“The arts of existence make one’s existence into a work of art.”
-George Kateb, Patriotism and Other Mistakes
This weekend, the foreign ministers of Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina published a bizarrely Periclean paean to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. The good ministers, to their credit, envision a world where horrors such as genocide and ruthless oppression do not exist. I suspect that this idealistic vision comes from a good place, particularly in the case of Minister Lagumdzija,* and yet this vision sits outside of reality, as sad as that may be. Still, their intentions are understandable. Calls for peace speak to our most human instincts. In fact, we don’t just desire peace – we crave it, regardless of the cost.
The problem with cravings when sought from social interactions, as opposed to typically sensorial stimuli, is that they tend to result in a socially (or politically) atypical aesthetic; that is, seeking in social phenomena what we usually seek from art. According to Kant, aesthetics are not merely the appreciation of the beautiful, but the disinterested appreciation of the beautiful. The beholder of the object of beauty cannot have skin in the game, as it were; the object must be considered beautiful for its own sake. L’art pour l’art. When the subject has a vested interest in the object, aesthetic values escalate beyond appreciation of beauty and into aesthetic cravings, whereby reason and logic are sacrificed at the altar of want.
As such, the idea that beauty can exist within political interactions is anathema to the foundations of realism where social phenomena simply are; the results of which are graded upon how they affect the interlocutors and their interests. Professor George Kateb of Princeton University makes the case in his wonderful book , particularly in the essay “Aestheticism and Morality” quoted above, that aestheticism for non-artistic objects inherently leads the subject to attempt to to form his world in a way that satiates his aesthetic cravings. This differs from traditional aestheticism for art because we accept art as it is: the subject has no ability, or even impulse, to modify the art for his pleasure. That is how most people approach art. But it is not how most people approach social and political phenomena , because people are the fundamental building blocks of such phenomena. If we see the potential for beauty in our own experiences, we pursue that beauty. This is incidental to our everyday aesthetic impulses that inspire our personal tastes for mundane things. But if the aesthetic is philosophical, to use Kateb’s word, the aesthetic impulse strives to change entire systems of human interaction. Foucault wrote, as quoted by Kateb,
I am referring to what might be called “the arts of existence.” What I mean by the phrase are those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct but also seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria.
Because of the transformational nature of these actions and their focus on ends, particularly the imposition of the transformational acts upon others without consideration for those they affect, these actions are more often than not immoral. .
Political aestheticism rarely results in Nazism, the exemplar of such aestheticism’s most extremist form. But politico-social aestheticism, no matter how well intentioned, can lead to lesser ills, as it focuses solely on ends. This brings us back to the honorable ministers. It seems that while Foreign Minister Davutoglu likely writes from self-indulgence (to solve a very serious problem on both sides of his borders), Minister Lagumdzija is leaning towards politico-social aestheticism. The conflict in Syria is a horror for (in decreasing order of repercussion) the Syrian people, the Middle East, and the world. But craving an end to the horror will not bring that end about. The aesthetics of ending repression and genocide are admirable, but they do not speak to the realities of ending such evils (as I discussed earlier). I admire Davutoglu and Lagumdzija for the optimism, but let’s the rest of us act with prudence and rationality that sees the world for what it is.
And what is it, this world? Professor Kateb offers an alternative that he calls democratic aestheticism: “receptivity or responsiveness to as much as of the world as possible” that prompts us to be conscious of our social aestheticism so that we may curb its cravings and yet allows us to see the beauty that exists there. He tells us that
[Democratic aesthetes] do not hold that beauty and sublimity in the common strict or extended sense forgive the unforgiveable. […] Instead, they reconceive the aesthetic. They finally say that although aesthetic cravings are hardly the sole consideration, without them the human record is impossible to decipher, and that a newly conceived aestheticism can help us temper our aesthetic cravings. But we must also realize that it is in the very nature of democratic aestheticism to make its practitioners (and sympathizers) move uneasily, uncertainly, even as in a daze, between moral shock and a moral indulgence that is, after all, aesthetically inspired, in part.
Can our politics be aesthetically inspired? As Kateb says, in part. The other part is the rationality to weigh benefits and costs to make decisions to improve our world where we can as morally as we can.
Jason Fritz is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks.
*Although it is odd beyond comprehension to see these arguments from the other author – an official from Turkey, a state that refuses to acknowledge the Armenian genocide and also has an ongoing, decades long war against Kurdish nationalists.
Photo Credit: Meg Hourihan