PRINT December 1990


Art and Politics

BOTH THE ARTIST and the politician are people who do things to be exhibited in public. To Plato, in fact, “art” and “politics” were two words for the same thing. If we no longer quite share his opinion (though some of us may agree that politics is an art), it is at least partly because we no longer despise art quite as much as he did.

Plato held art and politics in contempt not because both are exhibitionists—as far as we know, he had no objection to prostitution—but because both try to impose ideas. That must involve adapting the idea to whatever it is imposed on. To Plato, the adaptation was always a betrayal. Draw a triangle, and the sum of its angles is never exactly 180°. Impose a supposedly ideal political state on people, and somehow or other it ends up not so ideal after all. To see this proven, Plato had only to look at the idea before it was imposed, and then to compare it with what the artist or politician had done to it. An artisan’s table could never be as perfect as the ideal, Platonic table. To look at ideas before they were mishandled was called “theory,” and revealed true ideas, and to look at them afterward was called “opinion.” Plato despised both art and politics because they led to opinions, the opposite of wisdom. The lover of wisdom, the “philosopher,” was the only critic of art and politics (the same thing called by different names), because he was the only one with access to true ideas.

Consider the procedure of the Platonic critic: a marketplace is surrounded by houses. Inside the houses are people who impose ideas on things—they take the idea of a pot, for instance, and impose it on clay, or the idea of a shoe and impose it on leather. Then they exhibit their work at their front doors. This they do because they want to exchange it for some other kind of work, the pot, say, for the shoe. The marketplace thus becomes an art forum. (Excuse the pun.)

But what criteria govern the exchange of the pot for the shoe? How does one know how many shoes the pot is worth? Enter the critic, who understands the ideas of the pot and the shoe, knows to what extent the work mishandles them, and thus knows the objects’ value. So the critic (the philosopher) walks to and fro through the art forum, fixing values. He governs the marketplace—he is king of the city. (Of course his authority on pots and shoes extends also to matters political.)

Artists and politicians would submit to the judgment of the Platonic philosopher whether they liked it or not. They had no better criteria, and also the alternative would have been to fight it out among themselves. Take the medieval European town, ruled by the Church. Every day except Sunday it opened its gates to laborers from the surrounding fields, bringing eggs, say, and flour. They would line up the products of their economy on one side of the marketplace, opposite the pots and shoes. Then the philosopher, the bishop, would step out of his cathedral and walk through the square. The artisans and farmers must have had their own ideas about prices, but in any dispute the bishop’s word was law—he was the only authorized critic, the king of the city, and if his authority was contested, there was war between town and field, and between the various neighborhoods that housed the different trades. Thus criticism was a question of life and death, and the word of the theoretical, authorized critic was accepted “catholically,” by everyone.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, however, the artisans rebelled against the philosophers, and deposed them. For the philosophers had arrived at a disagreement as to how true ideas were to be examined. One school, the realists, argued that ideas may be discovered through logic, and the other, the nominalists, thought that ideas revealed themselves only through faith (sola fide). If authorities quarrel, how can all their criteria be valid? The artisans and merchants took over the government of the city. Politics submitted theory to its purpose. For artisans believe not that they are betraying ideas but that they are inventing better ones, ideas that may themselves be progressively improved upon as they are imposed on different objects and people. The purpose of theory is to supply the artisans with ever better models. The result of this revolutionary submission of theory to action is modern science and technology.

Now what did this do to the philosophers, or, in their modern name, to the intellectuals? They were expelled from government, and enclosed instead in universitylike ghettos where politicians paid them to come up with new models. And the politicians divided them into two classes: one was to produce models that were useful (scientists, technicians, city planners), the other was to produce models that might amuse the politicians in their leisure hours (“artists”—philosopherlike artisans, and more useless, though more entertaining, than either). Today’s intellectuals are servants and clowns. But the ghetto posed a problem: what could be done to stop the intellectuals from sneaking out of it, and back into politics? The politicians’ solution was to surround the ghetto with an aura of glamour, to give intellectuals “status.” The “great scientist” would become childlike in the face of the world. The “great artist” would live in splendid isolation.

