8 Aesthetics and Politics

Ruth Sonderegger and Ines Kleesattel

Allegedly beyond politics: the invention of aesthetics

Against the common assumption that it is the content of artworks which, in some cases at least, contains political messages, philosophers such as Theodor W. Adorno and Jacques Rancière, have contended that the politics of aesthetics should rather be located in the formal dimension of art. This chapter, however, argues that the mere existence, or rather, coming into existence of aesthetics as a philosophical sub-discipline in the 18th century in Western Europe is in and of itself highly political. Moreover, we maintain that it is against the backdrop of the politics of aesthetics as a discipline that debates about the politics of specific aesthetic forms and/or contents should be understood. This is why this chapter starts out with a brief discussion of the beginning of philosophical aesthetics and its socio- as well as geopolitical context.

In contrast to the domains of theoretical and practical philosophy, the sub-discipline of aesthetics emerged rather late in Western philosophy.[1] The first book entitled Aesthetica, authored by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, was published in 1750 (Baumgarten [1750] 2007). Moreover, Baumgarten still used the term “aesthetic” in order to define a specific kind of knowledge, namely sensuous knowledge. Of course, myriads of art-related treatises and rule books had been written in earlier centuries, but usually by artists or artisans themselves and not by philosophers. And what is more, until the end of the 18th century, there was no such thing as art, art theory, or aesthetics in the (collective) singular, but a plurality of arts and rulebooks for each of them.

After the invention of philosophical aesthetics, however, aesthetic production was ever less theorised in the course of the 18th century. Much rather, artistic production was left to “geniuses” and hence considered to be beyond analysis as well as beyond teaching and learning. The only individuals that needed to be analyzed and (endlessly) educated were, as now, the recipients of aesthetic experiences and the taste of such recipients. This major shift and its political entanglement are most apparent in Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) Critique of Judgment ([1790] 2008).

In the first part of Kant’s Critique that is devoted to questions of beauty and art, Kant starts out by drawing absolutely strict dividing lines between questions of beauty, on the one hand, and theoretical as well as practical questions on the other. He then proceeds by differentiating between four “moments” or “conditions of possibility” of aesthetic judgments. Whereas “moments” one and three emphasise the disinterestedness of aesthetic pleasure and the judgments expressing such pleasure, moments two and four are about the universality of aesthetic judgments.

A lot could be said and indeed has been written about the provocations inherent in the principle of disinterestedness and the exclusions it advocates on seemingly (purely) transcendental grounds. Kant’s account of aesthetic judgments not only dismisses all forms of sensualism but also any kind of ethical or moral improvement through aesthetic experiences, both of which had been so important in English debates about taste, of which Kant was well aware.[2] Moreover, the principle of disinterestedness presupposes aesthetic subjects whose basic needs are satisfied and who have ample leisure time. Those, on the other hand, who suffer from hunger like, it seems, the “Iroquois sachem” to whom Kant refers in § 2 ([1790] 2008, 36) might find it difficult to contemplate a bountiful table. Not for nothing, there is a huge amount of literature arguing that the concept of aesthetic disinterestedness is not a (Kantian) invention but rather a reaction to the growth of an affluent bourgeois middle class with plenty of spare time in Western Europe towards the end of the 18th century (cf. Woodmansee 1994; Mortensen 1977).

The Kantian principle of universality is no less contested. At first, it seems that the universality in question is guaranteed by the mere fact that nothing but a certain relation between the cognitive faculties of imagination and understanding—their anti-hierarchical, a-teleological free play—is involved in aesthetic experiences. According to Kant such free play means that both faculties are equally important and, therefore, unable to bring their playful interaction to an end by defeating the respective other. And as nothing but our cognitive faculties (which we share with all human beings) are involved, my judgment—or so Kant seems to argue—ought to be everybody else’s, too. According to this account of aesthetic judgments, taste does not presuppose any special knowledge, education, or whatever else except the cognitive faculties of imagination and understanding.[3] This seems to open up the realm of aesthetics in a truly emancipatory, indeed unheard-of emancipatory way to all human beings. This is because all thinking beings possess the two faculties necessary for aesthetic experience. However, Kant proceeds by discussing the challenge that we might deceive ourselves as far as hidden (or not so hidden) interests are concerned and mistakenly assume that nothing but our cognitive faculties were involved when we judged an object as beautiful. Therefore, an additional test is needed in order to find out as to whether really nothing but imagination and understanding are involved in aesthetic experiences and the judgment that ensue from them.

