On Comic Sans and Cable Cars

Going Beyond Art and Beauty in Political Aesthetics

Philosophy’s esteem of art and aesthetics has come a long way since Plato. In the – inexhaustive and indefensibly rough – shell of a nut, it went from “these superficial appearances distort the truth of reality and have nothing to contribute of genuine philosophical concern; please step out of your cave with your ideas above your head, sir!”, to “Art with a capital ‘a’ is the only way to escape this cruel existence for blissful yet fleeting moments,” to “yikes, fascists sure seem to use aesthetic strategies in nefarious ways,” to “hey, at least we can counter the ‘aestheticization’ of politics by politicizing aesthetics!”,1 to “there is no reality outside of our representations: reality is what you make of it! (please send help),” to any odd combination(s) of the above.

Illustration by Roberta Müller

However pessimistic or optimistic they are about their influence, most theorists nowadays hold that representations and cultural artifacts – fascist or otherwise politically inclined – are just as much a part of the “truth” of our reality as anything else. “Real life” even tends to imitate or follow symbolic patterns expressed at their purest in art. This means that aesthetics demands to be studied as a site where cultural-political meaning is created and contested. Despite this, however, political theory or political analysis more generally is still very much centered on the dimensions of politics constituted by written and spoken words – on things such as constitutional texts, written law, party manifesto’s, political speech, debate, and deliberation. Thankfully, something is stirring below the surface.

It is a swelling undercurrent! This particular swelling undercurrent is widening the scope of political thought to include various non-linguistic discursive elements of the political world, simultaneously lifting up the discipline that deals with these elements: political aesthetics. All too often, however, political aesthetic analysis limits itself in ways that hamstring its full potential. In my view, two preoccupations are responsible for narrowing its scope. The first is with art, and the second with beautyor the aesthetically “good” more generally. In what follows, I will argue that political aesthetics has to move beyond these traditional hallmarks of aesthetic theory in order to maximize its impact.

Political systems as “multisensory aesthetic environments”

Crispin Sartwell provides a solid introduction to the field of political aesthetics. In his book Political Aesthetics, the distinction between discursivity and non-discursivity takes up a central organizing role. It is crucial to note that Sartwell equates discursivity with written and spoken words. This creates a stark contrast with a large tradition within what is commonly referred to as continental philosophy, in which discursivity can include “formulations” outside of (or beyond) speech and writing. I will follow Sartwell’s conceptualization in what follows, partly to avoid confusion, but also because the distinction between speech/writing and other forms of (political) formulation is a useful one in introducing the field of political aesthetics.

Various core values and principles that underlie our socio-political world are anchored, Sartwell notes, in discursivity – in written or spoken language, such as constitutions, political programs, declarations of independence, and law in general. These texts and speeches are often seen by political scientists as the essence of what counts as politics, and as a result, they are given pride of place in political analysis. What is often forgotten is that these texts always have non-discursive, aesthetic properties. Sartwell takes the US Declaration of Independence as an example.

John Adams, when asked to compose the Declaration of Independence, suggested that the task should be assigned to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s prose style, Adams thought, was not only more beautiful, but specifically more classical than his own. While Adams was a skillful writer and enjoyed a lifelong immersive schooling in the classics, Jefferson’s neoclassicism was not only embodied in his writings, but was also reflected in his works of architecture (which he found to be his “delight”). These architectural endeavors had a big influence on American public buildings, such as the US Capitol. In addition, Jefferson’s neoclassical style was reflected in the form of government he drew up for the state of Virginia, which served as one of the models for the Constitution of the United States. To really understand the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, then, it is crucial to understand its poetry and the sources that shaped its significance. The text, Sartwell concludes, is not a transparent window through which one can see the political ideology it relates to (in this case, Lockean Liberalism). Instead, it is inherently connected to “centuries of political and nonpolitical discourse, and to centuries of non-discursive images and objects.”2

It is not merely political texts that have non-discursive elements, however. Non-discursive political formulations (both figuratively and literally) come in many shapes and colors. Before diving into the deep end of the pool, let’s wet our feet a bit with a relatively simple example of non-discursive political formulation. It concerns the queen of the United Kingdom. When she met with Donald Trump on the first day of his visit to the UK in 2018, various intricate theories popped up about what the brooches of the queen – one of which was gifted to her by Barack and Michelle Obama – were meant to communicate politically. Similar theories arose when she had to read a governmental statement regarding Brexit, and chose to wear a blue hat with yellow flowers that resembled the flag of the European Union.3 Heads of State, especially monarchic remnants, are strictly obliged to uphold radical neutrality with respect to political matters. If she cannot tell us what she thinks discursively, the reasoning goes, she will not be able to resist the urge to do so by other means. If we can believe these commentators, the queen of is one of the most adept persons in the world when it comes to non-discursive political formulation. Queen of Britain, sure, but more importantly, queen of aesthetics.4 Whether “Queensthetics” – you heard it here first – is a thing or not is not important here;5 what matters for now is that it highlights how aesthetic formulations could operate, and perhaps more importantly, shows our willingness or basic tendency to “read” non-discursivity.

