The subtitle of this blog is “aesthetics and politics.” What does that mean, exactly? A set of recent events has made me reconsider how I understand that phrase. The relationship between art and politics, as it has been articulated in this blog, is idiosyncratic and inconsistent, partly because my own understanding of the relationship is idiosyncratic and inconsistent, and partly because art and politics don’t always related to each other in the way. Sometimes the relationship is straightforward. The Charlie Hebdo incident is one such example because its journalists and cartoonists place art in the service of political satire. Just as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were so intense they became something else–politics–the intensity of the religious extremists who opposed them also exposed their true form: Religion was just a cover for politics.
One day someone drew a picture, and a short time later they were shot dead for drawing the picture. Art and politics doesn't get any clearer than that. Other times the relationship is harder to uncover, and that’s when things get really interesting.
Walter Benjamin is an obvious influence in these investigations. He looked for politics in the most least likely places they could appear. Starting with his early essay (1914), "Two Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin," Benjamin decided to approach lyric poetry as a political subject. What could be more apolitical than lyric poetry? Benjamin flatly rejected Nietzsche’s description of lyric poetry as a means for the poet to play “the entire chromatic scale of his passions and desires.” Benjamin read Charles Baudelaire as a lyric poet who created verse that embodied the contradictions of high capitalism, meaning the early, more localized forms of capitalism before the mass industrialization and mass culture of monopoly capitalism in Benjamin’s own day. Baudelaire represented the artist free to pursue his or her own inclinations in an age of repeated failed social revolutions. In the mid-nineteenth century writers were exploring new ways to be free. At the same time, however, their readers struggled to find any means to create their own individuality in the midst of rapid industrialization and expanded state power. Baudelaire’s poems were produced by a new way of looking made possible by capitalism. Poems, and therefore poets, were commodities in the marketplace, but they entered the market under protest. Baudelaire gave voice to new experiences in the developing cities of capitalism: getting jostled by the crowd, seeing the same disgusting old man appear over and over again in the streets, window shopping for commodities in poor taste, eyeing prostitutes—and recognizing the poet shares her position in the economic order. Baudelaire used the forms of lyric poetry but without the interiority. He replaced the chromatic scale of feeling with shock experience.
Benjamin studied Baudelaire during the rise of fascism, which threatened to take over all of European culture, high and low alike. Thus it was easy—and urgent—for Benjamin to see politics everywhere. Baudelaire wrote at the beginning of an historical process that seemed to be culminating in Benjamin's time. But it isn’t 1936 anymore. What’s the relationship between aesthetics and politics when digitization threatens to take over all Western culture and commerce? Does Walter Benjamin have anything to say about these conditions?
More on this subject tomorrow.