This was not the perfect solution, however. The useful intellectuals, the scientists, kept on believing that what they were after were “true ideas,” not just ways to improve industrial production. And the useless intellectuals, the artists, kept on believing that what they were after were models for new experiences (aisthesthai, to experience), not just decor. This was dangerous, since the scientist might come up with models of industrial production and of government that would render the politicians useless, and the artists might prove that work was not the only source of value, and therefore that the artisan, the industrialist, was not necessarily the best person to be king of the city. The academic ghetto, in fact, created a counterrevolutionary climate, for the intellectuals never really accepted their loss of power. And the artists in the modern sense of the term—the clowns—soon opposed themselves to the artists in the classical sense (the artisans, now industrialists and politicians). This had become quite obvious by the Romantic period, when the artist and poet children of industrialists took to advocating industry’s abolition. Some of them even preferred to die of tuberculosis in the garrets of the industrial towns than to submit wittingly to their clownship. Yet don’t artists do exactly what industrialists and politicians do—impose their ideas on things? What, after all, is the ontological difference between a plastic fountain pen and a painting, or a piece of music? Aren’t both the results of the imposition of ideas upon some matter—the results of a “political” opinion?

How curious. The moment that artists become kings, transforming themselves into industrialists, they create a new type of artist, their clown. But the clown denies them the right to judge him or her, submitting instead to theoretical, philosophical criticism. This sounds very funny, of course, but it is a crucial aspect of the present situation. We see another significant phenomenon if we move from the “useless” to the “useful” intellectual, for we find that work too has been divided into two different gestures, “soft” and “hard.” The soft gesture explores symbols so as to spin out new models, and the hard imposes these models upon matter. The soft gesture is executed by thinkers—whom, in the end, we really must call “artists”—equipped with computers and similar apparatuses. The hard gesture, more and more, is executed not by people but by machines.

In this transformation of work, several aspects are striking. First, the actual imposition of form upon material has become mostly a mechanical rather than a human gesture. Second, people who use symbols to make models—the programmers, or the software people—are both artists (because they handle ideas) and philosophers (because they no longer apply those ideas physically). And third, there is not much sense in trying to classify intellectuals into useful and amusing ones, because the models now elaborated on computers are not only “scientific and technical” but also “artistic.”

Neither Plato nor the politicians, then, have correctly anticipated the present situation. For today’s intellectuals both contemplate forms, living in “theory,” and handle them as well (on the computer screen). These people are artists become philosophers, or philosophers become artists. At the same time, they work without necessarily owning any machines, and without having left their ghetto. All of a sudden we have people who prove that though “theory” and “art” may fuse, “art” and “politics” may be two different ways of life altogether.

It sounded funny, a few paragraphs earlier, when I said that the artist submitted to theoretical criticism. It no longer sounds so funny, for what it means is that the artist—the programmer of work, and therefore of life—is also the theoretician. Working with computers, artists can submit their models to their own theoretical criticism before feeding them to machines that transform them into hard matter. If so, then art criticism no longer steps in after the work is done, but is part and parcel of the work’s project, its program. So this is the emerging situation: artists, people who handle forms with a view to applying them, now govern the city. They are called “systems analysts,” “futurologists,” “technocrats,” “media people,” and so forth. They govern not by applying their models directly but by programming machines (and getting other people) to do the work. In this sense are they philosophers: they contemplate forms, and have a theoretical vision. Politicians may not be aware of it yet, but they have become automatons programmed by these philosopher artists. This is why we no longer agree when Plato puts art and politics in the same bag: politics have been deposed, and art governs the city.

Vilém Flusser is a teacher of communications at Sao Paulo University and at the École Nationale de la Photographie, Arles. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.