Aestheticizing Politics Could Improve Our Public Lives

I have said before, quoting Joseph Brodsky, that poetry is first and foremost a sentimental education. It shows us things outside our superficial or even analytical purview, elucidating subtle gestures and intimations of the spirit that go unnoticed as we glide through our days. Poetry has the ability to liberate the subconscious of our perceptions and alight the palimpsest left by existence. But does this specific quality of poetry have a place outside the private sphere? Can it activate our public lives, that is to say our politics, in any way?

Irish poet Derek Mahon says, “a good poem is a paradigm for good politics,” which has the obvious, technical interpretation: the tightness of a good poem mimics responsible, robust behavior by the government. But it could also relate to the idea of aestheticizing politics, of incorporating a set of artistic and sentimental values into the public sphere. The Trump presidency seems to beg for aestheticization, if only for the term’s insinuation of thought and attention. It is an interesting question to ponder: would an aesthetic sensitivity heighten our empathy and form generous, encompassing policy, or would it bog us down in a world of interpersonal myopia? Like most things, and in a conventional political moment, the answer seems to be a little of both. The politician eats at the local BBQ joint to interact with the “people,” to bring the thinking and politicking down to earth and hopefully pull from this reality a well-rounded policy.

But aestheticization does not just mean an unsentimental intellect peppered with fellow-feeling; aestheticization means knowledge of an artistic heritage and tradition, an art historical sensitivity that informs a present idea of beauty. Although attention to beauty could seem irrelevant, and likely to devolve into vague idealities and political abstraction, the connotation is that beauty can spawn decency. Viewing politics aesthetically could remold the mind to become benignly aspirant, supplanting the Nietzschean will to power with acute, sentimental policy.

Walter Benjamin would say this utopian idea curdles into fascist ideology, as regimes aestheticize politics to make violence acceptable. In his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he contests that aestheticization’s inevitable result is war. Benjamin thinks our immature tendency is to apply aesthetics to normalize regime violence. Marinetti, leader of the Futurist movement, says “war is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery,” claiming war’s mechanization of the human body, as well as its unique architecture of destruction, constitutes an aesthetic position. While it is impossible to distill Benjamin here, he claims this aestheticization results from a society inadequately “mature” to incorporate technology into life, that technology has not been “sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society.” Here we receive the fait accompli that is our warped and wicked nature, utilizing neutral inventions to force our violent ends. Benjamin thinks an aestheticization of politics becomes a methodological legitimation for fascist regimes, and only illustrates the human lag behind technological production.

And Benjamin remains, to an extent, correct. The jingoistic tendencies in the United States stem from an abstract fetishization of violence, seen in our love for military appendages that surpasses any logical, defensive need for them. We arm ourselves like we’re in The Wild Bunch because it seems artful, idealized and heroic. Guns pervade our lives and exist almost purely in an aesthetic mode, and the “aesthetic weapon” manipulates the psyche for its own perpetuation, building unrealities to defend against and transposing spurious paranoia into permissive policy. We deal with the repercussions of this aestheticization on what seems like a daily basis, yet we cannot extricate ourselves from it because it has woven itself into the fictional narrative of our lives, and subjectivity dictates that fiction has always held more water than fact.

Yet I can never entirely dismiss the incorporation of the artistic mien into politics, if only because I think it would bring in the ends, sensitizing our intellect to realize that extremes are usually untenable limitations. Brodsky puts it well when he amalgamates the aesthetic disposition with reality, saying, “the comprehension of the metaphysics of personal drama betters one’s chances at weathering the drama of history.” I think so, too, I just hope we aren’t already in the final act.