The Aesthetics of Politics, Art, and Communications
When we begin to wrap our heads around the fact that culture-making surrounds us on a daily basis, and that everyday people are now both consumers and producers of symbolic production, we can then more accurately approach the question of aesthetics and politics, and begin to see how it operates around us daily.
The question of aesthetics and politics is certainly not new. It has been both a productive and destructive line of inquiry throughout much of the 20th century, much debated between Bertolt Brecht and Theodore Adorno, and the Constructivists and social realists of the Russian Revolution. It sat at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, was rife throughout 2nd wave feminism, was a central concern of the Zapatistas revolution, and was prominent in so many other social movements. It is a question that is as clumsy as it is urgent. It is neither new nor resolved.
This is all to say: if the topic of aesthetics and politics gives you a headache, find odd comfort knowing that you are not historically alone.
If anything is new to this inquiry, it is merely the scale and pace of cultural production across the planet. If we can steer clear of the disciplinary category of art, and instead focus on the methods by which the arts express themselves (the use of symbolic language, perform-ativity, reflexivity, design, poetics, deploying affect), we can quickly understand that the arts now exist strategically in every marketing, communications, and advertising department on the planet. The use of culture as a strategic device of communication is, in fact, part of the lingua franca of everyday life.
Not only is everyone an artist, but everyone is aware that everyone is an artist. It is incredibly important to emphasize this point, because part of the thinking around art and politics still posits the arts as some small, entertaining infrastructure that occurs only in galleries, museums, stages and theaters.
Now, there are those who would assert that advertising is not the same as art— and frankly, I want to stay away from that conversation. Not that it isn’t important, but it can often be unproductive in the quest of thinking through the role of art as it relates to social justice. Instead, I want to focus on two easy categories that work across the deployment of culture: the propagandistic model and the open-ended aesthetics.
Communications departments, advertisers, and many social justice organizations’ approach to art is that of the propagandistic model. They use the deployment of affect (emotional response) to produce a certain reaction or association in a viewer. This kind of work could either be called branding, advertising, or in a less loaded language, communication. Social justice organizations routinely use artists to make banners, posters, and various other visual cues to give more urgency to movements. From the work of Emory Douglas of the Black Panthers, to the art of Gran Fury for AIDS activism, to Shephard Fairey producing an Obama poster of HOPE, we see this kind of branding or identity production for various political causes as the go-to understanding of aesthetics in relationship to social change. Of course, this general understanding is also in terms of methodology, not all that different from the work of the great advertisers of history like Leo Burnett who developed the Marlboro Man and the Jolly Green Giant, to the cultural acuity of Roger Ailes long-time Republic political consultant, and President of Fox News Channel.
The other side of the coin would be the rather open-ended aesthetics. That is, the art is neither trying to get a result from someone, nor make a brand, nor produce any kind of political or social affinity. It is quite open in its production of meaning and each individual who encounters the work is forced, in one way or another, to confront how they feel about it, on their own terms. Now this explanation of the non-propagandistic style of communication is certainly worded a bit utopian. Admittedly, there are, in any style of communication, agendas, desires of power, manipulations, etc. And even with the most didactic form of communication, there are spaces where the viewer is free to think. So instead of thinking of the categories of the propagandistic and open-ended as separate, think instead of them as two ends of a connected spectrum of meaning-making.
Now, this open-ended form of communication is often what people more often than not think of as art. It is not didactic. It is more pensive, opaque, free to interpretation, and ideally, if someone is able to understand enough of what is happening to become curious, it produces the capacity for reflection on the part of the viewer. Open-ended situations can, in fact, be considered very much in line with many of the great aspirations of education where open-ended inquiry wasn’t merely the goal of learning, but in fact, the demonstrative testament to freedom itself. The capacity to think for oneself on one’s own terms in the production of meaning is a great thing indeed. Perhaps, one could say, it is the goal of social justice movements if it could be achieved on a structural level.
I have witnessed a myriad of socially engaged, open-ended projects do amazing cultural things. Because most people are so accustomed to being told what to think or having art used on them in some coercive manner, having truly comprehensible but inquisitive environments where people are allowed to think for themselves with no goal or end in sight can be very liberating. These kinds of experiences—whether a theater production of Waiting for Godot in a ravaged New Orleans neighborhood, or an open-ended, non-judgmental conversation on the war in Iraq—can produce amazing exchanges. In the culturally manipulative environment that we live in, moments of open exchange are truly few and far between.
Of course, art might assert that this is its goal, but any person concerned with reality would ask: for whom and under what conditions? Who does this art speak to? Who does it not speak to? Where are the spaces that allow reflection to occur and who is invited? And perhaps on a more revolutionary level, one might assert that reflection is not what is needed in the battleground of meaning making. Power is using cheap propagandistic tricks to cloud people’s perception of what is actually happening, and like it or not, we have to fight them by using the same tricks.
It is not for me to resolve such things. Frankly, I am a fan of all and more. One cannot be naïve about the importance of propaganda in the war of meaning making, and one must also appreciate the civic and emotional power of producing art that provides reflection, curiosity, dreams, and emotion. It is important to recognize that more than rational creatures, we are really intimate, feeling, fearful, delicate beings and the language of art—more than the rational discussion-- speaks more to who we are. Accepting that the landscape of politics is already deeply infused with cultural production is the start, but untangling and working through the mess it has created is the next step.