August 2020

The Aesthetics of Direct Action

Artists, like protestors, disrupt existing ways of viewing the world to reimagine our lives around truth, goodness, and beauty.

 by Ryan C. McIlhenny

“I have long believed that a very great revolutionary is a great artist, and that he develops ideas, programs, etc, as Beethoven develops a movement.”

—C.L.R. James

Artists have consistently been society’s prophetic renegades, avant-garde visionaries calling new worlds into existence. And within every major protest movement, including those currently roiling the U.S., artists have played a key role. Such performative activists, according to the authors of Aesthetics of Global Protest, “have been able to create an alternative space for people to engage with politics that is, in theory, more inclusive and participatory than traditional electoral politics.”[1] And it is important to note that the artist is more than just one activist type among others. The artist—the artist-in-protest, if you will—is the distilled image of the inherent aesthetics of direct-action movements. 

An important element in the philosophy of beauty is the way in which artists arrange individual parts into a larger whole—a comprehensive totality where multiple meanings emerge following the aesthetic moment. When attempting to capture a glimpse of beauty, artists pour much of their energy in coordinating, for instance, the colors in a painting, notes and instruments for symphony, or the word arrangements for a poem. This part-to-whole activity is not limited to artists; it is central to all those who seek to utilize the imagination in bringing new life into existence. Professional intellectuals in pursuit of knowledge work in a similar mode; they take isolated bits of data and organize them into a comprehensive synthesis. Activists committed to the creation of a more egalitarian society likewise take the (often broken) aspects of the world and imaginatively rearrange them into a new totality—with the intent of a totality that maximizes justice. As John Keats wrote in 1819, “Beauty is truth/truth is beauty/–that is all.” If America’s protestors are interested in justice, they are also interested in—perhaps subconsciously—beauty and therefore exhibit a commitment to a deeper truth than those who oppose such reformist efforts. 

Minneapolis street art created in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd. Photo by Renoir Gaither via Flickr.

Artists may reach the aesthetic without attaining coherence; indeed, an element of their artistry is a respectful rebellion against coherence. The disruption of harmony and proportion is essential to the artist’s work, for it not only complicates but enriches what we may come to accept as the good and the true. Unique to an aesthetic experience is that it does not depend on the final attainment or full completion of either beauty, truth, or goodness. Portions of an unfinished painting or music composition can bring pleasure and spark revolution. An isolated movement of the artist, the form, can be separated from completion. A brush stroke, a musical riff, a turn of a phrase—these can please the senses in and of themselves. In this regard, beauty is not dependent on a rigid telos. It is within the ambiguities of form where possibilities can be tried and tested. This aesthetic shines brighter in the unknown when it staves off a new status quo.           

Millions of Americans, tired not only of consistent police brutality but also of the “bad apple” arguments excusing such behavior, are conscientiously confronting the old order and becoming a powerful force redirecting—perhaps in multiple directions—American culture. While the end, the attainment of a more extensively just society, may be opaque, the 2020 protests have called out the aesthetic and exhibited an important quality of beauty. We can see this at work through two analytic frameworks: Friedrich Nietzsche’s Apollonian-Dionysian dialectic and Edmund Burke’s “Sublime.” The former represents not a characteristic of beauty as such but rather a dialogue between two opposing forces from which beauty emerges; the latter, on the other hand, is a quality of beauty.

Apollo and Dionysius     

Nietzsche believed that art, in his words, “owes its continuous evolution to the Apollonian-Dionysian duality…[like] the propagation of the species depends on the duality of the sexes, their constant conflicts and periodic acts of reconciliation.”[2] Life itself, as it displays the aesthetic mode, “owes its continuous evolution” to this dialectic. Protests and direct action movements can often reflect such conflicts that aspire to “periodic acts of reconciliation.” 

Revolutionary art in Kwai Fong, Hong Kong supporting pro-democracy protestors. Photo by Studio Incendo via Flickr.

