BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 JUN 12
Featured in
Issue 148

A Taste of Politics

Art and the Cold Civil War

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 JUN 12

Aesthetics and politics have a complex relationship. Basically, they can flirt and date but never get married or have kids. Remember Walter Benjamin’s warning: fascism aestheticizes politics. The correct strategy is to politicize art (not the entire realm of aesthetics). A fusion of aesthetics and politics – art and state – is propaganda.

Taste makes this incompatibility clearer. You can have taste in art, but no one really talks about having taste in politics. Being collective, aesthetics and politics allow for differences of opinion, yet the way these differences play themselves out further separates them. Aesthetics – and taste – thrive on individuality and autonomy while politics grows in cohesion and interdependence. The taste of a few often leads to an exclusive trend, which attracts followers and becomes a popular fashion. But a political party with few followers can’t get a lot of votes. Aesthetics and taste can be private and public, while politics must be transparent and public.

There are signs that this relationship is changing. Take the New York-based journal n+1, which is behind the book What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation (2010) and the Occupy! broadsheets, which started appearing last October in reaction to Occupy Wall Street. The shift from hipsters to occupiers reflects changing current events, but the sociological approach suggests a continuity between these polarized groups. Hipsters and occupiers could be the poles of aesthetics and politics, but both groups belong to society.

n+1 goes a long way towards creating a shared space where politics could be tasteful – and taste, political – only to fail to occupy that space. The hipster compendium is marred by the concern that n+1 itself might be a hipster journal. Why would that undermine the book’s political insights? Couldn’t hipsters develop a political consciousness? In his introduction, n+1 co-editor Mark Greif proposes a hierarchy between hipsters (bad) and artists (good). ‘The hipster is by definition the person who does not create real art,’ he writes, isolating hipsters from politics and art. Yet being fashionable, acting politically and making art sounds like a description of a lot of my friends.

The 7th Berlin Biennale – curated by Artur Żmijewski with Joanna Warsza and the St Petersburg collective Voina – offers another complex shared space. Since Berlin is bereft of occupiers, some were imported from other cities and countries to take over the ground-floor of the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, the biennial’s main venue. At the press conference, Żmijewski noted that the occupiers were linked to the state since the exhibition was funded by Germany’s Federal Arts Endowment. While it remained unclear whether the movement would be compromised by this alliance, the press conference was taken over by occupiers who tried to politicize the journalists by asking them to change the world, albeit with the mixed results that mark the exhibition.

dOCUMENTA (13) – if one judges by curatorial team member Chus Martínez’s notebook Unexpress the Expressible (2012), from the series of publications ‘100 Notes / 100 Thoughts’ – puts forth a model of aesthetic and artistic autonomy, which recalls Greif’s divide between hipsters and artists. ‘The ideas for shaping and thinking the world do not – cannot – come from civil society but from a community of artists,’ writes Martínez, who calls for artistic research to create a community of nonsense.

What’s going on outside of art? Aesthetics and politics eloped right under our eyes – without fascism and propaganda. Discussions about the affluent one percent and the impoverished 99 percent sound like the taste of a few forming an exclusive trend, except the trend in question is wealth and can never become a general fashion. Privatizing public space – or debt – recalls the private and public spheres of aesthetics. We’re running a Hegelian civil state and political economy on a Kantian model of community, which is driven, not by law, voting and reason, but by judgement, taste and tacit entitlement.

As some commentators noted, Immanuel Kant never wrote a fourth critique of politics; his community is his third Critique of Judgement (1790). While Kant recognized individual differences in taste, he argued that everyone has the right to believe that their pure judgements of taste are correct, to require this agreement from others without asking them. It’s a community without voting or discussion. Today, everyone has to agree – not about what’s beautiful, but with capitalism itself. Today’s aestheticization of politics doesn’t have to do with appearances – marching bands, pure bodies or Leni Riefenstahl films – but with the way community is regulated by the state.

A taste of politics? It’s being shoved down our throats. Calling for the autonomy of aesthetics – like Kant did – only makes the feeding more forceful. Politicizing art isn’t right either, since art provided the model for our current political economy, from freelancers to individualists. Kant’s community has no voting, no dialogue and, unlike Hegel’s state, no war; violence comes from the sublime, perhaps our spiralling debts. Make no mistake: we are in a Cold Civil War.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.