06 September 2008

"Esthetic Politics?"

"In the end, "esthetic politics" is a disaster for both of the fields
that
it claims to bring together." ~ Ben Davis

The late Richard Rorty drew a distinction between "real" and "academic" politics. He was - uncharacteristically - derisive about the latter, insisting that instead of engaging in, advising, or supporting political campaigns that might in one or another way improve the lot of regular people, academics had focused, over the course of several post-1960s decades, mostly on "taking over the English department." It's not that Rorty thought that accomplishment wholly without merit; it's just that he thought it fell well short of actual political impact outside the academy. Unsurprisingly, lots of academics took umbrage at this. By and large, though, I think Rorty had the better of the argument.

In this an incisive critical essay at Artnet, Ben Davis draws something like the very same distinction as Rorty with respect to recent academic/art world hand-wringing over various political matters such as torture, war, and racism. Davis argues that instead of having an impact in the real world that most people inhabit, "esthetic politics" is pretty much vacuous and self-absorbed, encouraging disengagement (whether ironic or cynical or despairing), and so, not just beside the point of progressive politics, but an active threat to it. Just so.
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Full Disclosure: Karen Beckman and some of the contributors to the October #123 issue whom Davis challenges are my former friends and colleagues.

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