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by Crispin Sartwell

"I suggest that although at any given place and moment the aesthetic expressions of a political system just are that political system, the concepts are separable. Typically, aesthetic aspects of political systems shift in their meaning over time, or even are inverted or redeployed with an entirely transformed effect. You cannot understand politics without understanding the aesthetics of politics, but you cannot understand aesthetics as politics. The point is precisely to show the concrete nodes at which two distinct discourses coincide or connive, come apart or coalesce."―from Political Aesthetics

Juxtaposing and connecting the art of states and the art of art historians with vernacular or popular arts such as reggae and hip-hop, Crispin Sartwell examines the reach and claims of political aesthetics. Most analysts focus on politics as discursive systems, privileging text and reducing other forms of expression to the merely illustrative. He suggests that we need to take much more seriously the aesthetic environment of political thought and action.

Sartwell argues that graphic style, music, and architecture are more than the propaganda arm of political systems; they are its constituents. A noted cultural critic, Sartwell brings together the disciplines of political science and political philosophy, philosophy of art and art history, in a new way, clarifying basic notions of aesthetics―beauty, sublimity, and representation―and applying them in a political context. A general argument about the fundamental importance of political aesthetics is interspersed with a group of stimulating case studies as disparate as Leni Riefenstahl's films and Black Nationalist aesthetics, the Dead Kennedys and Jeffersonian architecture.

Download Political Aesthetics epub
ISBN: 0801448905
ISBN13: 978-0801448904
Category: Other
Subcategory: Humanities
Author: Crispin Sartwell
Language: English
Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (July 1, 2010)
Pages: 272 pages
ePUB size: 1523 kb
FB2 size: 1452 kb
Rating: 4.4
Votes: 467
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Rarely has a work with this much apparent erudition solicited this much dismay, eye pain and sheer amazement at the author's audacious ignorance from your favorite common reader, moi, as Political Aesthetics by Crispin Sartwell. (Extraordinary name by the way--one almost feels massaged by the decades of privilege which created this professorial counterfeit.) Was it only a week ago I had the misfortune to read his short article on Andy Warhol in the New York Times Stone column and--intrigued by his comment that genius was a "myth" which I felt had resonance with some ideas I hold about cultural development--forthwith ordered this book from Amazon. Alas, my good friend, the city carrier James, forgot to lose this particular book and so shortly I held it in my hand.

Sartwell declines to define his notion of political aesthetics with anything approaching comprehensibility. The short Amazon quotation reflects his general confusion about his own subject matter and his remarkable ability to subject the suffering reader with torment. The closest he manages to a real explanation is when he mentions that he thought he could fuse art history and political science. Quote--"It struck me that the skills of the art historian--looking at the real shape of real things and decoding its significance--could be trained on the subject matter of political science: political systems, ideologies, constitutions, relations." Consider for a moment the amazing arrogance of that statement--an art historian looks at the REAL shape...and DECODES its significance." He simply feels, due to his supernatural ability as an aesthetic genius, that he can understand the real shape of things--which has apparently eluded everyone else up to now. In a very real sense, this is the astonishing stance of the contemporary practitioner of deconstruction--arrogance masquerading as thought.

His inability--and I think it is actual inability, not merely unwillingness--to establish a foundation meaning for political aesthetics damages the creaky ship this book resembles, but his lazy scholarship sinks it. The book is riddled with errors. I actually wanted to be sitting in one of his classes to jump up and start shouting "That's just wrong!"--I am temperamental that way. His philosophical writing seems informed by reasoning--the rasta practice of smoking copious amounts of the sacred herb and bloviating.

The chapters alternate between "case studies"--or attempts to apply the stillborn discipline of political aesthetics--and philosophical chapters. The first chapter studies the films of Leni Riefenstahl and the architecture of Albert Speer as the highest quality examples of Nazi art--an art that he argues through which Hitler sought to remake the culture. (His quotation--"the true statesman remakes the culture by remaking the art.") This chapter is not entirely bad--its reading of The Great Dictator by Chaplin (presented as a counterpoint to Riefenstahl's films) was good enough to bring welcome relief to the reader by being comprehensible and humane. However much of Sartwell's technique is established here--a prose style that revels in jargon only to have jarring moments of vulgarity--pointless analysis with frequent and tedious error--and a tendency to simply drop in the names of famous philosophers as if their presence will redeem this mishmash.

