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Culture, Capital, History, but Not Race?
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Monique Roelofs

Race is a conceptual blind spot in philosophical aesthetics. While compelling avenues of philosophical thought reveal the intertwinements of conceptions of the state, the public, and the individual with racial constructions, that is to say, with lived realities that are organized with the help of racialized categories, aestheticians tend to bypass such entanglements or to insulate their premises and inquiries from their relations to racial formations. Philosophical investigations of common and prominent themes in aesthetics by and large proceed in ostensibly colorblind terms. I have in mind here, for example, discussions of art’s cognitive, imaginative, and affective dimensions, the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, everyday and environmental aesthetic systems, the politics of art and criticism, the nature of art’s situatedness in culture, capital, history, and modernity, and the analysis of art’s gendered and class-inflected workings – in short, numerous areas of concentration at the heart of the field. There are exceptions, especially at points where critical race theory intersects with aesthetics and, more narrowly, in the study of beauty, cross-cultural aesthetics and artistic practices marked in terms of cultural “Others.” But characteristically the discipline – its theoretical paradigms, central preoccupations, institutionalized self-understandings, standards of quality – shuns exposing its structural principles to the workings of racial difference.

In the context of asymmetrical power relations, many have argued, colorblind policies give carte blanche to the racial forces that be, whether intended or not. Colorblindness not only fails to contest racial domination, but assists also in its maintenance and reaffirmation against perceived breaches. Within a racialized social and conceptual system, what may seem to be race-neutral methodologies in fact typically reassert white privilege. The field of aesthetics is not exempted from this well documented phenomenon. The inattention to race shores up the aesthetic pillars of whiteness and bolsters the whitening supports of aesthetics.

Racialization and aestheticization (which concerns, among other things, aesthetic contributions to the shaping of identities, relations of power, and formations of knowledge and culture) stand in complex historical interconnections. These must be studied and worked through in order to create more tenable social, economic, cultural, political, environmental, and aesthetic constellations.

What part can aestheticians play in this? How can we achieve a critical, non-racist frame of aesthetic analysis, normativity, and experience? In the following, I will sketch a direction of inquiry that can galvanize the specific strengths aestheticians may bring to questions of race. A finesse in differentiating subtle layers of aesthetic meaning-formation in their sociohistorical context is called for in a realm that cathects such significant psychic energies as racialized aesthetic consciousness. Perspectives on race in political philosophy and cultural analysis stand to gain from philosophical insights into racialized structures of aesthetic imagination, perception, and affect. Beyond that, a role is cut out for philosophers who are prepared to think sharply about current aesthetic controversies regarding matters of race and nation, such as those over the Danish caricatures of Muhammad, the remake of New Orleans after Katrina, the narrowing figuration of the “aesthetic homeland” under three consecutive USA PATRIOT Acts, and the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh.

In order to ready ourselves for these theoretical tasks, a fairly abstract philosophical move is necessary. I propose to take as a starting point for a deepening understanding of the links between aesthetics and race the phenomenon of relationality, because relationality in the racial realm does a great deal of work for relationality in the aesthetic world and vice versa. Race (like, and as inflected by, gender) clearly acquires its significance in a network of human relationships. Conceptions of race help to negotiate relationships among individuals and communities. Aesthetics, too, pertains to relationships, namely to relations connecting artists, audiences, forms, communities, cultures, critics, theorists, historians, curators, artistic movements, modes of perception and address, and so forth. Though this is not often emphasized, forms of normativity in aesthetics (aesthetic standards, values, grounds of aesthetic judgment, etc.), whether of the Kantian variety, or those elaborated implicitly or explicitly by Richard Wollheim, Kendall Walton, Arthur Danto, Richard Shusterman, Theodor W. Adorno, Julia Kristeva, and others, are indebted to a broad and varied array of such relationships.

