Political Aesthetics in the Public Square

by
May 4, 2014

Monty Python has a memorable skit where a man walks into an office and informs the secretary that he would “like to have an argument.” She directs the man to an individual who has a different understanding of argument than what he has in mind. For the next few minutes he encounters a man who wants to have an argument as well, only he thinks “argument” consists in only speaking in disagreement to the first gentlemen, who sees an argument as a “collective series of states to establish a definite proposition.” He ends up leaving the discussion frustrated and encounters a few more gentlemen before the skit ends. The upshot of the skit (besides it being funny) is that words can mean two different things despite being used by interlocutors. So what happens when you try to take two loaded concepts, combine them, and appeal for a study of them together?

The concept of aesthetics is one that can carry baggage with it. On the one hand, it is laden with concepts and ideas that seem foreign to the average layman. Even to the trained aesthete they are fraught with mixture. Furthermore, the study of aesthetics itself has taken various ranges of meaning from the evaluation of beauty and taste to an investigation into the very nature of goodness, beauty and truth. Some theologians and philosophers have discounted the pure pursuit of aesthetics (Kant and Barth) while others have attempted to appropriate the good of aesthetics into their theology (Von Balthasar).

The concept of politics is as old as Socrates but carries significant baggage with it as well. The word itself has become a pejorative term that is thrown around as an adjective for all things unwholesome. It is more often describing paltry public policies than it is the study of the very nature of statecraft.

So what would one mean by political aesthetics? Often when discussing this area the general framework centers on how politics have used the arts as agitprop. While that can be a helpful endeavor to pursue, there is something different in mind by this article’s use of political aesthetics.

There are several ways you could define it, but this one may suffice: political aesthetics is the study and evaluation of political ideologies and systems as an aesthetic. That is to say, evaluating the ethos, environment and expressions of a political ideology and their judgments. This endeavor can include various and sundry pursuits that cannot be explored here, but it takes into account not merely textual representations of ideologies, though that is a major factor, but also the way in which those textual evidences are read and received.

What form of environment is built around such texts? How do those texts engender a judgment on beauty? Truth? How does someone represent his or her ideological commitments? Crispin Sartwell wrote a book called Political Aesthetics, which to my knowledge is one of the very few (if not only) works that trades in this discussion. However, he never directly deals with contemporary ideologies.

Yes, political ideologies have beliefs that must be attended to, concepts that must be teased out, and arguments that must be discussed. But I would suggest that in the midst of all of that, there should be a discussion of the overall aesthetic that is offered by a political ideology. This includes not only the textual references attached to such ideologies, but the surrounding by which they build, create and encourage. The architecture of an event, building or structure that is connected to a political ideology speaks volumes of the aesthetic they seek to build long before any words are spoken from the podium. When they are spoken, and spoken powerfully, the words are heard with a different perspective. Indeed, they are heard with their ears, but also are seen with their eyes in the surroundings. They understand that changing a culture requires more than mere words, but that words can be powerfully attuned to speak at a louder decibel when an aesthetic environment is constantly nourishing the words spoken.

This is nothing new. Nazi Germany understood that to truly change the hearts and minds of the people, it would take more than brute force. It takes a culture, an aesthetic environment that will allow the movement to have the forza needed to truly build the culture they so desired. The same thing happens today, minus the overt malevolence.

Take for example, modern American liberalism. In 2012 the Democratic National Convention was held in Charlotte, North Carolina. Speech after speech, rally after rally, a common theme was woven throughout: the President respects the rights of women to choose their own reproductive rights.

When the party platform was adopted with an “unequivocal” support of a woman’s right to choose abortion, regardless of a woman’s ability to pay, this sets a tone and ethos to the environment that is inescapably connected to the larger issue at hand. It is not merely the textual evidence that brings about this environment, but it is also the way in which it is received. It is why, long before the convention, this aesthetic was already set in stone. Case in point: Planned Parenthood began a campaign where “Pillamina,” a woman dressed as a giant package of birth control pills, would follow the Romney campaign on several stops opposing his view of the contraceptive mandate.

If aesthetics is the assessment of what is beauty, then the judgment in this respect has to be that modern American liberalism finds the culture of abortion on demand to be a more beautiful environment than a culture that is not like that. But I would suggest that it is more than mere abortion that is at play. To think this is merely about abortion is to miss the forest for the trees. The backdrops behind abortion on demand are particular concepts of freedom and autonomy. Freedom, in this context, is expressed by limiting restraint on what one can or cannot do with one’s own body. This desire becomes the driving force behind the constant euphemisms used to express a desire for complete bodily autonomy. As stated before, texts can be judged, not merely by their words, but also by their reception. The drumbeat of autonomy and freedom for women’s rights to abortion appropriate a value judgment even further than merely abortion; it is also a judgment on what “family” should look like: celebrated only under certain proper conditions, rather than as the basic social unit for a society.

To wit, liberalism often scoffs at the traditional nuclear family, either because it is too homogenized or because it represents to them something that they assume is part of a bygone culture, something that they hope becomes more textbook than reality. Indeed, it is an ugly thing to them it seems. Once again, this is driven by text and rhetoric, but reinforced by the aesthetics surrounding it. This is the investigation of political aesthetics.

The Church understands that we all live in particular cultures that have value judgments on what is beautiful, true and real. It even understands the importance of culture, and she should speak into it as often as she has the opportunity. Prince Myskin, the main character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, remarked that “beauty will save the world.” This prophetic word, coming from the idiot prince, is a clearer picture of beauty than anything that is surrounding us today. Indeed, the wisdom of the world is confounded by the wisdom of God. In this wisdom, we find beauty. We find that the lowliest of us all can represent beauty to the world unlike anything they know.

The church may humbly express to the world that the beauty which they seek is not a place, idea or even system. Rather, it is ultimately found in a Person. This man, the epitome of Beauty, is found not in the appropriation of freedom or the celebration of autonomy, but on the road to Golgotha, where we can walk to die a death that brings us life.


Bryan Baise
Bryan Baise is assistant professor and program director of Worldview and Apologetics at Boyce College. He serves as research fellow at the ERLC, and is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Southern Seminary.