Politicize Aesthetics, Don’t Aestheticize Politics

It’s worth remembering the following passage from Walter Benjamin’s classic essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

“Fiat ars—pereat mundus” says fascism, expecting from war, as Marinetti admits, the artistic gratification of sense perception altered by technology.  This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art.  Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for Olympian gods, has now become one for itself.  Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own alienation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.  Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism.  Communism replies by politicizing art. (p. 122)

Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 3, 1935-1938. (Edmund Jephcott and Howard Eiland, Trans.). Harvard University Press, 2002.

The moral of the story is that the simple implosion of politics and aesthetics is equivocal.  Smooshing them together isn’t inherently beneficial.  The distinction between aestheticized politics and politicized aesthetics is crucial.  The same holds true for the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, a relationship that just about everybody has thought of in terms of the portmanteau, “aesthethics.”  On that note, I’m interested to see how the implosion of the aesthetic and the ethical is figured in the new anthologyAesth/Ethics in Environmental Change: Hiking through the arts, ecology, religion and ethics of the environment, edited by Sigurd Bergmann, Irmgard Blindow, and Konrad Ott (LIT Verlag 2013).

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