Indeed, aesthetic normativity takes shape within a network of relationships. It cannot be established by any simple set of the relata I have just begun to list. Each variable affects the aesthetic modes of address and exchange undertaken by aesthetic agents. Each of these and numerous other factors play a structural role in the aesthetic field. Aesthetic theory must acknowledge the potentialities proffered by the full range of supports of relationality. Limiting the range of normatively relevant factors too drastically (e.g., by centering them narrowly in human competencies, the qualities of objects, the artist-viewer/public axis, or individualist conceptions of agency) amounts to a curtailment and simplification of aesthetic existence, a diminishment of its resources. What aesthetic normativity consists in, on an adequately expansive relational picture, is a matter for another discussion. However, if aesthetics is to stand in an enlivening, non-oppressive relation with the realities of aesthetic interpretation, embodiment, and practice, it must allow that these different parameters make normative contributions to the process of creating aesthetic values and ends. For such values and ends cannot be set in ahistorical fashion but are under formation in the complex interactions that lend aesthetic life its richness.

Reflecting on aesthetic norms, contemporary aestheticians often take these relationships for granted, under the heading of generic notions such as “culture,” “social context,” “the public,” “history,” “theory,” or “the body.” The following statement is exemplary of this tendency: “My starting point is simply the observation of paintings, novels, stories, plays, films, and the like … together with an awareness of the importance these works have in our lives and in our culture.” The term “culture” in this remark, and in the analyses it introduces, masks a pronounced relational politics, both within the designated community, and on the part of the philosopher who references the traditions and values of this collective. We can catch a glimpse of the political choices and realities summoned behind the above passage by asking: What kind of importance is being assumed and created? Whose lives are understood to qualify as “ours?” In which temporal and material constituencies of the culture do they unfold? By what criteria are the relevant cultural strata distinguished from which sections of which other cultures? Given that a culture is a heterogeneous entity that relies on processes of legitimization, the philosopher who grounds aesthetic norms in cultural practices – no matter how abstractly – takes a position in a contested political field. Behind the notion of culture stretches a vast complex of relationships that instantiates configurations of power, and ineluctably generates conflict. Aesthetic normativity and racial identifications are under formation in this contestatory relational space, which they also help to shape collaboratively. In order to gain insight into their precise operations we must therefore theorize them in tandem, inquiring beyond generic appeals to culture.

The concept of relationality is key to an understanding of the entanglements of aesthetics and race. By taking a detailed look at the fine-grained relational negotiations that result in aesthetic constellations (such as formal codes, conceptions of sound or visuality, modes of spectatorship, etc.) philosophy can hope to forge the conceptual apparatus needed to begin to take account of the aesthetic productivity of race. At the level of relationships, we can learn, for example, about the ways in which racial formations support aesthetic norms and underwrite historical accounts of aesthetic normativity. We can bring to into view how structures of relationality enable and constrain possibilities for aesthetic intersubjectivity and exchange. This may reveal how these structures complicate the nature of pressing contemporary aesthetic controversies, such as those surrounding the future of New Orleans. Plans for the city will be of decisive influence for a broad range of differentially racialized relationships that were sustained by its aesthetic heritage and environment. The significance of these relationships must be carefully weighed in any historically sensitive picture of the relevant aesthetic responsibilities and entitlements.

The advantage of a relational picture is that it acknowledges the specificity of aesthetic phenomena, while simultaneously registering their social, political (and so forth) grounds and impacts. Relationships function as hubs for a wide array of interactions between aesthetic elements and race. I have already mentioned the impact of racial factors on aesthetic structures. I call this “racialized aestheticization.” The correlative of this phenomenon is “aesthetic racialization.” This concerns the creation of racial constructs via aesthetic formations, that is to say, the racial productivity of aesthetic elements.

Aesthetic racialization contributes distinctive complexities to the relational politics undertaken by the philosopher who comments on “our” culture, or, for that matter, on mixed cultures, or on the cultures of “Other” nations and populations. Cultures are political entities that are at the same time also aesthetic phenomena. Aesthetic values and experiences inform their authorizing principles, guiding imaginaries, exemplary qualities, operative inside-outside distinctions. Such values and experiences enable cultures to make themselves legible in various modalities (of tactility, smell, etc.). They also enable cultural hierarchies to be passed on into hybrid and syncretic forms. As embodied subjects who participate in and reflect on culture, we implicitly articulate aesthetic stances. We assume positions in relation to a field of multimodal aesthetic norms by which our and others’ cultural identities are oriented. These norms steer the trajectories of racial becoming and desire that are open to us for identification or disavowal. As agents of and commentators on culture, we enact a valorization of and a responsiveness to an acculturating spectrum of racializing aesthetic norms that help to make us who we are.