Within a Nietzschean framework, Apollo represents order, structure, logic, and form, while Dionysius, the god of wine, represented chaos, the playful, the impulsive, and the liberated. Dionysius looks for the joints in our experiences that provide opportunities for new enriching realities, not ones that are purely imaginative, but rather new realities that incorporate the structures of the old like an artist who brings past traditions to bear on future creations. Beauty, in other words, is a dynamic reality of order and disorder, structure and openness, tradition and progress. Art has never advanced without the efforts of those who, on the one hand, not only respect but rely upon the methods of their craft and who, at the same time, rebel against the traditions of which they are associated. Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, was indebted to the mathematical precision that the Italian masters revived from the classical world. Yet at the same he was a pioneer of the manneristic style that rebelled against the near-stultifying obsession with proportionality, making him, thereby, one of the greatest artists in the world. Likewise, the Impressionist legacy of Monet and Degas, for instance, came to be recognized as a move away from Realism or Cubism at the turn of the twentieth century against the single-viewer tradition. The Dionysian impulse is not one that rejects the past out of sheer boredom or because the habits of consumerism forces nuance. Rather, Dionysian rebels draw on the past to construct new realities.

Nietzsche’s Apollonian-Dionysian duality has manifest itself in the various protest movements surrounding the death of George Floyd. But we should carefully avoid a simplistic application of the dialectic. It’s not that today’s protests, especially the avant-garde activists in Seattle or Portland, have challenged Apollo, assuming that it represents the inverted totalitarianism of the neoliberal state, activating thereby the spirit of Dionysius. Rather, as is the case with a philosophical dialectic, there is never an abandoning of one for the other. Apollo has remained within the protests and occupations, though admittedly the boisterous inebriations of Dionysius may be a bit more obstreperous. The contemporary protests demand a new order on the foundation of justice, not order without justice, which is more descriptive of the American status quo.  

The Sublime

The other aesthetic category at the heart of America’s protests is that of the Sublime. By the time of the Enlightenment, beauty became less an intrinsic quality of objects—no longer a matter of proportion and harmony, light, and integrity/perfection, as articulated by Thomas Aquinas. Instead, artists and intellectuals situate beauty as a subjective category of the individual mind. As David Hume wrote in 1757, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”[3] And while thinkers articulated a similar view, though with greater philosophical richness, there remained a connection between this dispassionate pleasure and the object of our experience. Many wanted to avoid the notion that beauty was restricted solely to the imagination of the viewer. They found it difficult to do so, however, given what would become the Kantian dilemma of knowing a thing-in-itself. Edmund Burke understood the subjective dilemma but also sought to provide an understanding of beauty that would transport the subject, the individual viewer, closer to an objective aesthetic experience. Burke moved away from the obsession with mathematical precision to offer a new feature of beauty: the Sublime. Such a discovery—or recovery, really—in the arts was akin to the discovery of gravity, always there but then articulated in a new light.

A protest poster at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India attacking the McDonaldisation of society. Photo by Subir Rana, The Activist History Review.

The Sublime takes seriously the experience of awe that individuals have in proximity to an overwhelming reality—a daunting reality that has the power to eradicate the individual. To say it somewhat crudely, it gives subjective viewers a sense of terror as they feel drawn into something that has the power to eradicate their individuality. There are two fundamental aspects of the Sublime that we should note. The first has to do with the conflicting emotions of fear and comfort. For Burke, “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger…whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the Sublime.”[4] The Sublime is not only the source of terror; it is, according Burke, “capable of producing delight; not pleasure, but a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquility tinged with terror.”[5] The second deals with the near mystical transfer of the self into something greater. One of the earliest proponents of the sublime was Pseudo-Longinus. In the first century (CE), Longinus wrote that the Sublime “inspires wonder [and] casts a spell upon us.” More importantly because it is “always superior to what is merely convincing and pleasing,” the Sublime “transports” the one experiencing the Sublime “out of themselves.”[6]         

In his Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant divided the Sublime into the quantifiable and the qualitative. The former relates to the sheer expanse of nature; the latter deals with the immediate awareness of terror-inducing power. Concerning the latter, he offers the example of a storm. Creative and destructive acts of nature—volcanoes, tornadoes, thunderstorms—make human “resistance a trifling moment in comparison with their might.” When we know that our “position is secure,” that which we experience is immensely “more attractive for its fearfulness.” We “call these objects sublime,” Kant says, echoing Longinus, “because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace.”[7]