“Whether “Queensthetics” – you heard it here first – is a thing or not is not important here.”

Beyond particular hats, brooches, and texts, our (sociopolitical) world overflows with non-discursivity. This non-discursive excess leads Sartwell to claim that while not all art is political, all politics is aesthetic, and all political systems and ideologies are, at their heart, aesthetic systems. He writes:

The political “content” of an ideology can be understood in large measure actually to be—to be identical with—its formal and stylistic aspects. It’s not that a political ideology or movement gets tricked out in a manipulative set of symbols or design tropes; it’s that an ideology is an aesthetic system, and this is what moves or fails to move people, attracts their loyalty or repugnance, moves them to act or to apathy.6

Political aesthetics, Sartwell tells us, focuses on the non-discursive modes of political formulation. Similar to the discursive dimension of politics, we make sense of this non-discursive dimension through shared understandings, and shape it in specific structural ways.

There are strong links here to Benedict Anderson’s work Imagined Communities. The nation, Anderson writes, is an imagined community – in fact, all communities bigger than “primordial villages of face-to-face contact” are imagined.7 They are cultural artifacts of which there is no more fundamental reality to be discovered beyond their imagination, beyond their shared self-conception.8 Different imaginations or representations of community carry different meanings. But meaning as such is more fundamentally connected to community. Our specific mode of being “in community” might be contingent, but our being in community itself is not. A meaningful life, the taking hold of meaning, or in a simpler formulation, making senseof a world, is supervenient on shared perceptions. Jean-Luc Nancy states in this regard: “There is no meaning if meaning is not shared, and not because there would be an ultimate or first signification that all beings have in common, but because meaning itself is the sharing of Being”.9

This claim (that reeks of a Wittgensteinian musk) sounds perhaps rather uncontroversial. However, it serves to make a point that I think illustrates what Sartwell is getting at: if meaning only enters into our world in communal contexts, and if any community is an imagined community, a cultural artifact based on shared understandings, then it is unlikely that these shared understandings are exclusively, or even primarily, of a discursive nature. Our imagination is highly non-discursive, and imagining a community is therefore highly likely to have aesthetic qualities. In Sartwell’s view, communities conceptualize or imagine themselves non-discursively just as much as they do so discursively:

Political systems are no more centrally textual than they are centrally systems of imagery, architecture, music, styles of embodiment and movement, clothing and fibers, furnishings, graphic arts. It’s not that systems use these things as tools to gain loyalty, for propaganda; it’s that a military junta, sharia law, and anarchism, for example, constitute artpolitical environments in all media.10

“Our imagination is highly non-discursive, and imagining a community is therefore highly likely to have aesthetic qualities.”

In short, political aesthetics sees political systems, constitutions, and ideologies as aesthetic environments rather than as essentially composed of (textually expressed) doctrines. It sees the political not only as the site where power- or interest-oriented engagement occurs. Beyond this, it is the site where identities and interests are formed which in turn constitute political life itself, and these identities are formed and expressed across discursive and non-discursive lines. The objective of political aesthetics, Sartwell argues, is to refocus political theory onto the various non-discursive modes of political formulation. Truly understanding a political system or social setting is not exclusively a matter of studying its text, speeches, or propositional assertions, but also demands seeing these discursive things as part of a multisensory aesthetic context.

Aesthetic values and aesthetic features

Both the discursive and non-discursive modes of political formulation are marked by shared perceptions or understandings that in turn are underpinned by various values. Moreover, the specific values tied up with non-discursive aspects of our world are not only determined positively, but differentially: in relation to other values, both aesthetic and non-aesthetic. As will become clear, multiple values often intersect to form these distributions of “sense-data” that constitute the non-discursive dimension of our world.

With regard to aesthetic values, beauty is not the only one. Sartwell names “intensity,” “elegance,” “wildness,” “ease,” and “sublimity” as other aesthetic values, and the list goes on. Even “ugliness,” he rightly notes (taking the art politics of punk as an example), has many legitimate uses in aesthetic creation. These values are tied to aesthetic features or properties, of which Sartwell names various types: they can be formal properties (something’s length exceeding its width, for instance); physical properties (such as the material something is made of or by what it is made); or historically emergent properties (that determine to which historical movement or style something belongs). What connects these aesthetic features in the eyes of Sartwell is the fact that they are all potentially relevant to assessing a thing’s beauty. Whereas beauty is not the only aesthetic value, Sartwell decides that since the scale of beauty is the most ancient subject matter of aesthetics, it will have to suffice as the overarching principle that binds aesthetic properties together in one category.11