Our participatory and analytical relations to culture articulate a set of aesthetic and political choices. It is here where we can play a part in subverting current and traditional forms of racialized aestheticization and aesthetic racialization. For although the aesthetic norms that help to shape our racial identities to a certain extent precede the voices we adopt in various media (whether they be fictional or analytical writing, movement, or paint), we can attempt to own up to the positions we occupy in the racial and aesthetic field. We can witness the voices aesthetic racialization and racialized aestheticization have imparted to us. Examining the conceptual repercussions of these phenomena, we can make conscious decisions about which parts of the theory need revision and which elements may be kept unchanged. Experimenting with alternative tonalities and loci of enunciation, we can work to devise critical modes of address, refreshing the relations with our publics and predecessors.

Colleagues writing for this column have cautioned against the risks of philosophical isolation, such as the threat that aesthetics might fall short of the standards developed by other branches of philosophy, and have insisted on the interdisciplinary nature of the field. Race is probably not what they had foremost in mind, but as we gain fluency in this undertheorized aesthetic zone, we can hope to enrich our interdisciplinary ties, initiating dialogues with critical approaches in the humanities (notably, art history, cultural analysis, musicology, literary and film studies, and so forth) and the sciences (for example, dynamical systems theory, sociology, cultural anthropology, economics, psychology, and so on). We may also hope to intensify our connections with other disciplines of philosophy, such as Africana, Asian-American, Latin-American, American-Indian, Latina/o, feminist, social, political philosophy, and ethics. The learning will in each case go both ways. We may wish to adopt for ourselves theoretical standards and methodologies that govern work in these fields, as we broaden and strengthen the intellectual base of our discipline.

The same back-and-forth can ensue between public controversies and aesthetic theory. How should the aesthetic violence that was inflicted on the life world, the aesthetic history, and cultural/environmental rootedness of the inhabitants of Ward 9 in New Orleans in consequence of a lack of adequate protection reflect on the question of the city’s future, including its aesthetic marketability? What was the specific aesthetic stab the initial Danish caricatures did or did not deliver constituencies within Muslim populations, considered in light of the ways the cartoons challenged but also conformed to representational norms? How can we understand the status of the operative norms in light of the socio-economic and media controls that restrict speech in allegedly freedom-loving societies? Which, if any, elements of the relational fabric surrounding the initial publication in Denmark transfer to the reprints in various newspapers, which mobilize a different aesthetic context? What was the specific aesthetic message Mohammed Bouyeri, Theo van Gogh’s murderer, might have attempted to convey about constructions of European-Dutch culture when he knifed a letter to his victim’s body, in an allusion to the bodily calligraphy sequences in van Gogh’s and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s film Submission: Part 1? In what ways can we think beyond the all too simple dichotomy of free vs. restricted speech in these cases, by shifting the discourse to the values we might wish to foster and sustain through the structures of aesthetic relationality that we inhabit?

In what respects does the aesthetic of the 9/11 attacks resemble the aesthetic efforts of the pipe bombing art student, whose unfinished smiley face of explosions was to highlight the surface of the US eight months later? How may the 9/11 aesthetic (and its rigorously dramatized, embodied wounding of the US imaginary) be read in light of a history of aesthetically supported imperial expansion and (neo)colonialism that rendered aestheticized domination an economic and political pillar of Western nationhood? Witness in this light the currency of the opposition between “American soil” and “terrorist attack,” and its rhetorical masking of the violent treatment of indigenous and subaltern peoples on that “soil.” Can we lend our understanding of aesthetic normativity a new spin if we consider the monitoring of library loans under the PATRIOT Act in light of the ways Hume has taste support virtue of character and an ethnocentrically defined national culture, among other things, by affecting “what books we shall read?”

