Art and the Articulation of the Public

By Willem Schinkel
  • Willem Schinkel
    Willem Schinkel (b. 1976) is professor of social theory at Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He is a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences. His interests are in the fields of social theory, political philosophy and the sociology of art. He currently heads a five-year research project, funded by the European Research Council, which investigates practices of social imagination in the fields of migration, finance and climate change.
Jacqueline Hassink, The meeting table of the Board of Directors of Banco Santander, The Table of Power 2, Santander, Spain, 23 February 2010. Courtesy of Jacqueline Hassink
The public and its paradoxes

‘Public’ and ‘private’ are instances of state talk. The very distinction between the public and the private is a product of the state, which circumscribes, or at least ratifies, the boundaries of both. If we are to move beyond state talk, we should at least recognize that the public exists only in the form of a variety of publics, and, possibly, of counterpublics 1I take the concept of counterpublics from Michael Warner in his book: Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002).. An interesting concept of ‘public’ can be found in John Dewey’s The Public and its Problems. For Dewey, public refers to issue-based collectivities, convening in order to find solutions to problems they share in some way or another. In Dewey’s conception, the public is less important than are a variety of publics.

A consequence of this view is that one must have a problem to have a public. As an obvious and recent example, Occupy Wall Street didn’t succeed in sustaining what one could call a public sphere because it centered on too many problems, which gave it a scattered program that (although I would agree this distinction is too simplistic) was based more on the aesthetics of resistance than on the substance of resistance. As a working definition of a public, I would propose Dewey’s description:

“The public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences cared for.” 2John Dewey, The Public and its Problems (Athens: Swallow Press, 1954), 15–16.

For Dewey, this entails a crucial distinction between the private and the public/representative. Historically, though dating back to Roman times, the growth of that distinction is one of the prime characteristics of the modern social imagination. 3See, for instance: Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). As noted above, it is closely related to the development of the state. The formation of the public, in the sense of a ‘public sphere’ of deliberation independent from the state, has been famously analyzed by Habermas, who concluded that the eighteenth century saw the rise of the bourgeois public sphere. 4Jürgen Habermas, Strukturwandel
der Öffentlichkeit. Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft
 (Neuwied am Rhein: Luchterhand, 1968). For a further historical development of Habermas’s main thesis, see: James Van Horn Melton, The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Habermas was well aware of the difference between the universal ideal of a public sphere of deliberation accessible for all, and the practice of a particular, bourgeois public sphere. This was due to the fact that the property relations that gave rise to the public sphere were those of early capitalism. Already by the time of the French Revolution, there was a heated debate over what constituted true public opinion. 5See: Jon Cowans, To Speak for the People. Public Opinion and the Problem of Legitimacy in the French Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2001), 65–75. Moreover, Habermas himself noted the collapse of the universal ideal of the public sphere in the course of the twentieth century, when capitalism evolved into a full-fledged industrial mode, including a mass media system not conducive to public deliberation along the lines of the Habermasian ideal speech situation.

So we are stuck with what I would call the historical paradox of the public sphere: the organization of those caring for the indirect consequences of transactions is itself a consequence of the rise of capitalism, wrenching what came to be called society free from the realm of the state. But the same rise of capitalism has had the ongoing tendency to undo the effective organization of the public. It was particularistic from the start, restricted to those bourgeois who had, in the seventeenth century, frequently become organized in Freemason lodges. 6See: Reinhart Koselleck, Kritik und Krise. Eine Studie zur Pathogenese der bürgerlichen Welt (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1973). And it has become fully interpenetrated by private interests. The state’s power to ratify the distinction between the public and the private has meant the increasing incursion of the private on the public, up to the point where the state itself is increasingly modeled on the corporation and is considered better run by economists than by politicians, as is illustrated by the recent preference for technocracy in European austerity politics, in which financial markets are explicitly referred to as necessitating what is euphemistically called reform.

In the current era of depoliticization, fundamental issues don’t reach the stage of a wider public deliberation. This gives us what could be called the contemporary paradox of the public sphere: publics come into being through issues, but, in absence of political agenda setting, issues need publics to be articulated. Crucially, a public needs to be articulated, but articulation is already, and crucially as well, a public achievement.