Rather ingeniously, it is not the actual, but the potentially relevant dimensions to assessing a thing’s beauty that function as the glue that keeps this category together. This formulation allows us to include properties that evoke (normatively) negative aesthetic judgments – of ugliness or disproportionality, for example. As long as this judgment is about properties that are potential candidates for a judgment of beauty, there is no problem. In other words, Sartwell allows beauty, or the “aesthetically good,” to retain its central role in aesthetic theory. But at the same time, the way he conceptualizes aesthetic properties allows room for ugliness, or the “aesthetically bad.” Despite creating this room, one could ask whether this conception remains too beauty-centric, too entranced by the beautiful and the good, and thus too willing to think the “bad” in terms of the “(not) good.” What we need to remember for now, however, is Sartwell’s relatively broad conception of what counts as an aesthetic property, and thus as potential “material” for (political) aesthetic analysis.

“Even though aesthetic values and (socio)political values are not identical – beauty and justice are not the same thing – they do inform each other in fundamental ways.”

Even though aesthetic values and (socio)political values are not identical – beauty and justice are not the same thing – they do inform each other in fundamental ways. Their dimensions of value are intimately and complexly linked, cutting across each other, infesting each other, and exceeding each other in every case. In addition to justice (political value) and beauty (aesthetic value) the same goes for the fundamental dimensions of truth (epistemic value) and goodness (moral value). All four of these show complex yet intimate links, and as such, aesthetics intersects with all other three at political sites. For this reason, political aesthetics will yield a more specific and richer account of the way the political and political subjectivities are (mutually) constituted and expressed.

Because these values intersect in complex ways that vary per context, local cultural understandings have to be taken into account in political aesthetics. As an example of the cultural specificity of aesthetic values and the problems a Western gaze can cause, Kathleen Higgins, an author in the field of comparative aesthetics, brings the research of Steven Feld to mind. Feld studied the Kaluli tribe of Papua New Guinea. This tribe’s music is structured to involve overlapping voices. The practice was dismissed by missionaries as unmusical, due to the tribe members’ “seeming difficulty in singing hymns in unison”.12 In other words: when simply applying the standards of your own society in deciding what counts as aesthetically valuable or not, you run the risk of misjudging the merits and social meaning of aesthetic properties and practices different from your own. While aesthetic values are shared, they are rarely shared universally.

Before turning to some examples and applications of political aesthetic theory, a few words will be spent discussing Jacques Rancière’s take on political aesthetics and his emphasis on the possibility to alter non-discursive structures. Where Sartwell talks of non-discursivity, Rancière prefers to talk in terms of the “sensible” world, the world of sense perception. These two formulations of the “stuff” that comprises the aesthetic “realm” are very similar, but not completely so. For present purposes, however, we will gloss over those differences. What I do not want to gloss over is the emphasis Rancière places on the distributions that structure the aesthetic “realm,” and on disrupting them.

Jaques Rancière, “distributions of the sensible,” and “aesthetic acts”

What Sartwell calls a “multisensory aesthetic environment” is made accessible to our senses in specific structural ways. Because meaning is something that is shared, there is a kind of (social) “logic” to the way we shape the world for our senses – a method to our non-discursive madness. Jacques Rancière uses the term “distributions of the sensible” to designate these structures. Such a distribution is, in his words, a 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.”13 This “something in common,” or le commun, for Rancière, “is strictly speaking what makes or produces a community, and not simply an attribute shared by all of its members.”14 Analyzing a given distribution of the sensible, then, calls for an appreciation of the various ways that the world of sensory perception is divided up and partitioned, and consequently shared within a specific social structure.

A central question to the field of political aesthetics is how one can (re)calibrate these communal configurations so that the accessibility to sensory fields, but especially the logics and meanings that are tied up with them, are altered, shifted, or subverted. It is in this light that Rancière speaks of “aesthetic acts.”15 These acts are “configurations of experience that create new modes of sense perception and induce novel forms of political subjectivity.”16 It must be highlighted that “sense perception,” for Rancière, should not only be understood in the physiological meaning of the term. The term “sensible” in the distribution of the sensible must be understood simultaneously as “what can be sensed” as well as “what makes sense.” In other words, the aesthetic regime structures what is audible, visible, and speakable, but also – and perhaps more importantly – what is imaginable, meaningful, appropriate, or even prudent.17

It is important to note that aesthetic acts can in fact be of a discursive or textual nature. New laws or regulations, for example, can (rigorously) intervene in distributions of the sensible. Think of things such as laws concerning public advertising, traffic regulations that alter street vista’s by opening or closing spaces to certain vehicles, clothing laws, environmental laws that influence how “green” our world stays or becomes, or city building regulations and permits that shape their skylines and open spaces – the list goes on.