The test that Kant proposes—without ever calling it a test—goes by the name of sensus communis or “a public sense.” It consists in judging a potentially beautiful object or representation thereof not only from my perspective but also from the perspective of

everyone else, in order, as it were, to weigh [the] judgment with the collective reason of mankind. … This is accomplished by weighing the judgment, not so much with actual, as rather with the merely possible, judgments of others, and by putting ourselves in the position of everyone else. … This, in turn, is effected by so far as possible leaving out the element of matter, i.e. sensation … , and confining attention to the formal peculiarities of our representation or general state of representational activity. (Kant [1790] 2008, 123)

When Kant first refers to the sensus communis in § 22 and contends that such sense is necessarily presupposed in all aesthetic judgments he leaves open whether the sensus communis is an intrinsic part of the cognitive faculties of imagination and understanding, or whether it is something to be learned in the course of an individual life, or throughout the process he calls civilization. Later on in the text, however, Kant clearly advocates a sensus communis that is the result of a learning process that, in its turn, separates “merely … human being[s]” from “a human being refined in his own way (the beginning of civilization)” ([1790] 2008, 126). As in § 2, it is the Iroquois amongst others who are to exemplify what it means to be “merely a human being” according to Kant, and to not know the refinements of civilization and taste:

And thus, no doubt, at first only chars, e.g. colours for painting oneself (rocou among the Caribs and cinnabar among the Iroquois), or flowers, sea-shells, beautifully coloured feathers, then, in the course of time, also beautiful forms (as in canoes, appárel etc.) … become of moment in society and attract a considerable interest. Eventually, when civilization has reached its height it makes this work of communication almost the main business of refined inclination, and the entire value of sensations is placed in the degree to which they permit of universal communication. ([1790] 2008, 127)

Although the interleaving of aesthetic education with a racialised idea of civilization is problematic enough, the next and last paragraph on taste as sensus communis advocates an even more appalling differentiation. Instead of only differentiating between different stages of civilisational progress this section excludes some human beings from the process of acquiring taste as interest in pure formal beauty altogether. Kant writes in § 42: “But … this immediate interest in the beauty of nature”—the epitome of formal beauty—“is not in fact common. It is peculiar to those whose habits of thought are already trained to the good or else are eminently susceptible to such training” ([1790] 2008, 130).

Kant’s concluding remarks on the principle of sensus communis thus imply that some human beings are already refined whereas others are at least susceptible of training towards refinement. However, there is a third group of beings that seem to remain insusceptible. In arguing in favour of such division, Kant’s seemingly emancipatory steps towards a conception of aesthetics that is no longer tied to privileges of class, gender, or race seems not to go beyond his early Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime ([1764] 2011) despite the importance of the transcendental or critical turn that lies between the two works. In Kant’s Observations it is women who are said to be susceptible of acquiring taste as sensus communis (only in the future) whereas Black people, and here Kant relies upon highly problematic remarks by David Hume (cf. Gikandi 2011, 99–106), are excluded altogether (cf. Elizabeth Coleman’s contribution to this volume, Chapter 9).

Apart from the fact that Hume and Kant knew of Black writers and philosophers but obviously deemed their achievements as trifling, one cannot but conclude that the idea of taste that Kant is advocating is specifically geared to white, well-educated men—that is, to human beings like himself. To put it more paradoxically: the test of the universalisability of aesthetic judgments, that is, the seemingly cosmopolitan attitude of thinking from the perspective of everybody else, turns out to be a privilege of the favoured few. Thus, Kant’s account of taste or sensus communis appears to work towards closing the in-group of the subjects of taste as well as towards the valorisation of these subjects. Emphasizing biases of class rather than issues of race or gender, Richard Shusterman comes to a similar conclusion when he writes, “Uniformity of taste comes to mean the uniformity of taste of those who have taste and this is already largely determined by prevailing structures of social privilege” (1993, 110).

To sum up, despite the opening claim of Kant’s Critique of Judgement according to which aesthetics has nothing to do with issues of ethics, morality, or politics, 18th century aesthetic theory functions as an apparatus that contributes to establishing the supremacy of the bourgeois, liberal subject and, first of all, the male subject, that is distinguished by its aesthetic taste—“taste” being the master category that sutures French, British, and German debates (Lowe 2015, 4; Lloyd 2019). The underside of the construction of such superiority consists not only in the reinforcement of hierarchical class and gender division. Much rather, European 18th century aesthetic theories play a major role in the invention of racial thinking that made the conceptualization of enslaved humans as cargo, cattle, and tool, and hence the outsourcing of capitalist violence into the colonised parts of the world where possible (Bindman 2002; Gikandi 2011). There is, for instance, hardly any aesthetician in the 18th century who did not write on the colour and perception of Black people (Gilman 1975).

Moreover, the aesthetic regime that was invented by bourgeois aesthetic theory in the 18th century provided ideal opportunities to obscure classist, sexist, and colonial violence and to whitewash the profits resulting from such violence so that expropriation, extractivism, exploitation, and downright mass killings could appear as nothing but charity work. As such, aesthetic theory promised freedom, autonomy, and emancipation in the most brutal times; in times, that is, when bourgeois fear of insurrections in the colonies but also at home was pervasive and the acceptance of white supremacy seemed to somewhat falter. In this context, the possession of aesthetic taste became a kind of assurance that the bourgeois subject was indeed above both the corrupt feudal subject and the violent villains of the colonies.

