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Art and Politics
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Crispin Sartwell

Art and politics as arenas of human endeavor display various familiar intersections. Long about 1991, you couldn’t enter a gallery or go to a dance performance without receiving a slightly aestheticized lecture on AIDS or racism, and indeed the theory was bruited that all art is political, and all art criticism political analysis. From the other end, running for office or running the government involves a host of aesthetic activities, prosecuted with varying degrees of effectiveness, and Shepard Fairey’s Obama-Hope poster captured something of the essence of Obama’s intervention in American politics, both its potential to inspire and the sneaking suspicion that underneath was emptiness.

Indeed, every political regime uses the arts for propaganda purposes, consciously deploys the arts to try to shape the consciousness of their populations. And every resistance movement does the same, often with much better aesthetic results than those procured by the state, the arts of which are often gigantical yet excruciatingly dull. Political power has shaped the discipline of art history to an incalculable extent, and the art that survives from eras past is whatever the authorities permitted to persist. The history of art is, hence, by and large the history of monuments and of artworks compatible with capitulation. One suspects that there were skeptics, atheists, and anarchists roaring through the medieval and renaissance period; their blasphemous paintings and poems (and indeed their blasphemous persons) were immolated. By contrast, when a political regime starts making aesthetic objects, it tries to make them eternal: under the aegis of taxation it stacks up massive blocks of heavy stone until tearing them down is just too much work.

I think, however, that the relation of aesthetics and politics is tighter than this might suggest, and the function of the arts as propaganda of domination or of resistance does not nearly exhaust the political significance of the arts.

When we characterize political systems, constitutions, or ideologies, we tend to think about texts: the Republic of Plato, the Communist Manifesto, Common Sense or the Declaration of Independence. But political systems, constitutions, and ideologies are embodied in all sorts of non-textual or not-primarily-textual items. A political ideology is not merely a series of assertions; it is a multi-media aesthetic surround. Now the texts themselves have to be viewed aesthetically as well as semantically, and the power of the Declaration of Independence is not only what it declares, but the poetry by which it declares what it declares. Most Americans can probably recite only a line or two, but most of us have the image of a yellowed parchment with calligraphy in a vitrine: the Declaration is also treated and understood as a work of visual art.

Nazism is a central, though also peculiar, example. As an ideology expressed in a series of propositions, it was a complete mess, a congeries of race theory, nationalism, capitalism and anti-capitalism, charismatic totalitarianism, pseudo-neo-paganism, and so on. But Nazism never expressed itself primarily through texts. When I want to teach my students the essence of Nazism, I screen Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. It is a propaganda film, but it is also the very best crystallization of Nazi ideology, and virtually every visual treatment of the Nazi era avails itself of her images. The film famously has no narrator, but there are plenty of words bouncing around as Riefenstahl depicts a series of speeches by Nazi leaders. But what embodies Nazism as it saw itself are the unprecedented scenes of masses of humanity disciplined into an unbelievable perfect coordination, a perfect and ecstatic subordination of many individuals to a single will. The German body is depicted at every scale from the single Aryan young man to the unimaginably vast sea of synched-up flesh. The racial and political theories of Nazism are not merely represented; they are constructed, embodied, made actual right there in your own sensorium.

No one has ever had the aesthetic opportunities of Albert Speer, first Hitler’s architect and then his Minister of Armaments. Essentially, Hitler and Speer planned to level and rebuild every major city in Germany, and then Europe, in a style we might call sublimized classicism, combining the rational design of the Greeks with a demented ambition to recreate reality on a world scale. Indeed Hitler was still designing opera houses as German cities were being leveled by Allied bombs. These aesthetic expressions are not epiphenomena of a coherent ideology; they are the body of the ideology, which re-shapes the entire environment. Perhaps works of art are to be opposed to mere real things, in the structure emphasized by Danto, who takes up a long tradition. But they are also material transformations of the physical world, with all the real effects that such transformations entail.

Now the Nazi case has suggested to many – for example, Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag – that the aestheticization of politics is of itself totalitarian. But I suggest that as aestheticized as Nazism is, it is essentially no more aestheticized than any other political ideology. To take an example: Jefferson’s neo-classicism is reflected in his republicanism, in the Constitution of the state of Virginia, in his ally Madison’s design for the Constitution of the United States, in his prose style, in his homes, in his design of the Virginia State House, and so on. And in general, the neo-classicism of the founders – almost a universal obsession among them – is reflected in our tripartite form of government, for example: a balance of elements, a proportion or harmony that consists of maintaining the integrity of each part and of combining them into a coherent or integral whole. What our form of government would be if it wasn’t directed by aesthetic criteria, we do not know and we do not want to know. To attack Nazism, it is not enough to point to the sheer fact that it is centrally aesthetic; one has to attack the actual aesthetic. I would start with its destruction of unauthorized arts, its obscene gigantism, and its aesthetic rhetoric of purity.

Admittedly, some regimes have been explicitly anti-aesthetic: examples would include all the Marxist dictatorships. Marx himself treated the arts as epiphenomenal: a mere twisted reflection of an underlying economic reality. However, this posture itself has myriad aesthetic entailments. Communist architecture has often been pointedly ugly, as a way to emphasize its sheer utility. Well, this is an actual aesthetic approach that remakes whole environments and has been massively influential. The great American housing projects of the early sixties, now belatedly being imploded all over the country, participate in this sort of leftist anti-aesthetic aesthetic, a pointed ugliness that beautifully reflects the bureaucracies that produced it. That is, there is no getting rid of aesthetics, even in a case where it is consciously rejected: rejection of beauty as a bourgeois plot, for example, is itself a design style expressing the essence of the regime. And while the texts may lie, the building or cityscape or industrial wasteland cannot lie, or at least cannot merely lie. It is real: the actual intervention of the actual regime in the actual world.