“starting to think about aesthetics by asking the question “what is (the definition of) art?” – i.e. the absolutely dominant approach up until quite recently – is a terrible way to go about it.”

The everyday, the bad, and the ugly

These examples of public spaces and “everyday” phenomena also serve to underscore that whereas art undoubtedly offers the richest, most varied arena for the manifestation of aesthetic properties, non-art(work) objects have these properties all the same. Often, they simply do not catch our attention. Perhaps their use-value overshadows their aesthetic values, or maybe we just are not attuned to aesthetic properties if we are not urged to consider them by certain markers, such as a plinth beneath them or an ornamental frame around them. In fact, popular culture and everyday artifacts (films, music, games, clothes, etc.) might very well have bigger impacts on distributions of the sensible than many art objects in the classical sense.

Note that in light of what Sartwell and Rancière argue, starting to think about aesthetics by asking the question “what is (the definition of) art?” – i.e. the absolutely dominant approach up until quite recently – is a terrible way to go about it. When we adopt the broad view of aesthetics as the non-discursive or sensible dimension of our (social) world, what we call “art” in the strict sense, or “fine art,” is simply one part, one (relatively) enclosed subsection of that dimension. Art could very well be a subsection that is characterized by a more profound focus on beauty – or a more specific cluster of “artistic” criteria – than the broader aesthetic structure it is a part of. Or it might be argued that the realm of art is structured by specific institutional agreements surrounding the presentation of non-discursivity. Nevertheless, it remains a subsection, not necessarily a core domain that exerts some kind of centrifugal force on the rest of the aesthetic realm.

As mentioned, aesthetic dimensions of value are intimately and complexly linked to other values. An example of the complexity of the interrelation between aesthetic and political values can be found in the way politicians present themselves to align their looks with positive values. From their teeth to their glasses,18 and from their garments to their hair; every part of their appearance is scrutinized in present day politics. More so than for their male counterparts, this is (regrettably) the case for female politicians.19 Female aesthetic values are apparently more deeply connected with politically relevant values in the public’s mind than those of their male counterparts, or they might simply be forced to take recourse to a broader arsenal of tools to convince the public of their political capabilities. In other words, even if it is used to generate positive aesthetic judgments, the bare fact of aestheticization can sometimes be problematic.

To add to the complexity of the matter, aesthetic properties are not always used to generate positive judgments. Negative aesthetic values can cause affective responses in people that are just as strong, and sometimes even stronger, than their positive counterparts. A good example of this can be found in a social media strategy used by two political campaigners recently hired by the conservative UK Tory party. In a devilishly inventive display of the use of aesthetic (non-discursive) qualities of discursive data, Sean Topham and Ben Guerin intentionally used badly designed media material for campaigns. On 22 October 2019, the message “MPs must come together and get Brexit done” was shared on Twitter in the oft-ridiculed Comic Sans font. Many progressives took the chance to mock the image, inadvertently causing it to go viral and giving it a wider audience.20 In this case, it was not beauty that engendered an affective response. In fact, it might not even have been ugliness, but the value of childishness often attributed to Comic Sans – a value that evokes derision when linked to politics.

All of this serves to drive home the central point: political aesthetics is operative in a very broad and diffuse domain, and aesthetic features – both ones that engender positive judgments as well as those engendering negative judgments – can be operationalized to further any political goal. Aesthetic systems are – to repeat the words of Sartwell – what “moves or fails to move people, attracts their loyalty or repugnance, moves them to act or to apathy,”21 but it can move people every which way.

Colombian political aesthetics

In order to illustrate this, I will provide some examples from Colombia. This might seem to be a rather random move, and it is, but it is one borne from the fact I have written about various aesthetic acts and distributions of the sensible in Colombia for the completion of a master thesis in political science. In the thesis, I contrasted these findings to the findings of Carroll Clarkson in her book Drawing the Line: Toward an Aesthetics of Transitional Justice. In it she analyzes the role that aesthetics can play in the field of transitional justice, using South Africa as a kind of case study.

Clarkson’s goal of introducing political aesthetics in the field of transitional justice is commendable, but the way she goes about doing so paints a one-sided view on the dynamics of political aesthetics. Her emphasis on the positive role of artworks and the kind of elite interventions that foster the goals of justice are emblematic of a prevalent approach in political aesthetics. This approach tends to gloss over the commonplace or “everyday” aspects of aesthetics, and it tends to ignore those aesthetic dynamics that are antithetical to the political and ethical goals we set for ourselves. As such, it limits both the scope of political aesthetics and its range of applicability. Focusing on positive aspects (in this case, aspects that further the goals of transitional justice) and on artworks and artists is not a problem in itself, but then some transparency might be required as to how and why one is purposively limiting the scope of the discipline being used or, in this case, advocated.