For example, Simon Gikandi, who has published widely on the relation between slavery and the emergence of European aesthetic theory in the 18th century, writes in his Slavery and the Culture of Taste, “still, as major scholars of the order of art in the eighteenth century have noted, the category of taste and the idea of the aesthetic in general arose as part of a concerted attempt to stabilise the potentially excessive and disruptive aspects of commerce” (2011, 59).

On the other hand, the newly established sphere of autonomous art and its emerging institutions, most notably the art market, provided ample opportunities to invest capitalist profit into something seen as innocuous if not liberating and emancipatory. Carmen Mörsch’s research on the history of art education in Britain, for instance, has convincingly shown that such seemingly emancipatory practice began in the foundling hospitals of 18th century London where pauperised street children were transformed—by way of artworks—into civilised beings ready for capitalist exploitation. However, the artworks on display in such hospitals—loan items provided by the charitable bourgeoisie—were also regularly shown to the public in order to sell them to emerging collectors. In other words: what looked like almsgiving to the foundling hospitals was an apparatus of whitewashing profit and making more profit by way of establishing the British art market (Mörsch 2017).[4]

To conclude, the seemingly autonomous sphere of aesthetics that was defended most fiercely by Kant in the 18th century was not so autonomous after all. Much rather, the institutionalization of such aesthetic autonomy had strong ethical and political implications that were whitewashed by emphasizing aesthetic emancipation and freedom.

However, it was not long before the swiftly institutionalised aesthetic autonomy together with its philosophical theory were criticised. For example, by Hegel’s efforts to link art theory to society and history and, in the second half of the 19th century, by Nietzsche’s endeavour to reconnect art and life (Hegel [1823] 2014; Nietzsche [1872] 1993). Both Hegelian and Nietzschean elements of critique of Kant’s aesthetic of autonomy were then developed further by various strands of pragmatist aesthetics around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, ranging from Dewey’s much-quoted book Art as Experience to W.E.B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk (Dewey [1934] 1980; Du Bois [1903] 2007). Whereas the former has quickly become a classic, Du Bois’ pragmatist account of Black folk art has been almost entirely ignored by philosophical aesthetics.[5]

Aesthetics as politics and the role of the recipient

In the first section of this chapter, we have clearly distanced ourselves from aesthetic theories that celebrate the Kantian caesura in the history of Western aesthetics as one of (unique) democratisation. However, the fact that we grant Kant such a great significance in this text nevertheless is motivated, on the one hand, by the objective of demonstrating the underlying (colonial, racist, sexist, and classist) politicality of Kant’s allegedly disinterested aesthetics. On the other hand, we do not want to disguise the fact that in the 20th and 21st century Kant’s aesthetic of autonomy still has a strong influence on Western aesthetics—not only on disciplinarily conservative philosophers who accept the Kantian divide between aesthetics, epistemology, and politics or ethics, but also among leftist thinkers like Jacques Rancière who focuses on the intersection between aesthetics and politics.

Rancière praises the democratic potential of the Kantian caesura in European aesthetic theory for two reasons: first, for the fact that, in many formulations, Kant suggests that all human beings are capable of issuing aesthetic judgements. Second, Rancière applauds Kant’s rejection of aesthetic rulebooks of the classical age, which prescribed normative rules for individual arts or genres.[6] Full of enthusiasm for such aesthetics of liberation (from prescriptions), Rancière claims that with Kant (and Schiller) a new and truly “aesthetic regime” emerges that replaces the rule-oriented aesthetics that have prevailed since Aristotle. In Rancière’s view, the new aesthetic regime is to be understood as the “specific regime of the sensible, which is extricated from its ordinary connections,” that is, from a system of representational means and ends. Moreover, the new (Kantian) aesthetic regime is said to liberate art in the singular “from any specific rule, from any hierarchy of the arts, subject matter, and genres” (Rancière 2004, 23). It is this very liberation of art from the former system of representational means and ends that Rancière considers politically emancipatory. He even claims that, due to its anti-representational and thus anti-hierarchical egalitarian move, autonomous art as such becomes politics in the aesthetic regime. With this generalization, Rancière neglects the highly exclusive implications of Kantian aesthetics and refuses to investigate more precisely as to when, where and for whom art possesses liberating potential or not. Furthermore, he decidedly polemicises against explicitly political contemporary art while, at the same time, claims that aesthetic autonomy and emancipatory politics are not mutually exclusive but, on the contrary, depend on each other.

In order to understand Rancière’s close interweaving of politics and aesthetics as well as his rejection of explicitly engaged art, one must bear in mind Rancière’s very peculiar notion of politics: in his view, politics does not denote party politics, parliamentarism, state business, or exercise of power, but “first and foremost an intervention upon the visible and the sayable” (Rancière 2001, §21); or, to put it differently, situations that disrupt the existing, hierarchically structured orders of perception and of what, so far, has been considered as “evident,” “natural,” and “real.” According to Rancière politics is a “redistribution of the sensible” whereby “the sensible” refers to the indissoluble confluence of sensuality and meaning. Moreover, such politics is an inevitably aesthetic affair. Interestingly enough, “aesthetic” here does not designate “art” or anything related to art but, rather, refers to the Greek term aisthesis (sensual perception). To be more precise, such politics is not a matter of (a more just) redistribution but, much rather, a radically democratic disruption of a prevailing distribution and its hierarchies.

