What if Art doesn’t matter? I know, an odd question from someone whose whole career aspiration exists within the art industry. But let’s really stop and consider that question. What if Art, from the paintings hanging at MoMA to your favorite cartoon, didn’t matter? No, I’m not getting into whether it has meaning. That’s a conversation for another day. I’m asking has it ever actually made a change in your daily life? Has it changed whole groups of people’s lives? Has it ever changed the world? Much like the question of which bear is best, there are generally two schools of thought. The cynical route tells us that despite art’s best intentions, it is powerless to real social change. The optimist will tell us that art certainly can make a difference, but it does so through a slow process of transformation. What’s interesting, though, is that at the root of these two positions — the cynical and the optimistic — we find the same core expectation: art should change us. Art is filled with language about revolution, paradigm shifts, and the expectation of changing the very fabric of the world as we know it. It’s not a question of whether or not art should be the catalyst of profound shifts in social consciousness. It’s just a question of whether or not it can. Is this misguided? Are we asking too much and setting up the very idea of political art to fail from the outset? Having given it a lot of thought I think know why it is we expect art to have power over us. And it begins, rather tediously, with Immanuel Kant.
Lithograph of Friedrich von Schiller | Source: Wikipedia
While 18th-century German philosophy seems a distant cry from where we find ourselves today both aesthetically and politically, the core of this assumption is buried in the bedrock of the Enlightenment and modernity. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant sketches out for us an understanding of human judgement by looking at how we judge beauty. It’s from this analysis that we get our notion that our opinions of art can be more than just subjective, and that aesthetics apply universally. While this is our foundation, it was German theorist Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man which serves as the first linkage between aesthetics and governance. Schiller’s project, which was first published in 1794, corrects what Schiller sees as a problem in Kant’s ethics.
Building off the Critique of Judgement and the idea that beautiful things are not a matter of personal opinion, Schiller argues in Letters that the role of culture is to manage the dichotomy between the sensual and the formal aspects of life and to teach people a balanced way of living. Within this system, art takes on the role of the “healer.” It cures the ailments of those who are either excessively preoccupied with abstract ideas at the expense of lived experience and it elevates those who are only interested in the mundane and the sensorial. Beauty — or, for our purposes, “the aesthetic” — brings either extreme to equilibrium. But as if from nowhere, it hinges on an assumption that aesthetic objects can change how we think about beauty. Looking at a painting like Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew, to Schiller, should actually make us better people than if we had never seen it.
The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio | Source: Wikipedia
Schiller also believed that a nation State is the “ideal” form of humanity as institution, arguing in his final letter that “the aesthetic State alone can make [the general will of the people] actual, since it carries out the will of the whole, through the nature of the individual.” A beautiful government, it seems, would create well-balanced, moral citizens by making sure that the right aesthetic experiences keep us on the level. What you end up with is the notion that art is a regulating force, and that it is the purview of the state to morally correct its citizens through an “aesthetic regime.” But here’s where it gets interesting: while the world moves on from the rest of Schiller’s ideas, these two critical assumptions can’t seem to find their eternal rest. Marxist revolutions, particularly in Latin America (my area of expertise) sees these conceits of art’s moral power reemerge as if they were there all along, floating in the corner of the frame. A jump scare waiting to happen.
Art is filled with language about revolution, paradigm shifts, and the expectation of changing the very fabric of the world as we know it.
It became a hallmark of 20th-century Marxist revolutions that controlling art was just as important for raising class consciousness as was seizing the means of production. The aesthetic end of revolution becomes similarly transfixed on this sort of top down structure. In June of 1924, David Alfaro Siqueiros, the famed Mexican muralist, published “Manifiesto del Sindicato de Obreros Técnicos Pintores y Escultores.” Roughly translated, the title calls for the union of technical painters and sculptors. Siqueiros warns both the proletariat and the indigenous populations of an imminent military coup in favor of the middle class. In doing so he articulates that their mission as artists is to stand firm in their position as workers and as indigenous, and resist pro-middle class individualism. His call to action, while politically relevant even today, demonstrates the distinct Marxist addition to the ongoing list of assumptions about our modern notion of artistic/political failure. If Schiller introduced the idea that the state can equip aesthetics to change its citizenry, then the Marxist position presented its logical corollary: a counter-aesthetic to the regime undermines the state.