Current controversies demand aesthetically incisive readings of racial questions and vice versa. They create an aesthetic politics from racialized and racializing aesthetic norms in conjunction with representational histories, media conventions, interpretive protocols, figurations of aesthetic power, alienation, and belonging. In bringing to bear on these questions our understanding of the multiple registers of signification that make for aesthetic meaning, we may be able to enrich public debate, initiating more reflective and perhaps less damaging answers, while at the same time gaining insight into the relational factors that lend aesthetic life its forms and substance.

Aestheticians today can draw inspiration from thinkers such as Cornel West, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Gloria Anzaldúa, Edward Said, Barbara Johnson, and Rey Chow, whose pathbreaking work at the intersection of aesthetics and race has opened up powerful new paradigms in the past decades. Finding encouragement in their writings, we can create a new audience of artistically adventurous and theoretically eager colleagues and students, who will challenge our insights and catalyze debate. Not in the least, we can look out for a wealth of unforeseen theoretical and artistic possibilities as we begin to address a blind spot that has dulled the aesthetic imagination far too long.

1. See, among others, David Theo Goldberg, Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993); Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997); Linda Martín Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

2. A radically abridged list of significant exceptions includes: Goldberg, 30; Mills, 61-2; and work by Angela Y. Davis, Lewis R. Gordon, Crispin Sartwell, Peg Brand, Paul C. Taylor, and George Yancy.

3. See, for example, Gordon, 55-6, 65-6, 127; Alcoff, 199-201, 215.

4. On the contributions of aesthetic ideals to the legitimization of white supremacy by modern discourse, see Cornel West, “A Genealogy of Modern Racism,” Prophesy Deliverance! Towards an Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982); For a critique of the hierarchical racial effects of false universalism in aesthetics, see Sylvia Wynter, “Rethinking “Aesthetics”: Notes Towards a Deciphering Practice,” Ex-Iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema, ed. Mbye Cham (Trenton NJ: Africa World Press, 1992), 237-279. I examine the workings of what I call “racialized aestheticization” (which pertains, among other things, to the whitening of aesthetic concepts, relational structures, and the forms of subjectivity and exchange they help to mediate) and “aesthetic racialization” (which includes the aestheticization of white cultural formations) in my “Racialization as an Aesthetic Production: What Does the Aesthetic Do for Whiteness and Blackness and Vice Versa?,” White on White/Black on Black, ed. George Yancy (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 83-124.

5. Kendall Walton, Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 1.

6. Walton grounds prescriptions about what is to be imagined (via principles of generation) in cultural functions and social contexts (38, 40-1, 52-3, 69).

7. See n. 4.

8. A non- or antiracist aesthetic theory, as feminist accounts of intersectionality reveal, can only be a picture that addresses racial questions simultaneously as questions of gender, class, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation, and other categories of identity and difference. As I elaborate elsewhere, it is thus necessary to examine besides racialized aestheticization and aesthetic racialization, also “gendered and class-inflected aestheticization” (and so on) and “aestheticized gendering and class-formation” (and so forth).

9. In the case of Walton’s theory, for example, taking account of its own positioning would necessitate, among other things, a critical assessment of competing hypotheses about the assumed cultural functions and contexts of representations. The status of prescriptions for imaginings would have to be addressed in light of the significance of other forms of actual and idealized uptake.

10. Alex Neill, “The Isolation of the ASA,” ASA Newsletter 24.1 (2004); Ivan Gaskell “Interdisciplinary Aesthetics,” ASA Newsletter 25.1 (2005).

11. “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion,” Of the Standard of Taste and Other Essays, Ed. John W. Lenz (New York: Library of the Liberal Arts, 1965), 26.

12. A slightly modified and more fully documented version of this column will appear in the APA Newsletter on the Black Experience, titled “The Veiled Presence of Race in the Philosophy of Art: Reclaiming Race in Aesthetics.” Forthcoming at

2006 © Monique Roelofs


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