On the basis of this specific concept of politics Rancière decidedly rejects any engaged art that commits itself to activism or ideology critique. Instead, he advocates an art that distances itself from the existing reality and its accustomed standards of representation, communication, and information by bringing forth a fundamentally open aesthetic indeterminacy. While in his early political writings Rancière argued for a dissenting politics that takes a clear stand for specific expansions of equality, Rancière’s more recent art theory ultimately tends to dissolve such a dissenting stand in favor of a general praise of the aesthetically open and indeterminate. As a result, he polemicises sharply against art that aims for emancipation and education in any direct way—like the epic theatre of Bertolt Brecht, for example. Rancière condemns the epic theatre’s aim “to show incorrect political attitudes and thus to teach correct ones” (Brecht [1930] 1998, 345) as a pedagogical and anti-emancipatory “stultification.” He considers the intention of teaching right from wrong in itself problematic because it is said to be based on the premise of a hierarchical difference between knowledge (expressed in the artwork) and ignorance (of recipients), capacity and incapacity, activity and passivity. Truly political art, in contrast, should rather start from the premise that “emancipation begins … when we understand that viewing is also an action that confirms or transforms this distribution of positions. The spectator also acts. … She observes, selects, compares, interprets” (Rancière 2009, 13).

The productive activity of those traditionally called recipients is at the heart of Walter Benjamin’s (1892–1940) political aesthetics as well. In his case, however, the political potential of active spectatorship is not tied to aesthetic indeterminacy and a generalised opening up of the sensible but to political urgency, on the one hand, and to new technological conditions on the other. It is not least significant that Benjamin repeatedly and affirmatively referred to Brecht. Friends of each other, both were radical critics of the bourgeois idea of art’s autonomy and of the bourgeois understanding of reception as contemplation.

Thinking and writing under precarious conditions in exile from Nazi Germany, Benjamin is not so much interested in subjective aesthetic experience but, rather, in the material and technical conditions of modern cultural production, its economic factors, and the social functions that art fulfilled and fulfills in both the past and the present. In Benjamin’s view, human perception—including modes of aesthetic experience and spectatorship—is not determined by the biology of human organs but conditioned by social history and media technologies and, therefore, variable. Cinema, for instance, is deemed by Benjamin not only as the mode of expression appropriate to the 20th century due to fragmentation and montage, but also as a training ground for modern life since it contributes to the acceleration of the processing of sensory impressions. In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin elaborates on how technical reproducibility changes the relationship between art and its audience which is, in the era of photography and cinema, no longer limited to singular individuals contemplating in front of a quasi-sacred original (Benjamin 1969). Due to their technical reproducibility, pictures are liberated from the “auratic” authenticity of the unique existence (“here and now”) that loomed large in the so-called painterly original.[7] Photography and film, on the other hand, invite mass reception, whereby political operability takes the place of the former sacred logic of contemplation. Such political operability is based, firstly, on the fact that, as a mass, the audience is capable of communicating collectively instead of withdrawing into the individual inwardness of one’s private associations. Secondly, due to their technical character, film and photography require and enable a different awareness than paintings, namely a critical attitude instead of a receptive pleasure.

The reason for this is to be found in the technical apparatus of the camera: “Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye—if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored” (Benjamin 1969, 236). Benjamin emphasises that the camera does not simply depict in more detail what is already obvious. Much rather, the snapshot isolates a fraction of a second from the flow of a movement that has never been perceived before; likewise, the microscopic magnification shows the fine-particle structure of a material that appears coarse to the bare eye. Such technical possibility to shed light on new layers of reality that have hitherto been beyond human perception is of utmost importance for Benjamin as the emergence of photography proves that human vision and perception are not purely natural mechanisms but subject to the influences of cultural practices and technical developments. In contrast to “creative” (i.e., traditionally and consciously composed) paintings, photographs can open up previously unnoticed things (Benjamin 1972, 7, 21). Whenever such openings occur, photographic images become irritatingly alien to their viewers.

It is this very irritation and alienation—to be found, according to Benjamin, paradigmatically in Eugène Atget’s photographs of deserted Paris streets—that enables Benjamin to identify the political function of photography: the power of establishing “evidence for historical occurrences” (1969, 226) without submitting technical pictures to representational norms and the “pedagogical stultification” Rancière speaks of. For if the spectator is disturbed by certain photographic pictures, the traditional way of consuming art passively in “free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them” any longer (1969, 226). Much rather, they challenge the spectator to actively read their meaning in relation to the present reality. As a consequence, the photographic picture itself is only half the business; it is the critical reading of the spectator that creates “a photography which literarises the relationships of life and without which photographic construction would remain stuck in the approximate” (1972, 25). Since historical truth, the evidence of which is provided by photography and cinema, is not simply depicted in the image but must be produced in a contextualizing reading of the picture, “the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character” (1969, 232). To highlight and contribute to the dissolution of this distinction is the core of Benjamin’s political aesthetics.

