Content Warning: This piece contains mention of gun violence.
Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times columnist and Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Visiting Professor of Irish Letters, presented his talk “Against Artfulness” on Wednesday, November 9 at an event hosted by the Tanner Lectures on Human Values. O’Toole discussed how aestheticized politics, or the use of artistic tools for political gain, has contributed to the democratic backsliding of Western countries in the 21st century.
O’Toole’s presentation was followed by two presentations by University of Pennsylvania art and history professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw and Wendy Brown, UPS Foundation Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the Institute of ‘Advanced Studies (IAS).
O’Toole opened his talk by observing that, despite the democratization of art and image-making in the digital age, the effects of these aesthetic processes “are not necessarily good for democracy.”
His argument is based on Walter Benjamin’s 1968 articulation of the dangers of aestheticized politics, which, as O’Toole summarizes, states that “the more political life resembles art, the more fascist it becomes “.
To illustrate this, O’Toole introduced what he considers “the final stage of the aestheticization of politics,” where political actors seek to invalidate the horrors of real-life atrocities by accusing them of being art. fictitious He noted that images of children separated from their parents at the border emerged in 2018 and that Ann Coulter dismissed their plight when she called them “child actors.” A similarly false accusation has been made against the victims of mass school shootings.
O’Toole argued that the positioning of tragedies on a pole, where the victims are actors and where nightmare scenarios are staged, is the kind of Orwellian aestheticized politics that endangers the very meaning of truth.
“What you see didn’t happen. It was all an act. It’s all art,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole continued his talk by focusing on the “five essential tools of art,” which he said, “have been colonized by the political realm.”
In particular, he introduced the ability of visionary artists to induce suspensions of disbelief, citing talented novelists who encourage the expansion of the imagination with their works. In today’s politics, however, O’Toole said this tool is being manipulated by populist politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to mislead large sections of the population.
“Not disbelieving is not at all the same psychological condition as believing,” he said. “Did Trump’s supporters really believe he was going to build a wall around the entire southern border or move the coal mines to Appalachia? Mostly not. They chose, rather, not to disbelieve. The suspension of disbelief is no longer ‘use not to enlarge the mind, but to narrow it,’ said O’Toole.
O’Toole also articulated how the age of television and social media has encouraged political candidates to project a sincere and likable persona. However, for the media-savvy population, this presentation is increasingly scrutinized as a form of manufactured authenticity. Furthermore, O’Toole pointed out that this phenomenon can backfire on politicians and have dangerous consequences.
“I think a large number of citizens of democracies have come to the conclusion that, since all politicians present fictitiously sincere versions of themselves, those who lie most openly must be the most authentic,” he explained. Since every politician is branded a liar, “he who lies least artfully must be the most sincere.”
This allows “weeping demagogues” to project their transgressions because, according to O’Toole, “the louder the whining, the more authentic it is taken.”
After her presentation, art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw took the stage to discuss how she reconciled her professional duties to preserve works of art with her passion for social justice in the context of the removal of Confederate statues and the recent controversial protests by climate activists with artwork. .
The discussion concluded with political theorist Wendy Brown’s response to O’Toole’s discussion of the fascist potential of art. Brown demonstrated the revolutionary potential of art by highlighting the use of the song “Baraye” to rally support for the Iranian “Woman, Life, Liberty” protest movement.
The event took place on November 9 at 4.30 pm in the Friends Centre. It marked the first part of two events featuring O’Toole and his commentary on aestheticized politics, the second of which was held on Thursday 10 November.
Ngan Chiem is a senior writer at ‘Prince’. Send correction requests to email@example.com.