As the protests across the country (and the world) reflect the Apollonian-Dionysian duality at the heart of the aesthetic, it also satisfies the conditions of the Sublime. These movements are large enough to “excite the ideas” related to the Sublime. The quantitative number of those protesting, the immense power of the people, necessarily arouses a sense of terror but also of safety, given the intentions of the protesters: extensive justice and peace. A great number of things can produce fear. As it relates to the Sublime, what produces fear must be big—big enough to engender terror in the heart of the observer, who is concurrently confronted with the existential reality of salient insignificance. This is what occurs when a committed individual is among comrades; they stand as a small piece in a larger formidable body, a body in motion, a body with a purpose. It is not just any protest that is “a source of the Sublime.” The opposition to stay-at-home directives are far from Sublime since these protests do not transport us out of our own selfishness. These are not actions that call us to put our bodies on the line for others. The idea that we should fight for social justice lifts us out of our own individual comforts. Such movements, indeed, reflect the aesthetic mode of being, the sheer greatest of these movement elevates, to borrow from Kant, the “soul above the height of vulgar commonplace.”

Minneapolis street art demanding police abolition after the police murder of George Floyd. Image via Wikimedia.

In his 1942 work Art and Freedom, American philosopher Horace Kallen argued that the aesthetic experience, high and low, permeates all of life: it appears in the “factories and office-buildings as in museums and concerts halls; in elevators and subways, on highways and streets…on dumps, by slagpiles and dungheaps, as in in landscaped gardens or well-ordered groves.”[8] Such experiences—experiences that are necessarily diverse—have an intended purpose. They are, according to Kallen, interwoven into a pluralistic “democratic process whereby men’s ways and works, each different from the other, comes together with each other, and by searching and seeking, adjusting and readjusting, come finally to a common sentiment in a common way of life.”[9] Artists are provocative; their work, illuminating and allusive, exists to “disrupt the existing political order.” And the aesthetic experience, when demonstrated as “an operation of democratic power,” should cause viewers and artists to contemplate new possibilities for a better world.[10] Suppressing the openings that would enrich the past, as right-wing reactionaries and the Trump administration have vowed to do, impedes not only the pursuit of justice and truth but also beauty. The effort to maintain power, as is Trump’s political modus operandi, is directly antithetical to truth, goodness, and beauty. What is needed in American society during this period of unprecedented crisis is patience and a willingness to explore creative social arrangements in the service of the good.   

Ryan C. McIlhenny, PhD, is a historian living and working in Shanghai, China. He is the author of To Preach Deliverance to the Captives: Freedom and Slavery in the Protestant Mind of George Bourne, 1780-1845 (Baton Rouge: LSU, 2020), part of the “Antislavery, Abolition, and Atlantic World” series of LSU Press.


Further Reading:

[1] Aidan McGarry, Itit Erhart, Hande Eslen-Ziya, Olu Jenzen, Ulmut Korkut eds., The Aesthetics of Global Protest: Visual Culture and Communication (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019), 19.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Part 1. See also Monroe K. Spears, Dionysus and the City (New York: Oxford University Press: 1970), 71.

[3] David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” Essays Moral and Political (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1894), 136

[4] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2008), 24

[5] Ibid., 105. 

[6] Pseudo-Longinus quote in Laurent Pernot, Rhetoric in Antiquity, trans. W.E. Higgins, (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press of America, 2005), 139.  

[7] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Nicholas Walker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 91. 

[8] Horace Kallen, Art and Freedom: A Historical and Biographical Interpretation of the Relations Between the Ideas of Beauty, Use and Freedom in Western Civilization From the Greek to the Present Day Vol. II(NY: Duell, Sloane and Pearce, 1942), 949.

[9] Ibid., 934.

[10] Aidan McGarry, et. al., Aesthetics of Global Protest, 16.

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