Being a leftist political thinker, who was deeply concerned about the autocratic politics of German National Socialism, Benjamin was interested in art and cultural production insofar as it possesses what he calls an “organizational function.” As the Nazi regime with its visually impressive theatrical mass performances pursued an aestheticisation of politics, it was imperative for Benjamin to politicise aesthetics. Such politicisation—in which Brecht pioneered, according to Benjamin—develops by way of an emancipatory “functional transformation” of art (a term coined by Brecht) towards the liberation and socialization of the artistic means of production. Instead of simply serving the existing apparatus of cultural production, Benjamin advocates the transformation and improvement of this apparatus so that “it leads consumers to production, in short that it is capable of making co-workers out of readers or spectators” (1970, 93). Therefore, the organizational function of politicised art does not lie in mere agitation, but in a removal of the separation of reception from its production.

Although Brecht’s concern is clearly political agitation and the unveiling of historical truth, his functional transformation of art is not limited to a hierarchical pedagogy. In his Lehrstücke—interestingly enough often translated as “teaching-plays” whereas Brecht’s own translation was “learning-plays”—the audience is not so much taught by what is presented on stage but, much rather, actively involved in performing themselves and thus learning through practical use. It would go beyond the scope of this article to discuss in detail as to what extent the audiences of Brecht’s Lehrstücke actually become full-fledged producers. In any case, Benjamin’s art-theoretical considerations are strongly inspired by Brecht and thus arrive at a political aesthetic that is at odds with the separation of aesthetic reception and production. He suggests a much more fundamental politicization than the artistic use of political topics which, according to Benjamin’s diagnosis (still astonishingly timely today), has little effect: “In point of fact we are faced with a situation … in which the bourgeois apparatus of production and publication can assimilate an astonishing number of revolutionary themes, and can even propagate them without seriously placing its own existence or the existence of the class that possesses them into question” (1970, 90).

Fifty years later, Benjamin and Brecht’s insistence on enabling recipients to become active producers has been taken up by various scholars of Birmingham’s School of Cultural Studies. Not only did these scholars conceive of reception practices as modes of cultural production. They also put previously neglected forms of production, particularly production by marginalised producers, centre stage (Hall 2007).

Relational practices—political aesthetics beyond art

Referring to Félix Guattari, the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term “Relational Aesthetics” with regard to process-oriented and participatory art projects of the 1990s that shift their creative energy away from artworks as objects and artworld-oriented entities towards social situations of encounter and exchange. In view of projects by artists such as Rikrit Tiravanija, Félix Gonzales-Torres, Christine Hill, or Pierre Huyghe, all of which focus on the activity of their audience, Bourriaud states, “contemporary art models more than it represents, … art is at once the object and the subject of an ethic,” and “art is a state of encounter” (2002, 18). His understanding of such art in the framework of Relational Aesthetics is strongly inspired by Guattari’s writings on what the latter termed a “New Aesthetic Paradigm.” This new aesthetic paradigm also informs Guattari’s interest in art, which is neither an interest in the exceptional productivity of an artist-individual nor a plea for the aestheticisation of the social (in the sense of a superficial beautification or glorification of communal life). Much rather, Guattari advocates creative processes that link artistic practice with modes of subjectivation, collective productivity, and environmental ecology:

The refoundation of politics will have to pass through the aesthetic and analytical dimensions implied in the three ecologies—the environment, the socius [i.e. societal relations among human beings] and the psyche. We cannot conceive of solutions to the poisoning of the atmosphere and to global warming due to the greenhouse effect, or to the problem of population control, without a mutation of mentality, without promoting a new art of living in society. … We cannot conceive of a collective recomposition of the socius … without a new way of conceiving political and economic democracies that respect cultural differences. … The entire division of labour, its modes of valorisation and finalities need to be rethought. … [P]oetry today might have more to teach us than economic science, the human sciences, and psychoanalysis combined. (Guattari 1992, 20)

Against the theoretical backdrop of this “ecosophical” aesthetic paradigm, Bourriaud focuses on art projects, whose “substrate is formed by inter-subjectivity, and which take … being-together as a central theme” (Bourriaud 2002, 15). In doing so, Bourriaud conceives of encounters exclusively as forms of human sociality whereas Guattari’s subjectivation is “auto-enriching its relation to the world” and, thus, involves a more nuanced and materially differentiated approach that goes beyond human relations. Guattari envisions an ecosophy (ecological philosophy) according to which more-than-human environments, social relations, and psychological subjectivities are interrelated and enriching each other. In other words, Bourriaud, on the other hand, conceives of relationality as a genuinely human connectivity that is able to compensate for social defects and to promote, in a strangely harmonious way, recovery from the alienations of a capitalist and technified reality. Moreover, his focus on gatherings of people within the framing of art exhibitions (that in themselves are rather exclusive) overlooks power relations as well as the very specificities of the material entanglements involved.

