decolonial aesthetics very directly challenges, not only each basic coordinate of modernity/coloniality, but its most visceral foundations and overall scope.”

I also learned in class how specialization can be challenged and defeated. The practice of doing something different with one’s body immediately puts us on a liberatory path because it generates knowledge from experience. This information and learning, in turn, gives the person the needed power and confidence to act further. In this regard, I see my work with Decolonize This Place as part of the same or similar transformative process above. I challenge structures of oppression and domination in the art world and society writ large as a necessary and continuous engagement. This push generates what I think of as movement-generated art, which is part of my ongoing training in the practice of freedom. The act of resisting not only mastery but the structures which determine aesthetics is a refusal that creates the possibility for other knowledges, aesthetics, and thus other worlds to emerge. Here, refusal is not simply a matter of negation. The refusal is simultaneously an act of affirmation for other modes of doing, being, and acting.

Punjab’s land grab is on my mind, so I end with land and action. If aesthetics is a way of living and sensing the world, then one must consider what is happening in the world today in the form of an escalating attack on ways of living on earth as governments and corporations begin mining and colonizing the moon above. How we move and what is created must account for the fact that land, water, and air are being further enclosed. Consequently, I feel there is an urgent necessity to engage in struggle which, in turn, should inform the role of the artist and aesthetics. Perhaps this course above all has offered me a foundation and furthered my language to articulate that it is time for art and aesthetics to measure up to us and not the other way around, and for us to recognize that the art world as we know it is part and parcel of an oppressive and exploitative global economic system that upholds and promulgates social and economic hierarchies, including inequality, casteism, racism, and patriarchy, through notions of the pursuit of mastery and specialization. In this spirit, I am left wondering how can we ask better questions as we move together and separately but in agreement towards a horizon of collective liberation?

Nitasha Dhillon recently finished her PhD in Media Study from State University of New York at Buffalo. She is the co-founder of MTL Collective and Decolonize This Place. She is also currently working on an experimental feature film based in Palestine. She was one of the participants in the Indian poetics course offered by Navtej Johar at Studio Abhyas.

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