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A beginner's approach to the Politics of Aesthetics

Nisha Kumari

It is of great importance to understand here that aesthetics is treated as a branch within the School of Philosophy dealing with art and beauty. Some separate Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art, where former is the study of beauty while the latter is the study of art. However, most commonly Aesthetics concerns both art and beauty.

We have always been told that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” and if you ever asked why, you were bombarded with heavy concepts like sublimity and immortality of art and beauty. In our Indian philosophy, the three ideals of life are “satyam, shivam, sundaram”. The western world has translated and accepted it as “truth, good, beauty”'. These are the ideals that one should strive for in their life and, even the attainment of one of them means attainment of all three as these are interrelated.

Satya hi Shiv hai, Shiv is Sundar hai. If you remember this song, I hope you know the movie too and how problematic is its depiction of the Indian standards of beauty (tongue-in-the-cheek); or for that matter, of most films of the Indian film industry. Ultimately, it will lead to salvation. It is the metaphysical aspect of beauty, attaching a sense of the sacred. But, behind all this, there lies an ugliness, a dangerous, cruel shadow that we are trying to decipher here and bring to the forefront.

When Plato condemns art for being entirely useless-- not entirely--but he does reserve some space for arts that sing praises of gods and heroes, misleading driving one's passions wild, he does and very firmly, however disdainfully, assert that “art is powerful”. Our concern here is with this power of art. What renders power to art? Or does something in power become art? What do we call beautiful or artistic? Who decides whether something is 'beauty' or not? Please question yourself if you have ever considered a person who does not conform to the set gender roles as beautiful? Take some time, and think. If you have, what are your ideas of beauty? And if you haven't, then too.

What appears beautiful to you? You can say that when you see, hear or feel something pleasant, you call it beautiful. But then is another dilemma whether beauty or art subjective to this very extent? If the answer is affirmative then there is no problem at all. I don’t like pineapple toppings on my pizza or I don’t like your handwriting. Is it this simple? We all know it is not. A statement like, “This is very beautiful” is a value-judgment. It is a normative rather than a descriptive statement. Thus, such a statement is based on a comparison in terms of a certain standard or norm. What appears like someone's whimsical opinion has its roots in deeper structures of belief that Terry Eagleton says, “are as unshakeable as the Empire State Building”. These deeper structures of beliefs are closely correlated to the social ideologies in power during the time. Such value-judgments are not private taste but are concerned with practices through which certain social groups exercise and maintain power over others.

When we regard something as artistic or beautiful, it is because we feel it and we feel because we perceive it. The idea of perceiving something has to do with what Jacques Rancière calls the “Distribution of the Sensible”. The distribution of sensible is a social and political system that states what are the things that are visible, audible, or sayable to the sensibilities of an individual and communities as a whole. Moreover, it also makes the other things invisible, inaudible, or unsayable respectively, snatching away their representation, and therefore, their identity. It is similar to saying, 'you are either with us or against us', and if you are against us, you don't exist. This system also decides what can be seen, said, or heard, and by whom.

This automatically creates a power structure and the 'others' that want to be visible, audible, or sayable need to disrupt this distribution of sensibilities. In other words, the distribution of the sensible is the norm or standard that a community follows; and clearly, these norms are established and regulated by those in power. Values are attributed very conveniently to something or someone who ally with the social and historical ideologies of the regime, and that which doesn't, is either reduced to nothing or left on the periphery.

When you perceive something as beautiful, we dismiss others, creating a social hierarchy. Politics is concerned with creating this distribution, and aesthetics has historically reinforced and affirmed this distribution of the sensible. In addition to this, it is this distribution of the sensible that renders power to aesthetics. If politics decides that fair skin is the object of perception, and dark skin is the object to dismiss, it is aesthetics that reinforces this very idea by stating that fair is beautiful and dark is ugly, making fair desirable and powerful over dark which is abhorring and subservient. Yes, the distribution of the sensible, and thus the norms of aesthetics change historically, but only because of political disruption. Black which was related to everything evil and dark, is now rephrased as “black is beautiful”.

But, deep down, we know that there are still miles to go and that these words still associate with their old interpretations. This idea can also be inverted to make what is in power, aesthetic. Power and politics use symbols to strengthen their control over people. The more aestheticized are the symbols, the greater impact these will have on people's perception and thus their minds. This is what we see in Fascism when a certain image or word is associated with goodness, sublimity, sacredness, and thus beauty as all are connected. Understand this with the aesthetics of the colour saffron over the green and try to evaluate the implicit power structure.

Another way of understanding the politics of aesthetics is through interpreting art forms. Why is ballet usually considered feminine and Carnatic music, a masculine, Brahmanical art form? Why is an epic or an ode respected and full of grandeur, while the lyric is unworthy and again, feminine? This is the politics of form. Carnatic music is one of the most elevated and respected forms of music in India, if not 'the most elevated and respected' because it is by the Brahmins and for the Brahmins. The space it has allocated for itself is the highest in the political structures of our country, and thus, the art form is the highest among other art forms. Epic and ode, because of their structure and subject matter have more to do with nation-building and politics than lyrics, and therefore, they are glorified. Also, only male poets have written epics, and there are very few poetesses who have written ode; whereas there have been quite a large number of female lyric poetesses. This explains the power divide.

Our perception is guided by the political distributions of the sensible that tell us what is appropriate for perceiving and how it has to be perceived. Therefore, if you haven't considered something as beautiful it is because you are conditioned to firstly not even see them. And if you have thought of something or someone as beautiful, it is maybe because you are aware to see the pains they have tolerated, and you pity them or find yourself lucky enough. Despite hesitation and apprehensions on what is perceived as beautiful or not, one needs to read themselves and their world against the grain.


About the author:

Nisha is a graduate student of English, she is a passionate literature student and a connoisseur of all things English and Literature!


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