In view of the long and varied history of participatory art in the 20th century (see, e.g., Bishop 2012 and Raunig 2007), it is also startling that Bourriaud declares 1990s Relational Aesthetics to revolve around something radically new. While earlier avant-gardes aspired to a radical break and conflict with their present through revolutionary demands and utopian manifestos, Relational Aesthetics deals with constructive proposals for a realizable community with new “life possibilities” here and now (Bourriaud 2002, 46). Even though Bourriaud is not entirely wrong in attributing utopian-revolutionary concerns and provocative confrontational strategies to the avant-gardes, some of them were not concerned with conflict and social upheaval but with the realization of alternative forms of communality in temporally and locally limited settings. As a consequence, they are quite similar to the micro-politics of later Relational Art. The Brazilian artists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, for example, already relied on participatory formats from the 1960s onwards—participatory formats, for instance, that were dedicated quite decidedly to pleasure. Challenging everyday routines, the space and time of their installations invited practices of “creleisure” (creation and leisure), which made relaxing, joyful, therapeutic, or liberating experiences possible. Clark also designed small, variably movable objects for finger games—so-called “Relational Objects”—as well as various structures made of fabrics, foils, and threads, some of which literally wrapped or connected the recipients with their bodies.

The diversity of art practices just mentioned not only anticipated some moments of Relational Aesthetics and questioned the horizon of the post-industrial globalised West. Moreover, they make it very clear that the relationship between art and life or art and politics can only be adequately analyzed in relation to individual case studies. Instead of referring to the obscure collective singulars of “art” and “life” or “politics,” it is much more illuminating to look at the geo-socio-historical situation of each specific aesthetic project in order to fathom its concrete preconditions, strategies, and references as well as the persons and publics involved. It is especially from a feminist perspective that Bourriaud’s historical and geo-political blindness as well as his generalizations prove to have seriously problematic consequences—not least with regard to an assessment of the artists he praises. Helena Reckitt, for instance, argues convincingly that his blanking out of the feminist avant-garde leads to a depoliticisation of those artistic approaches that Bourriaud ennobles as Relational Aesthetics (Reckitt 2013). Bourriaud completely neglects the fact that feminist and institution-critical artists have been pointing to violent preconditions of communities since the 1970s, namely their immanent hierarchies, concealed exclusions, and invisible supports. Bourriaud’s neglect of these artistic practices is all the more astonishing since the projects honoured by him involve, to a large extent, activities that are intimately related to the fields of affective and immaterial (care-)work. Relational Art is said to be communicative and caring; it nourishes, bestows, creates homeliness, and cultivates hospitality. It thus deals with a field of activities that for a long time has been considered to be “feminine,” at least until this field became the focus of feminist criticism. Thus, Bourriaud unsurprisingly overlooks or conceals artists such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who had already worked on challenges of communality decades ago and, what is more, in such a way that structural inequalities in the division of labour came to light and relationality did not remain a merely harmonious micro-gesture.

In closing, we would like to turn to another, less homogenizing version of Relational Aesthetics, namely the “Poetics of Relation by Martiniqueian poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant. Far from Bourriaud’s unifying ideal of “including the other,” Glissant pursues a co-constitutively heterogenising understanding of relationality. Focusing on colonial history and the post-colonial present, Glissant develops a concept of relationality according to which every subject is an object and every object a subject within a globalised world of “creolisations.” Creolisation does not designate fusion or integration but, rather, refers to encounters with unforeseeable potentials. If sustained by mutual appreciation of the heterogeneous elements such encounters have the potential to unfold diversity by transforming everything involved without uniforming it. In the eyes of Glissant, encounters are not only of relevance for former colonies such as the Antilles, where Creole language is spoken as a result of the sudden and violent encounter between different languages as part of the transatlantic slave trade. Much rather, creolisation also shapes what Glissant calls the “tout-monde” (whole-world) or “chaos-monde” (chaos-world), that is, the diversifying mixture of cultures that globally enfolds in open processes of “shock, entanglement, repulsions and attractions, consents, oppositions and conflicts” (1996, 82).

Relation is that which simultaneously realizes and expresses this motion. It is the chaos-mode relating (to itself). The poetics of Relation … senses, assumes, opens, gathers, scatters, continues, and transforms the thought of these elements, these forms, and this motion. (Glissant 1997a, 94f.)

