The politics of equal aesthetic rights

Dossier: Spheres of action - Art and politics

RP 137 () / Article, Dossier, Spheres of action - Art and politics

Art and politics are connected in one fundamental respect: both are realms in which a struggle for recognition is being waged. As defined by Alexandre Kojève in his commentary on Hegel, this struggle for recognition surpasses the usual struggle for the distribution of material goods, which in modernity is generally regulated by market forces. What is at stake here is not merely that a certain desire be satisfied but that it is also recognized as socially legitimate. Whereas politics is an arena in which various group interests have, both in the past and the present, fought for recognition, artists of the historical avant-garde have contended for the recognition of all individual forms and artistic procedures that were not previously considered legitimate. Indeed, the historical avantgarde has opened up the potentially infinite horizontal field of all possible real and virtual forms endowed with equal aesthetic rights. One after another, so-called primitive imagery, abstract images and simple objects from everyday life have all acquired the kind of recognition that once used to be granted only to certain privileged images and objects.

Both forms of struggle for equality – political and aesthetic – are intrinsically bound up with each other, and both have the goal of achieving a situation in which all people with their various interests, as indeed also all forms and artistic practices, will finally be granted equal rights. But, clearly, such a condition of total equality has de facto never been attained, either in the political or in the artistic realm. Contemporary art, like contemporary politics, still operates in the gap between formal equality and factual inequality. So the question arises, what are the mechanisms of this inequality – how we can define them and deal with them if we want to keep the promise of equality given by the historical avant-garde?

When the avant-garde started its struggle against aesthetic inequality, it was the museum that was considered the main enemy, as a place of inequality par excellence. The museums were perceived as guardians of the old privileges, as the places of the Romantic iconophilia admiring the masterpieces of the past and preventing the emergence of the new, as the churches of the new religion of art with its strange rituals and esoteric conventions – closed spaces where the initiated few decided the fate of art beyond any democratic discussion and control. Accordingly, the avant-garde understood itself as an iconoclastic movement, as an attempt to secularize and democratize art in the name of equal aesthetic rights. Such appeals and demands have meanwhile become quite commonplace, even to the extent of now being regarded as a cardinal feature of contemporary art – they remain, of course, in many ways still legitimate. But the question arises, is the museum today still the central place of contemporary iconophilia and the origin of contemporary aesthetic inequality? Is the struggle that is directed against the museum – and the art institutions connected with the museum – truly iconoclastic under the contemporary aesthetic regime? Personally, I doubt it.

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