I used Colombian examples because I knew too little about South Africa(n political aesthetics). These Colombian examples might not perfectly map onto the political reality of post-apartheid South Africa. However, it seems highly unlikely that there are no political aesthetic phenomena or practices in South Africa that are problematic in light of – or even antithetical to – the goals of (transitional) justice. To the extent that the examples below grant a sense of the ubiquitous nature of questionable political aesthetic dynamics, they serve as indictments to any project of political aesthetics that restricts its scope to the beautiful and the good. And to the extent that the examples provide a sense of the influence and importance of “everyday political aesthetics,” they serve as indictments of any project of political aesthetics that restricts itself to analyzing art in the strict sense of the word, ignoring that art is but a subsection of the aesthetic realm.

The length of this text forbids me to include my discussion of Clarkson’s approach to political aesthetics. Despite my criticism, I highly recommend reading her book if this stuff interests you. Having given this barely half-satisfactory explanation for using a bunch of Colombian examples, let us look at some of its questionable political aesthetic phenomena (in light of transitional justice).

Some questionable political aesthetic phenomena in Colombia (in light of transitional justice)

Colombia is still coming to terms with a long period marked by civil war between government forces, crime syndicates, paramilitary organizations, and guerrilla forces such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and FARC. During this time, all sides trafficked drugs and engaged in acts of terror. According to Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, 220.000 people have died in the conflict between 1958 and 2013, of which 177.307 civilians. The complexity of the Colombian social fabric that transformative justice has to take into account extends far beyond legal tribunals and truth commissions:

“There are various aesthetic forces at play in Colombia that both foster and inhibit sociopolitical transition and transformation.”

Whether Colombia’s political system will remain democratic depends greatly on the state’s ability to ensure the rule of law and protect civil rights and liberties, strengthen and widen the political party system, diminish corruption swiftly and measurably, provide a voice to those who have traditionally been excluded from the political process, and share the economic pie more widely.22

As we will see, there are various aesthetic forces at play in Colombia that both foster and inhibit sociopolitical transition and transformation. In order to map the full scope of these aesthetic forces, I will try to connect them to everyday environments and commonplace cultural practices. More specifically, the following section will explore the role of cultural artefacts in the production of the legitimacy and authority of criminality. Central to this exploration are the aesthetics of violence and illegality,23 their relation to everyday aesthetics and artefacts of popular culture, and their influence on the goals of transformative justice.

Narco-aesthetics and the aesthetics of illegality

In marginalized urban areas around the world, criminal gangs and organizations can quickly rise to power – sometimes even institutionalized power. Because marginalized citizens seek out protection and some kind of social welfare, criminal leaders and gang members can take on the functions, but also the symbols of the state, evolving into extra-legal structures. The poor, structurally marginalized and neglected (urban) communities of Colombia are no exception. However, weapons, intimidation, violence, providing material welfare, and sometimes even dispute resolution, are not the only things that create and entrench the power position of criminals. Violent actors rely – either consciously or unconsciously – on aesthetic force for the legitimation and normalization of their activities. These imaginative aesthetic underpinnings, are rooted in (popular) culture – in film, street art, video games, popular music, dance, and various everyday objects.”24

In Colombia, for example, as soon as the television series Pablo Escobar: El Patrón del Mal aired in 2012, local merchants started selling children’s sticker books, allowing them to collect Escobar stickers and those of other Medellín cartel key figures.25 Barrio Pablo Escobar, the popular Medellín neighborhood constructed in large part with Escobar’s money and housing low-income families still wears the drug lord’s face on flags and walls, “reminding residents on a daily basis who provided the homeless with a roof over their heads.”26 Almost a quarter of a century after his death, Pablo Escobar’s legend is very much alive. The drug lord is not only featured in TV-shows, but also in films and pop-music. Coke dealers in El Poblado try to sell the drug as “coca de Pablo.”27 Now that large scale violence has died down in Medellin and large parts of Colombia, the fact that many (if not most) of its visitors are interested in precisely this violence is a painful paradox.

“The mythologization and veneration of big criminals has a long tradition, dating back to gun- slinging outlaws and prohibition era organized crime kingpins.”

The commodification, glamorization, and even trivialization of narco-violence expresses itself in tourist attractions, such as “Pablo Escobar tours” and paintball games in one of Escobar’s old mansions, but also in TV-shows such as Narcos, produced by Netflix. Violence and popular culture feed each other in vicious cycles28: films and shows inspire youngsters to become sicarios, whose violent acts in turn become new movie scripts. In all this, Escobar himself remains a divisive figure for Colombians, with a part of society praising him for donating a small fraction of his wealth to poor neighborhoods, and a bigger group condemning him for his brutal violence against not only competing criminals, but judges, police officers, politicians, journalists and civilians. This latter group is far from pleased with the shift from narcoterrorismo to narcoturismo.