Glissant connects the perception of such creolising relations to a heterogenising art practice because the potential of the imaginary allows us “to conceive the elusive globality of [the] chaos-monde” and to take note of particular details at the same time (1997b, 22). The poetics that ensues enables a diversified “aesthetics of the earth,” that interrupts the imperative, “triumphant voice” of Western abstract thinking. Pertaining to a materialism of encounter, which is historically specific as well as embodied and embraces more-than-human encounters, Glissant’s Poetics of Relation accounts for colonial-capitalist entanglements as well as for emancipatory and creative potentials of manifold creolisations. Through the detailed observation of a specific landscape—a beach at the south of Martinique that opens up a view on Diamond Rock for example—his own writing engages in a conversation with this land’s latencies and realises the thick presence of the specific place. His poetics of relation thus takes bodily encounters with worldly materiality as its starting point instead of writing as an individual author-subject that contemplates on the world. According to Glissant, it is the earth’s relationality that finds its expression through and within the poet’s encounter with a specific landscape. In this vein, he describes the painfully resonating encounter, that emerges from a land permeated by (post-)colonialism: “It is that here I am confronted with this necessity to exhaust all at once the deserted (devastated) field of history where our voice has dissipated, and to precipitate that voice into the here and now, into the history to be made with everyone” (Glissant 2010, 43).

Here Glissant’s endeavour meets Guattari’s New Aesthetic Paradigm as well as Donna Haraway’s call for a more-than-human Storytelling for Earthly Survival (see Terranova 2016). For all three of them, poetic practices are of vital importance because we (though this “we” is never without questions) urgently need “a better account of the world in order to live in it well” (Haraway 1988, 579). It is practices of poetics, to which Guattari, Haraway and Glissant assign the potential of a better, that is, situated, understanding of the world. Their poetics refer to an integrated aesthetic, epistemic, and ethical account that remains earth-bound and incomplete and that, at the same time, resists the uniforming globalisation through Western capitalism of which the institutionalised art field as well as aesthetics as a philosophical discipline are part and parcel.


Let us summarise what we have established in this chapter: canonical philosophical aesthetics, which should rather be addressed as Western aesthetics, has been linked to politics since its formation in the 18th century. The main reason for this close relation between Western aesthetics and politics is the fact that philosophical aesthetics, as well as the artistic practices canonised by such theory, played an important role in the formation of Western bourgeois societies. These societies were and are structured by capitalism’s manifold divisions of power along axes such as class, race, gender, or age, and they revolve around the assumption that so-called modern (as opposed to “primitive” or pre-modern) societies presuppose autonomous societal spheres like politics, science, art, or religion. Against this background it becomes more than understandable that aesthetic autonomy is such a contested concept. Whereas some theorists (e.g., Adorno or Rancière) claim that aesthetic autonomy should, and indeed can be used as a space of critique, others emphasise the harmlessness if not downright impotence of autonomous aesthetic practices (Benjamin, Brecht). In light of the myriads of repetitive debates for and against the political (or depoliticizing) potential of aesthetic autonomy, some aestheticians (e.g., Glissant or Guattari) have sought for a more radical alternative. Their suggestion is to widen the concept of aesthetics, so that it is no longer restricted to the confines of artworks and the field of art as a whole. Their proposal is to envision an aesthetics of sensual relations, oftentimes dubbed affections, that reach across the sphere of seemingly autonomous societal spheres and that transcend human relations as well. However, such thinking in terms of sensual relations is not entirely new. Traces of it can, for example, also be found in the writings of Baumgarten, who authored the first book on aesthetics.


Adorno, Theodor W. (1970) 1997. Aesthetic Theory. Edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor. London: Continuum.

Alberro, Alexander and Blake Stimson, eds. 2009. Institutional Critique. An Anthology of Artists’ Writings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Aristotle. (c. 350 BCE) 1996. Poetics. Translated by Malcolm Heath. London: Penguin.

Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb. (1750) 2007. Aesthetica/Ästhetik. Edited by Dagmar Mirbach. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag.

Benjamin, Walter. 1969. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations. Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, 217–252. New York: Schocken.

Benjamin, Walter. 1970. “The Author as Producer.” New Left Review I, no. 62 (July–August): 83–96.

Benjamin, Walter. 1972. “A Short History of Photography.” Screen 13, no. 1: 5–26. https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/13.1.5.

Bindman, David. 2002. Ape to Apollo. Aesthetics and the Idea of Race in the 18th Century. London: Reaktion Books.

Bishop, Claire. 2012. Artificial Hells. Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1992. Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Stanford: Sanford University Press.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. 2002. Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Les Presses du réel.

Brecht, Bertolt. (1930) 1998. “The Decision.” In Collected Plays. Three, edited by John Willet, 343–350. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Dewey, John. (1934) 1980. Art as Experience. New York: Perigree.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903) 2007. The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gilman, Sander L. 1975. “The Figure of the Black in German Aesthetic Theory.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 8: 373–39.

Gikandi, Simon. 2011. Slavery and the Culture of Taste. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Glissant, Édouard. 1996. Introduction á une Poétique du Divers. Paris: Gallimard.