David Alfaro Siqueiros, arte y revolución | Source: © Canal22/YouTube
Writing during one of the most famous and influential revolutions within Latin America, one which surely would have been in the mind of anyone resisting a capitalist authoritarian regime, artists during the Mexican Revolution like Diego Rivera and Siqueiros sought to demolish the typical spheres of who had access to art and implement a kind of art would embody the ideals of revolution itself through public murals. A revolution which “froze” (and in the eyes of many, completely revoked its populist origins), it is telling that the consistent point of resistance for the left remained the belief that failing to alter aesthetic regime is tantamount to an aesthetic failure. The painter José Clemente Orozco acknowledges as much in his autobiography where he admits that “naturally, the socialization of art was [a] project for the distant future.” If the revolution politically failed, then the art must have failed too. After all, the art was expected to bring the revolution.
Inversely, Cuba — where a successful revolution drastically restructured the country — felt oddly more comfortable with aesthetic freedom. As Nicaraguan priest and revolutionary theorist Ernesto Cardenal noted in his own visit to the island, “in Cuba, as contrasted with Russia [after 1930] there has been no attempt to create a simple art that is immediately understood by the people as they are. Rather, there has been an effort to educate people so that they understand art in a new, more sophisticated, way than they previously did.” Once the government was squarely in the hands of the left, the strategy immediately became the adoption of Schiller’s aesthetic regime. As political regimes saw themselves as aesthetic, and aesthetic regimes saw themselves as uniquely political, a confusion occurred in which one presumes the other. To change society is to change its art. To change art is to change society. Curiously, both culminate in controlling the State.
What you end up with is the notion that art is a regulating force, and that it is the purview of the state to morally correct its citizens through an “aesthetic regime.”
By the middle of the 20th-century Schiller’s ghost was here to stay. Art was presumed to have implicitly revolutionary or political value. Even Theodor Adorno, the famed philosopher and deep skeptic of all things cultural, believed that art has revolutionary potential; “every authentic artwork is internally revolutionary.” The good artwork is destined to convert this revolution into social praxis through arts tendency toward social integration. For Adorno, not only is transformation the ultimate goal of an aesthetic object, but it is presumed to do so almost immediately. By contrast, his fellow Frankfurt School member Herbert Marcuse seems to initially — in his 1972 essay titled “Art and Revolution” — problematize this presumption. He declares “art itself, in practice, cannot change reality, and art cannot submit to the actual requirements of revolution without denying itself.” But Marcuse nevertheless can’t seem to let it go. He opens an avenue for hope which in art can retain its transformative power and one can continue to envision “a universe common to art and reality.” His hope lies in what he calls “soft” revolutionary material, citing the African-American literary tradition in the United States which aims to “uphold the very existence of the individual and his group as human beings,” as his primary example.
Looking back from our own time, it may be easy to think that what Marcuse is suggesting is the first move toward what in post-modern theory we may call “resistance” as opposed to revolution. In some respects, this may be the result of a shift in how we think about power first introduced by French philosopher Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 — a darling of many humanities grad students, myself included. In this text Foucault establishes that, rather than a specific hierarchy of power, there instead is an articulation of power as a series of matrices, all of which are interconnected and are strictly relational. This makes opposition diffuse, and power no longer becomes something to take for a specific ideology but a seemingly overarching structure that is in effect inescapable. Compared to the relative optimism of the typical Marxist revolt, our contemporary sensibility is shaped by this more cynical picture. “There is no locus of the great Refusal, no soul of revolt,” said Foucault. And yet a wellspring emerges of individual cases of resistance to power. Foucault is careful to acknowledge that such a wellspring is not doomed to fail, and this hope of transformation on a case-by-case basis is picked up by later theorists.