The mythologization and veneration of big criminals has a long tradition, dating back to gun-slinging outlaws and prohibition era organized crime kingpins. Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay “Critique of Violence,” ties our fascination with these figures to the fact that their actions led to a subversion and undermining of the rule of law. Escobar, whose status might have been larger than life, but most definitively larger than law, epitomized this undermining behavior in his offer to pay off Colombia’s entire foreign debt in return for exemption from extradition to the US.

Especially in Colombia, where the government used to be an important actor in a violent past, state and government legitimacy is tenuous. The omnipresent visual presence of Pablo Escobar in the streets of Colombia and Medellin in particular – from the objects sold in tourist shops to the bikes of local street racers29– undermines state legitimacy. It calls attention to a figure that painfully showed the impotence of the Colombian government before and during the country’s turbulent years, both in providing for its citizenry and keeping them safe. More generally, the aesthetics of violence and illegality in Colombian society heavily influence how criminals are perceived, and are crucial in persuading city residents that gang rule and violence are natural and normal. The normalization of violence is a huge issue all over the world, but in Colombia’s post-conflict context its effect is particularly devastating.

Mass data from the Americas Barometer survey (LAPOP) further problematizes this by demonstrating that the presence of violence in society directly diminishes social support for democracy. This is caused by perceived insecurity in combination with the fact that people believe democratic governments will not be able to protect them from violence and crime.30 The result is that countries where violence triumphs experience the highest support for rejecting democracy.31 As such, the aesthetics of violence and illegality are profoundly antithetical to the goals of transformation and transition to democracy.

“Countries where violence triumphs experience the highest support for rejecting democracy.”

The moral of this section is not that visual representations of Escobar should be forcibly removed or banned. While this is an act that alters the distribution of the sensible somewhat, it possesses very little subversive power. The image provides more than a glimpse of a specific set of distributions of the sensible, which shows us possible routes for subversion. The aesthetics of violence and illegality mainly comprise two (related) distributions of the sensible. One revolves around the state’s impotence in matters concerning values of social provision, safety, and power. The other is based on the normalization of violence, contributing to its spread and undermining of democratic legitimacy. Both distributions inhibit social cohesion and democratization, and are thus completely antithetical to the goals of transformative justice. Aesthetic acts seeking to break with these distributions have to engage with elements of social provision and safety, and the values related to them. These acts can be discursive – in the form of education and textual memory work, for example – and non-discursive.  

The above emphasizes that it is not always enough for the state to provide safety and welfare: it has to be shown that that is what is going on, not only by discursive means, but also by non-discursive means. Governments in general try very hard to “sell” their new policies to the public, but are very bad at “marketing” their basic services (the EU, for example, often settles for placing one single sign next to its subsidized infrastructural projects). And granted, in a perfect world they would perhaps not need to. However, the non-ideal reality of transitioning societies, in which government legitimacy is eroded by criminal actors, emphatically shows the necessity. Government legitimacy is constituted in a game that is both “show” and “tell.” At the same time, this does not mean that all acts of “showing” are legitimate, as the next section shows.

The aesthetics of poverty: cable cars and “favela chic interventions”

Sometimes making something visible is in itself an aesthetic act. Moreover, sometimes this is not a matter of unveiling, but simply a matter of facilitating a change of perspective. The cable cars in Medellin do this in a very literal way. They open up a birds-eye perspective on the city’s two faces: the industry and large apartment buildings of the downtown area, and the slums up on the hills that line the city’s flanks that house thousands in shoddy conditions. In the cable car, the two worlds come into view simultaneously – something that ground-level vistas struggle to capture. Medellin’s cable cars have come to be highly valued, as have similar projects in other developing cities. After visiting Medellín for the UN World Urban Forum, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote of the cables as breaking “the social and economic barriers between the informal settlements and the rest of the city”.32   

The cable cars are seen by disenfranchised local citizens and elites33 alike as engines for social change that bring about political visibility and intervene in the social fabric like no other policy can, especially in extremely deprived urban areas. The reality, however, is different. The cable cars have enormous symbolic value, and are emblematic of how symbolic aesthetic values can sometimes take precedence over other (more) material values in ways that hamper genuine transformation. Up until not too long ago, the value of technological objects in terms of their cultural, ideological and aesthetic roles was overlooked in favor of their operational and economic roles. But in the case of the cable car projects the roles are reversed.34

Cable cars change the terms of recognition that planners and politicians apply to the poor, and even affect how disenfranchised citizens imagine themselves and their futures. The cable cars are constantly used for political and tourist propaganda. Often, politicians endorse cable car projects to make up for previously failing in implementing more ordinary urban changes.35 Expectations related to cable car projects do not depend on careful evaluation of existing projects in terms of effect and feasibility, but more on the desire to transforming something undesired and invisible into something “tourable” or “brandable”:

Cable cars have become part of a new aesthetic agenda of developing cities: Rather than trying to avoid poverty and resemble first-world cities […], the new aesthetic includes poverty—a new, pacified and beautified kind of poverty—in the presentation of the city.36

In many (urban) areas, poverty becomes linked to values of authenticity, and plays a central role in what some have called “favela chic interventions”: projects that heavily focus on representation and image, and thus on aesthetics and physical transformation. The desire to change the image of cities can be seen everywhere, but it becomes problematic when the image that engenders the change does not exclude poverty, and full-on nefarious when it actively includes it.