Glissant, Édouard. 1997a. Poetics of Relation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Glissant, Édouard. 1997b. Traité du Tout-Monde. Paris: Gallimard.

Glissant, Édouard. 2010. Poetic Intention. New York: Nightboat Books.

Guattari, Félix. 1992. Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Hall, Stuart. 2007. “Encoding/Decoding.” In The Cultural Studies Reader, 3rd ed., edited by Simon During, 477–87. London and New York: Routledge.

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3: 575–599.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1823) 2014. Lectures on the Philosophy of Art. The Hotho Transcript of the 1823 Berlin Lectures. Edited and translated by Robert F. Brown. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kant, Immanuel. (1764) 2011. “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime.” In Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings, edited by Patrick Frierson and Paul Guyer, 11–62. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. (1790) 2008. Critique of Judgement. Translated by James Creed Meredith. Edited by Nicholas Walker. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lloyd, David. 2019. Under Representation: The Racial Regime of Aesthetics. New York: Fordham University Press.

Lowe, Lisa. 2015. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mörsch, Carmen. 2017. Die Bildung der Anderen mit Kunst: Ein Beitrag zu einer postkolonialen Geschichte der Kulturellen Bildung. Edited by Andrea Sabisch, Torsten Meyer, Heinrich Lüber, and Eva Sturm. Hamburg: Universitätsdruckerei Hamburg.

Mortensen, Preben. 1977. Art in the Social Order: The Making of the Modern Conception of Art. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1872) 1993. The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music. Edited by Michael Tanner. Translated by Shaun Whiteside. London: Penguin Books.

Rancière, Jacques. 2001. “Ten Theses on Politics.” Theory and Event 5, no. 3. http://www.after1968.org/app/webroot/uploads/RanciereTHESESONPOLITICS.pdf.

Rancière, Jacques. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics. The Distribution of the Sensible. New York: Continuum.

Rancière, Jacques. 2009. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso.

Raunig, Gerald. 2007. Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Reckitt, Helena. 2013. “Forgotten Relations. Feminist Artists and Relational Aesthetics.” In Politics in a Glass Case. Feminism, Exhibition Cultures and Curatorial Transgressions, edited by Angela Dimitrakaki and Lara Perry, 131–156. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Shusterman, Richard. 1993. “On the Scandal of Taste: Social Privilege as Nature in the Aesthetic Theories of Hume and Kant.” In Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics and the Reconstruction of Art, edited by Paul Mattick Jr., 96–119. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Terranova, Fabrizio, dir. 2016. Donna Haraway. Story Telling for Earthly Survival. New York: Icarus Films.

Woodmansee, Martha. 1994. The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics. New York: Columbia University Press.

  1. This is not meant to deny the fact that Greco-Roman culture engaged with questions of beauty, the arts, and aesthetic education so that one could, indeed, speak of Ancient Aesthetics even if this field had not yet been acknowledged as a sub-field of philosophy. Cf. Chapter 11 by Matthew Sharpe in this volume.
  2. However, we want to acknowledge that there are a number of passages in Kant’s Critique of Judgment that hint towards possible connections between the beautiful and the good, connections i.e., that are addressed as “hints,” “symbols,” or “analogies” and remain rather vague. Kant’s longing for such connections that, however, go against the grain of the book’s first part entitled “Analytic of the Beautiful,” figure prominently in the “Introduction” as well as in §§ 42 and 59.
  3. However, Kant will challenge, if not completely reject, this claim in his discussion of sensus communis (see next paragraph).
  4. In a similar vein, Bourdieu’s study The Rules of Art (1992) analyzes the emergence of the French art field and its institutions. However, in contrast to Gikandi’s and Mörsch’s accounts of the beginnings of English art institutions, aspects of coloniality are blatantly absent in Bourdieu’s book. On the other hand, we want to emphasise that contributions to institutional critique are not only to be found in the realm of theory. Much rather, institutional critique has become a major field of artistic practices in the 20th century (cf. Alberro and Stimson 2009).
  5. Theodor W. Adorno ([1970] 1997) holds a similar position.
  6. Following Aristotles’ Poetics that formulated rather strict rules of representation: what contents and forms were legitimate in what way to what ends (Aristotle [c. 350 BCE] 1996).
  7. Benjamin gave a new twist to the term “the auratic” or “aura.” He thinks of it as a quality that is attributed (in the quasi-religious experience of bourgeois contemplation) to a unique and unattainable artistic original. According to bourgeois aesthetic theory this original remains inaccessible while it is nevertheless present in space and time (“here and now”). As “the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be” (Benjamin 1969, 222), the aura of the work of art withers in the age of mechanical reproduction. Through mechanical reproduction, the presence of the original and the inaccessibility of its auratic authenticity is replaced by a multiplicity of reproductions and their potential “to meet the beholder halfway” (220). In relation to both space and time the seemingly distant original draws nearer to a mass audience.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Aesthetics and Politics by Ruth Sonderegger and Ines Kleesattel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.