The second chapter, titled Artphilosophical themes, is a complete failure. The argumentation tries to elude the either/or dichotomy that informs Sartwell's basic thinking (anarchist/totalitarian, Protestant/Catholic, on and on and on.) by presenting an array of ideas which one supposes he thinks will cohere into a beautiful whole--something like a Jackson Pollock splatter painting. Frankly however it seems he bought an elementary compendium of famous political philosophers' texts, lit a very large and splendiferous doobie, and proceeded to read--at random--various passages and use the inspiration of the sacred herb to yoke these unruly oxen. The result is sophomoric and jejune.

The third chapter discusses the British punk movement and its evolution in the early 1980s into the hardcore punk scene in America. He does not establish how the material he presents is political in any particular manner--here I should note that in contemporary thought almost anything can be called political--a definition that basically robs politics of any real meaning. The material on the British punk movement is largely derivative. However, the comments on the hardcore scene did interest me because it reflected how truly local much of the Indie rock scene has been. I kept thinking where are the Meat Puppies? What about Simon Joyner? as he discussed groups I had never heard of from Washington DC (where he grew up.) This material barely rises to the level of a second rate magazine article.

The fourth chapter contrasts Plato/Aristotle and Confucius/Mozi. In his formulation, Plato and Confucius represent an elaborately beautiful art (somewhat like the Catholic church) and Aristotle and Mozi a moral reaction against that baroqueness, a simplicity which he notes also has an aesthetic element (somewhat like the Protestant church.) Here he is clearer than the second chapter--though the whole argument proceeds by impressionism and analogy.

The fifth chapter discusses, in quick progression, Marcus Garvey, black nationalism, reggae, rap and graffiti. I knew much of this story from other books; where he presented new information, he is often simply wrong. One whopper that floored me was when he wrote that I and I referred to the African people. (I and I is the Rasta term for you and me, or the divine (Haile I) and oneself.) I mentioned this to my long suffering wife--who has heard way more reggae music than any season ticket holder to the local opera should have to--and she actually gasped "Has he ever listened to any reggae?" Considering he calls Prince Buster astonishing (!) and quotes at length from the dreadful Steel Pulse, I completely doubt it.

The short bit on graffiti was, besides the short bit on the Great Dictator, the only part of the book that cohered in a normal manner. It is significant that at these two points in the books he was not busy trying to impress the reader with his breadth of knowledge by dropping the names of every philosopher from Plato to Vico to Wittgenstein, but wrote fairly straightforward accounts of the subject matter. For the record, after reading about the methodology of graffiti artists, I wondered if the ones who paint on train cars collect the exact replicas Microtrains creates in N scale of graffitied cars.

In the next chapter he attempts to demonstrate the identity of art history and political history. At this point he finally lost me. Despite my determination to finish this book so I could write a comprehensive review, I just couldn't continue. In no real sense is Sartwell familiar with anything more than the most rudimentary knowledge of history and the mounting tide of nonsense was too great to hold my marginal interest.

I should note that Sartwell seems to despise the Catholic church--which bothered this intensely Catholic man--and is one of those lefties who call himself an "anarchist." He also refers to the United States as practicing squishy totalitarianism--seems rather ungrateful for somebody who as a professor enjoys the privileges of a pampered elite.

When I first began this book, I thought somebody might take this numskull seriously--and develop the idea that a political system could simply be judged like, say, a box of dark chocolate. That, I thought, would be a crime. Yet as I read further, I realized the real crime is that the children of hardworking people would borrow huge amounts of money to take classes from this man--classes which might or might not be fun (depending on how freely the ganja was available and how loudly the King Tubby was played)--but would certainly be of zero value in creating a sharp intellect or everyday work skills.

Finally, Sartwell and I are almost the same age--though, unlike him, I am a poor and meek man a true sufferah. When Sartwell wrote of listening to the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Starship as a teenager--bands I loathed--I thought I know this guy. Oh yes I know this guy.

Save your money.
Readers looking for a book that strictly delimits and defines the idea or concept of political aesthetics will be disappointed; but this disappointment might be tempered by considering 'aesthetics' and 'politics' (or 'the political') as 'essentially contested concepts' in the first instance. This book does embrace a 'contemporary' perspective, in that it treats politics in a more encompassing fashion, looking well-beyond electoral politics (although not past constitutions); much contemporary political and social theory emphasizes notions of the 'performative' self, or at least a strong sense of social constructivism, and therefore a corresponding concern with 'positive' freedom (cf. Berlin's 'Two Concepts of Liberty). Without providing a review, I would simply recommend Sartwell's book, in particular to those interested in aesthetics and 'the politics of the everyday,' and of politics well left-of-center, more generally.