The Aesthetic and the Political: Unearthing our Common Pulse

Искусство. Letras. 艺术. L’art.アート. कला. Art.

Although different signifiers, with a slightly different etymology, these words are irrevocably united by what they signify: a human creation fundamentally concerned with humanity, reality and the state of our world.

This snapshot of languages displays the universality of art: the power it possesses to break down barriers that divide us by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion and class. Art, be it in any form, possesses an emotional power that probes into the human condition and questions the status quo. By deconstructing social barriers, and presenting all humans as innately equal, such probing strips back our so-called “reasoning” that often leads us down the rabbit-hole of rationalising inequality and injustice. It then crosses into the political sphere, primarily by way of social commentary and discussions on internalised power structures.

Art stems from the imagination and can therefore evoke empathy and force the audience to consider the lives of others. Indeed, Hannah Arendt recognises the power of the imagination in the political sphere, believing that it has the particular ability of distilling our idiosyncrasies and highlighting the common pulse that beats through all of us.

By engaging us on an emotional and intellectual level, art has the potential to entice us and draw us into a deeper discussion of social inequality. For some people, it merely reinforces what is already known, reminding of the need for continual action for change. For others, it can induce exposure to new worlds, forcing a consideration of the situation of others and expediating the process of empathy that facilitates change.

Studying Literature, I am continually reminded of the empowering intersection of the aesthetic and the political. Art is fundamentally concerned with aesthetic experimentation, which is a far greater task than just creating something aesthetically pleasing. The modernist movement, for example, sought to revive literature (particularly the poetic and novel form), to, as Era Pound famously declares, ‘make it new’. Virginia Woolf’s quintessentially modernist novel To the Lighthouse, for example, plays with free indirect discourse and ‘multipersonal representation of consciousness’, radically altering the novel structure. It also provides a social commentary that deftly deconstructs the gender expectations of the time, illustrating that even with a focus on reviving the beauty of art, political statements cannot be avoided.

No artist and artwork exists in a vacuum, even if the artist wishes to create their artwork for purely aesthetic reasons. Further, what is characterised as beautiful is not only context-dependent, but is itself a political statement. This is especially clear in our present-day, image-saturated and beauty-obsessed society. Context, whether explicit or implicit, is innately encapsulated in the creation. Even the artist’s wish to defy a political interpretation of their work is, in itself, a political statement.
Artworks immediately achieve what political groups and politicians labour to do: they speak to us first through our emotions, and then on an intellectual level. In so doing, art highlights the thread that weaves through all of us, the common pulse of our humanity. To steal Miranda’s words from The Tempest, artworks, particularly literature and film, can shine light on ‘How beauteous mankind is!’ and open our eyes to this ‘brave new world’.

Of course, this is not to suggest that art doesn’t explore the darker side of humanity. Great artworks discuss the flaws of humanity, expose them and play with possible solutions. Art can act as a caution; a foreshadowing of the depravity that threatens humanity. Literature, and particularly speculative fiction and science fiction, is notable for this – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are just a few famous examples. By extrapolating real events in a creative manner, we become mere puppets in the hands of these authors. A twist in our favourite character’s fate tugs our heart strings, and makes us realise that what is happening within this text is not abstract from our world. The Handmaid’s Tale, made more famous by the TV adaptation, does just this. Drawing upon the Puritan movement within the United States, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and Christianity as a whole, Atwood constructs a neatly crafted, albeit horrifying, situation. Although it initially appears so extreme that we place it in the abstract realm of fantasy, on further reading it becomes all too evident that such restrictions on women’s movement have happened in the past, and, more alarmingly, are continuing to happen today.

Yet it is not just the ability to discuss current affairs that gives art its unique powers. It is the potential to create a controlled scenario in which a certain element of the human condition can be explored. For example, within The Handmaid’s Tale, humanity’s hubris and our desire to ensure the continuation of the human species is played with, ultimately resulting in an analysis of power dynamics that run along gender and class lines. Especially within literature, relatable human characters evoke empathy, taking us on a journey into the human condition. This emotional engagement further reinforces our common pulse and can act as a galvanising force to initiate change. Beyond this political power that art, sometimes unconsciously, wields, art is intrinsic to our nature. As Doris Lessing suggests ‘the storyteller is deep inside every one of us’, natured by our imaginations that ‘shape us, keep us, create us’. Given that art is inherently human, it is a powerful tool for bridging the gap between abstract political statements that allude to the need for change and actual change. By engaging us on an emotional level and forcing as to realise the thread that binds all of us, art has a galvanising power that can prompt social change.

Art is the culmination of our attempts to speak of our times of trial; our attempts to connect with others in this world. I fundamentally believe that art, as the intersection of beauty and social commentary, has an immensely powerful role to play in deconstructing social divisions.