A beginner’s approach to the Politics of Aesthetics

Nisha Kumari

It is crucial to understand 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 heard time and again that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” and if we have ever asked the reason for it, we were bombarded with heavy concepts like sublimity and immortality of art and beauty. In Indian philosophy, the three ideals of life are stated to be: “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. 

If you remember the title song of the movie Satyam Shivam Sunadaram, the opening lyric “Satya hi Shiv hai, Shiv is Sundar hai,” strikes a chord with the discourse around aesthetics. The movie, while it is problematic due to its depiction of the Indian standards of beauty (tongue-in-the-cheek); or for that matter, most films of the Indian film industry are entrapped into it. Ultimately, it will lead to salvation. It is the metaphysical aspect of beauty, attaching some aspect of sacred within it. But, behind all this, there lies an ugliness, a 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, as being misleading that drives 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 beautiful or not? We need to question ourselves constantly and unlearn the stereotypical standards of beauty. For example, our society has reified formulaic ideas of beauty wherein they are hesitant to name anything and anyone who deviates from their stereotyped appearances as beautiful. We need to take some time, and ponder upon it. If you have judged too, then what are your ideas of beauty? And if you haven’t, then question those too.

I believe that when you see, hear or feel something pleasant, you call it beautiful. But another dilemma haunts me, if whether beauty or art is subjective to that great an extent where it is almost inconclusive. If the answer is in the affirmative then there is no problem at all.

Simple statements like – I don’t like pineapple toppings on my pizza or I don’t like your handwriting. But is it this simple? We all know that it is not. The very statement, “This is very beautiful” is a value-judgment. It is 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”. There lies deeper structures of beliefs are closely correlated to the social ideologies in power during that period.  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 and we feel because we perceive it so. The idea of perceiving something has to do with what Jacques Rancière calls the “Distribution of the Sensible”. he defines it as “the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it.” The distribution of sensible is a social and political system which states that things visible, audible, or sayable to the sensibilities of an individual and the community 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. Certain 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 create a social hierarchy. Politics is concerned with creating this distribution, and aesthetics has historically reinforced and affirmed this distribution of the sensible. Additionally, 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.

Deep within we know that there are still miles to go and that certain words are still associated with their old interpretations. This idea can also be inverted to make what is in power is 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, and sacredness, which are all connected. For example, we can understand this with the aesthetics of the colour saffron over the green and try to evaluate the implicit power structure inherent within the dynamics of colours and perception.

Another way of understanding the politics of aesthetics is through interpreting art forms. Why is ballet stereotypically 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 because it is produced by Brahmins and for 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. Majority of the epics are written by male poets and there are very few poetesses who have written ode; whereas there has been a number of female lyric poetesses. This explains the power divide. 

Our perception is guided by the political distributions of the sensible that tells 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 not even see them. And if you have thought of something or someone as beautiful, it is maybe because you are aware of the contexts, socio-economic backgrounds and power dynamics which affects these perceptions. In spite of hesitation and apprehensions on what is perceived as beautiful or not, one needs to read and understand themselves and their world against the grain.

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