PHILOSOPHY – Michel Foucault | Source: © The School of Life/YouTube
This understanding of resistance and power, now already more complicated than the Schiller-Marxist train we had been easily riding, is sprinkled in with a shift in the definition of what “public” means. Which brings me to the next name in the list on this history project, the German theorist Jürgen Habermas. In his seminal text, The Transformation of the Public Sphere —which coincidentally is where we get the phrase public sphere and private sphere in the first place — he traces the emergence of what we might now consider a “public” by looking into the historical world of art criticism. The idea centers individuals during the Enlightenment in both France and England, coming together and utilizing Reason to articulate opinions. Eventually this turned onto the subject of the state itself and so emerges a political space — a public space. It would seem to be Schiller’s aesthetic regime in action. It was an encounter with the arts — through reason — which altered the moral consciousness of this emergent “public” so as to eventually turn onto the state itself because it failed to be the desired embodiment of the people’s highest moral self. In describing the dynamic between the private and public spheres, Habermas articulates a dialectic between “socialization” and “state-ification” in which the public and private sphere, particularly in Western society, increasingly blend into each other through the form of the contract. Politics, or lack thereof, comes to totally define the public sphere, but aesthetics is never far behind.
A beautiful government [according to Schiller] would create well-balanced, moral citizens by making sure that the right aesthetic experiences keep us on the level.
The final piece of entangling artistic and political failure is the full, final, present day position. Where we are today is perhaps best exemplified by philosophers and theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. They provide a totalizing account of power, synthesizing and updating Foucault and Habermas to the realities of global capitalism, yet one which nevertheless contains a Schillerian — by way of Habermas — hope of transformation: it is through critique that democracy can thrive. On a more immediate level we find that Hardt and Negri advocate smaller gestures not unlike the multivalent resistances of Foucault, yet Schiller’s transformed society still again reemerges.
We must think of resistance, insurrection and constituent power as an indivisible process, in which these three are melded into a full counter-power and ultimately a new, alternative formation of society.
– From “Globalization and Democracy,” a paper written by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri for Documenta 11
As if to prove my point, this sentiment derives from the interdisciplinary platforms designed as part of Documenta 11, the massive art festival held in Kassel, Germany. Even this far away from Schiller’s Kantian problem, aesthetics are the primary way in which society must be transformed. At the very least, it suggests that those involved in art still cling to its revolutionary and transformative potential.
And so, there we have it. We assume art needs to be revolutionary. Whether it’s in our own hearts or the government at large, good art should always move us toward being better. What unsettles me about this admittedly complicated, messy, way-too-short crash course in political philosophy and aesthetics is that there’s a huge piece missing. Why? Why do we assume this? From what I’ve seen it’s just Schiller’s ghost, appearing again, and again. It refuses to lie down and rest. At every turn in the modern era it reemerges and no one lets it go. It’s like we’re terrified of what it would mean to accept that the power of art is no more or less than our personal capacity to change. Marxism took it for granted. Adorno, Marcuse, Foucault, they all hope for it. Habermas presumes it. Hardt and Negri wish it. There are other models out there to be sure, models made by a significantly more diverse group of theorists and writers than the list of white men I’ve given today. But the names and ideas I’ve laid out are the ones I think still haunt the whole of Western culture, and all that its hegemony brings with it. These ideas, to me, have become what we think about art when we aren’t really thinking. In the end, I find it’s an unfair burden to superimpose these ideas on the art we encounter; as if we expect Art to do the work our society is incapable of. We should abandon our expectations of transformation and instead embrace Art for what it can be rather than what it ought to be. We should look Schiller in the face of his ideas and proudly declare: I ain’t afraid of no ghost.