What the existence of superficial slum-beautification projects underscores is the fact that political aesthetics is not an inherent force for good – or for transformation for that matter. The aesthetics of poverty discussed in this section – and the aesthetic act of implementing cable car infrastructure – uphold or deepen a distribution of the sensible that is problematic at best in light of the goals of transformative justice. Inclusive urban development and aesthetic practices can transform former enclaves of exclusion, but not if it does so on a superficial aesthetic level, or as substitute for substantial socio-economic help in the form of basic services, job creation and security, and general social welfare.

“Inclusive urban development and aesthetic practices can transform former enclaves of exclusion, but not if it does so on a superficial aesthetic level.”

Concluding remarks

The examples above have served to underscore that political aesthetics is active in a diffuse and complex domain that stretches well beyond the confines of art in the strict sense of the term. Just as aesthetics is not merely the philosophy of art, political aesthetics cannot be reduced to the political philosophy of art. Analyzing the disarticulatory or re-articulatory practices that “redistribute the sensible” – something art excels at – is important. However, it is not the only – and sometimes not even the right – starting point in political aesthetic analysis. Besides or before looking at aesthetic re-articulations, it is often a good idea to look at (aesthetic) articulations. Or in Rancière’s terms: before looking at re-distributions of the sensible, it serves to look at the distributions. It is these distributions through which a certain order is established and the meaning of its social institutions is fixed. Precisely because political aesthetic formulations are operative beyond art galleries, museums, or even “street art,” starting out by looking at re-articulations confined to these sites can lead one to overlook other relevant articulations. Moreover, since acts that alter unjust distributions of the sensible do not have to be “aesthetic acts,” but can be discursively (as in textually) driven in the form of laws and regulations, artists are not the only ones who can interact with distributions of the sensible.

Political aesthetics is a field of contestation, where the visibilization of one aspect can lead to the obfuscation of another, and where multiple actors and ideas can clash over domination of parts of the sensible world. As a result, political aesthetics – both in terms of social praxis and theoretical analysis – should always be actively operationalized in service of justice (whatever our conception of it), since it does not do so automatically or by design. A one-sided focus on art, beauty, and the good can severely impede such an operationalization, because it tends to gloss over the aspects of political aesthetics inimical to justice.