But aesthetics is not only a central arena in the construction and imposition of power. It is central also to resistance. Indeed, the neo-classicism of America’s founders became a state aesthetic, but of course it began as the aesthetic of revolutionaries. An excellent example is the history of Black Nationalism, still underestimated as a world-transforming mega-event of the twentieth century. Marcus Garvey produced many important writings, but Garveyism was articulated over people’s bodies as festival: the Harlem parade, with its costumes, its formations, vehicles, its wielding of color itself; changing the valence of “black” and inventing the red, gold, and green scheme that is visible all over the world all the time; as an aesthetic of the black body in Malcolm X and the black power movement. Garvey’s nationalism was a version of the aesthetic nationalism of nineteenth-century Germany – as embodied in the Grimm Brothers or the operas of Wagner, for example. But it turned these ideas on their head: it took seriously the idea that each race-nation had something to teach the world. The influence of Garvey on African anti-colonialism was dramatic, and the symbols he developed are still visible all over the continent and the diaspora.

Garvey’s legacy has above all been carried around the world through reggae and hip-hop music. Many a roots reggae song is about him or is based on quotations from him, and the work of perhaps the most inspiring or influential musician of the twentieth century for world music – Bob Marley, of course – is impossible without Garvey as interpreted under the aegis of Rastafarianism. The black nationalism of the Nation of Islam and Nation of Gods and Earths are often best understood through the hip-hop of such artists as Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan. And indeed hip-hop is a remarkable art-political synthesis. First of all, it is the most text-heavy of all musical forms, not excluding opera. You can tell an elaborate story, or for that matter recite a constitution or read out a speech; it is the most rhetorical musical form by a distance. And the hip-hop producer can actually sample historical documents: the speeches of Malcolm X or Farrakhan, for example.

At any rate, I propose that we identify political systems, ideologies, constitutions not primarily with a series of assertions, but with their entire aesthetic embodiments, including text under aesthetic examination; this is a way to understand the material manifestations of these things, their material configurations. Every political system, I propose, is token-identical to its aesthetic embodiment at a given moment.

However, it is not the case that aesthetic qualities or art styles and political systems can be matched neatly type-to-type. Both Jefferson and Speer use a classical vocabulary, for example, but we need not take this as revealing an underlying affinity between republicanism and fascism, even if the architectures can both be arrayed in the same history. But it is typical within such histories that “the same” forms are deflected or reversed in valence repeatedly (this is not to deny that there are important formal differences between the architectures of Jefferson and Speer). The radical punk or graffiti tropes of 1978 are re-appropriated into design styles for corporate capitalism, and the outfits of the Ramones influence the outfits of Disney pop princesses. Anarchism is an unimaginably radical movement, then a fashion statement. Romantic nationalism is liberatory in 1820, viciously oppressive soon thereafter, blooming again in resistance in Black Nationalism, and so on. The correlations within the multifarious aesthetic history of classicism, or the Gothic, or punk, or hip hop, are immensely complex, only to be teased out by an empirical observation of the details.

To tell the story of the classical and various classicisms within art history might entail a narrative of formal transformations, or more widely aesthetic transformations incorporating material properties such as size and weight. But to tell this story fully, the history of classicism must be treated as an art-political history, a history of the transformation of landscapes performed from political sources with political effects, from Vitruvius to Bruni to Palladio to Wren to Jefferson to David to Speer and then some. Taking it the other way round, you are not going to be able to understand the history of republicanism without addressing the meanings of the classical in its transformations, what the revival of classical learning meant in 1320, in 1500, in 1780, or in 1933. The histories must be allowed to infest and elucidate each other, or they must merge into a single stream, replete with complications.

Even text must be taken in its material and formal qualities: roman as against blackletter typesetting; mechanically reproduced as inscribed, or mechanically reproduced as uttered; scrawled illegally or reproduced with the utmost care in a scholarly edition. The voice of the Federalist Papers – calm, rational, elaborately reflective, or almost leisurely – is inseparable from the doctrines it expresses, and both have their origins in classical rhetoric and the political arrangements in which classical rhetoric was developed.

However and to repeat, the function of the arts within politics is not primarily propaganda or sheer manipulation or mere rhetoric. The relation is constitutive; a political system consists of its aesthetic embodiments rather as a chair consists of atoms or whatever it may be. The allegiance of a leader and of her followers is not to a string of doctrines but to an aesthetic system, including the way in which doctrines are actually embodied and disseminated. For the doctrines are no less subject to transformation by context than are the aesthetic systems, and though we can recite the Bill of Rights we cannot hold the sentences constant as to meaning.

I might suggest by way of conclusion that the skills of the aesthetician might profitably be turned in this direction, that aesthetics ought to apply itself to what has been conceived to be the subject-matter of political science. Whether after such a transformation the political remains the subject of a science depends, I suppose, on how one conceives the art/science dichotomy.

2010 © Crispin Sartwell

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