Art and the public

If articulation is a key process bringing a public into being, what, we may ask, can be the role of art in fostering publics? Historically, the development of art as an autonomous sphere has by and large run parallel to the development of the bourgeois public sphere. Habermas illustrates how the literary sphere was a vital playground for what developed into the bourgeois public sphere. Next to the coffeehouses (in Germany) and the teahouses (in England), the many salons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (not only in France) provided space for debate on more than artistic matters. At the same time, the autonomy of art depended to a large degree on the break with academic conventions that were heavily tied to the state. 7For a historical account of the autonomization of the category of art, see: Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art. A Cultural History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001). For two historical accounts of the autonomization of the social sphere of art, see: Niklas Luhmann, Die Kunst der Gesellschaft (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1995); Pierre Bourdieu, Les règles de l’art. Genèse et structure du champ littéraire (Paris: Seuil, 1992). The market for art, which enlarged with the growth of the bourgeoisie, radically changed art, up to the number and size of works an artist produced, thus giving rise to the notion of an artistic career. 8See: Harrison C. White & Cynthia A. White, Canvases and Careers. Institutional Change in the French Painting World (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993). According to Nathalie Heinich, in the early nineteenth century, just as the Revolution had raged against the elite, a new elite had emerged in France: the artistic elite. 9Nathalie Heinich, L’élite artiste. Excellence et singularité en régime démocratique (Paris: Gallimard, 2005), 22.

In other words, the paradoxes of the public sphere—specifically, the failure of its claims for universality—have been closely tied to the emergence of ‘art’ as a thing of concern produced in a milieu of its own, an artworld. More broadly, though, it is important to point out the aestheticization of politics, noted, for one, by Walter Benjamin in his essay Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. 10Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Drei Studien zur Kunstsoziologie (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1977). For Benjamin, it was fascism that gave rise to the aestheticization of politics, but today, especially in a time of depoliticization, it must be diagnosed as a much more widely dispersed character of political articulation. Politics is squeezed into mass medial formats, and can only be articulated within the aesthetic confines of proper taste. Something akin to this has been interpreted by Debord as the dominance of the spectacle as the medium of all social relations, 11Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994). and indeed aestheticization often has economic drives. 12Compare: Wolfgang Welsch, Grenzgänge der Ästhetik (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1996), 13–14. In fact this may have much older roots. Already the French Revolutionary National Assembly placed a high premium on the theatricality of political debate. 13See: Paul Friedland, Political Actors. Representative Bodies & Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 180–196. It may also be much more widespread than the traditional rubric of politics suggests. The intertwining of politics with the personal and the rise of identity politics has, in an era of the aesthetics of the self, given rise to a generalized aestheticization of any articulation that would count as political. Aestheticization here refers not to sensual experience per se, but to its foregrounding by means of formatting.

The aestheticization of politics encompasses the aestheticization of the public sphere (or of public spheres). Often, discussions rhetorically presented as public are in fact private, shaped into marketable formats of debate. More broadly, ‘ideas’, ‘innovation’, and ‘inspiration’ become intertwined in aestheticized formats of which TED Talks and TEDx are but two influential current examples. To be sure, the articulation of publics and (perhaps even more so) of counterpublics will always entail some form of aesthetics, but this is the aesthetics of the frame and the aesthetics of infrastructure, which makes possible the carving out of a space of articulation for the public. In today’s aestheticization, that space and public articulation itself have become saturated with aesthetic demands under the weight of which the substance of a public that cares for the consequences of transactions continuously threatens to collapse. If there is concern over the articulation of publics, it is not only, or not simply, the intrusion of the private into the public, thereby effectively annulling the very distinction. It is also the aestheticization of articulation, delivering it to demands it cannot live up to if the meaning of public is to encompass the irreducible plurality of difference so central to democracy.

If that is the case, then what are the options for art in the articulation of publics? At the end of this essay, I would venture the following conclusion: there is nothing art can contribute to the articulation of publics that does not at the same time strengthen the contemporary paradox and effective undermining of publics. As I have argued elsewhere, in recent decades art has taken a turn toward a new engagement with public issues. 14See: Willem Schinkel,
“The Autopoiesis of the Artworld After the End of Art,” Cultural Sociology 4, 2 (July 2010): 267–290.
In Ecoart, (New) Community Art, Social Work Art, or Relational Aesthetics, and from Beuys’ 7000 Oaks to Hirschhorn’s Hotel Demokratie, to name only some of the most iconic examples, art has increasingly turned toward what is often called ‘research’ or ‘investigation’ into highly public issues. But does art thereby contribute to the public articulation of these issues, and hence to the articulation of the public? The thesis I defend here, is that this is not the case. Why? For the simple reason that whatever engagement with the public art ventures, it brings with it some form of aesthetic model. More specifically, since all artistic communication first and foremost needs to be recognized as ‘art’ and recognized as such in the artworld, an aesthetic criterion will, in some form or other, take precedence over other (public) concerns. So the problem is not that art has its particularistic sphere, which is also true for science, religion, and so on. The problem is that the particular characteristics of the sphere of art will tend to ratify and reproduce the aestheticization of publics that forecloses the articulation of the public. In an age in which the articulation of any public has become thoroughly aestheticized, art has only repetition to add to the present. We are in need of publics, yes. But, we are in need of publics beyond aesthetics. Should such publics come into being, they would constitute the future paradox of the public sphere.