  1. New techniques of reproduction, Benjamin argued, such as the tabloids, photography and film, were operationalized to conjure up ‘mass publics’ that thoughtlessly adsorbed their imagery instead of closely and thoughtfully observing it.
  2. Crispin Sartwell, Political Aesthetics (Ithaka: Cornell University Press, 2010), 4.
  3. Rozina Sini, “Queen’s Speech: Is the Queen wearing an EU hat?,” BBC, June 21nd 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-40356113, Last accessed May 16th, 2020.
  4. In addition, there is reason to believe that among citizens of “kingdoms,” this aesthetic dimension is one of the main driving forces that engender support for this ridiculously outdated institution. Look at how the color of the Dutch monarchy is so tightly interwoven with performances of Dutch identity. Look at how their public appearances are scrutinized to such great extent with regard to their non-discursive aspects. It is interesting to ask why monarchies are so incredibly aestheticized. Is it because that is simply all they have left these days in terms of political formulation, or is it because they are remnants from an era where discourse only got you so far, but where non-discursive shows of force spoke – as they often still do – a universal language?
  5. Please let it be a thing.
  6. Crispin Sartwell, Political Aesthetics, 5.
  7. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2016), 6.
  8. This fact is underscored by recent attention to the constructivist turn in political representation, which, in a nutshell, holds that representative claims do not just make present an already existing political reality, but actively construct this reality (Lisa Disch, Mathijs van de Sande and Nadia Urbinati (eds.) The constructivist turn in political representation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019)).
  9. Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, Trans. Robert Richardson & Anne O’Byrne (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 2.
  10. Crispin Sartwell, Political Aesthetics, 2.
  11. Crispin Sartwell, Political Aesthetics, 5.
  12. Kathleen Higgins, “Comparative Aesthetics.” in Jerrold Levinson (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 680.
  13. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 7.
  14. Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 109.
  15. Rancière is not the first to think of such acts. One older example of such a strategy is détournement, a form of social critique practiced by “situationists” in which central imagery and texts from the dominant (mass-) culture were redirected (détourner) in such a way that their original meaning changed radically. The purpose was to unveil the absurdity underneath the self-evident façade of these cultural artefacts in a playful manner (Noortje de Leij, “Kunst speelt een spelletje, maar wel bloedserieus.” Brainwash. (2016) https://www.brainwash.nl/kunstalsspel/de-situationisten-gaven-ruimte-aan-het-toeval-het-onverwachtse-en-het-nutteloze-zij-maakten-de-absurditeit-van-het-schijnbaar-logische-en-ware-zichtbaar-door-middel-van-het-spel. last acessed: Jul 16th 2020).
  16. Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 8.
  17. Leonard Koren, Which ‘Aesthetics’ Do You Mean?: Ten Definitions (Point Reyes: Imperfect Publishing, 2011).
  18. Raoul Du Pre, “Rob Jetten treedt zonder bril in de voetsporen van een reeks illustere voorgangers,” De Volkskrant. Oct 24th 2019, https://www.volkskrant.nl/nieuws-achtergrond/rob-jetten-treedt-zonder-bril-in-de-voetsporen-van-een-reeks-illustere-voorgangers~b18a6960/,
    last accessed: Oct 24th, 2019.
  19. Rachel Reeves, “Power dressing: why female MPs have faced a century of scrutiny,” The Guardian, Mar 2nd 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/mar/02/female-mps-100-years-clothing-style-newspapers. last accessed: Oct 24th, 2019.
  20. Jim Waterson, “Tories hire Facebook propaganda pair to run online election campaign,” The Guardian. Oct 23rd 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/23/tories-hire-facebook-propaganda-pair-to-run-online-election-campaign Last accessed, Oct 25th, 2019.
  21. Sartwell, Political Aesthetics, 1.
  22. Alex Hybel, The Challenges of Creating Democracies in the Americas: The United States, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Guatemala (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 165.
  23. Miguel Rojas-Sotelo, “Narcoaesthetics in Colombia, Mexico, and the United States,” Latin American Perspectives 41-2 (2014): 215-31; Patrick Naef, “The Commodification of Narco-violence through Popular Culture and Tourism in Medellin, Colombia,” In Lundberg, Christine, and Vassilios Ziakas (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Popular Culture and Tourism (London: Routledge, 2018), 54-66.
  24. Martijn Oosterbaan and Rivke Jaffe, “Introduction: Criminal Authority and the Politics of Aesthetics,” in Rivke Jaffe and Martijn Oosterbaan (eds.). Most Wanted: The Popular Culture of Illegality (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019), 10.
  25. Sibylla Brodzinsky, “Children’s sticker album devoted to drug kingpin sparks row in Colombia,” The Guardian, Aug 9th 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/aug/09/children-sticker-album-drug-colombia. Last accessed: Oct 25th, 2019.
  26. Oosterbaan and Jaffe, “Criminal Authority and the Politics of Aesthetics,” 10.
  27. Merijn de Waal, “Drugsbaron Pablo Escobar lokt toeristen naar Colombia,” NRC, Sept 1st 2016, https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2016/09/01/drugsbaronpablo-escobar-lokt-toeristen-naar-colombia-4068299-a1518930, Last accessed: Oct 25th, 2019.
  28. Naef, “The Commodification of Narco-violence through Popular Culture and Tourism in Medellin, Colombia.”
  29. Joe Parkin Daniels, “‘We live for gravity biking’: deadly sport is way of life in Medellín,” The Guardian. Oct 2nd 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/oct/02/we-live-for-gravity-biking-deadly-sport-is-way-of-life-in-medellin, Last accessed: Oct 21st, 2019.
  30. Tani Marilena Adams, “Chronic violence: the new normal in Latin America.” Open Democracy. Oct 11th 2011, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/chronic-violence-new-normal-in-latin-america/, Last accessed: Oct 29th, 2019.
  31. José Miguel Cruz, “The impact of violent crime on the political culture of Latin America: The special case of Central America,” In Mitchell A. Seligson, Challenges to Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean: Evidence from the Americas Barometer 2006-2007, (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 2008), 219-250.
  32. María José Álvarez Rivadulla and Diana Bocarejo, “Beautifying the Slum: Cable Car Fetishism in Cazucá, Colombia,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38-6 (2014), 2026.
  33. Such as local leaders of Juntas de Acción Comunal.
  34. Rivadulla and Bocarejo, “Beautifying the Slum”, 2030.
  35. At their time of their writing, Bogota’s mayor has promised two cables in two deprived neighborhoods, Rivadulla and Bocarejo “Beautifying the Slum”, 2014.
  36. Rivadulla and Bocarejo, “Beautifying the Slum”, 2036.