The political compass test, flawed as it is, contains at least one insightful question. It asks participants what their opinion is about abstract art. The aesthetic and the political are intimately connected, and the former may not even merely be the means to the end of the latter. The aesthetic is not necessarily exploited by autocrats just because it can reinforce autocracy. Utopian dreams do not take the form of a spreadsheet of policies: they are a vision.
Socialists, neo-reactionaries, Trotskyists, fascists, and so on, all share a vision of an ideal street, an ideal city, and an ideal unit of housing that derives from their own political ideology. Or, perhaps more accurately, their visions are shaped according to their political aesthetic. The very word ‘idea’, after all, derives from the Greek: ‘I see’. What was the first monumental building produced by the National Socialist regime? It was a vast gallery in Munich, the ‘Haus der Deutschen Kunst’. Taking four years to build, this project’s scale and expense went far in excess of propaganda ‘utility’: it was an indulgence. It was, in fact, an end, as well as a means, of the production of the Nazi state. The crude stereotype of Nazi ‘efficiency’ is a fatal misapprehension of the nature of its tyranny. One of Primo Levi’s great insights into the regime was just how anti-scientific it was, indeed, how mystical it was. Before he was captured and detained in Auschwitz, he describes his encounter with a scientific paper written in, and characteristic of, Nazi Germany: “His pages gave off the arrogance of someone who knows that his statements will not be disputed. He wrote, indeed harangued, like a possessed prophet.”
As liberals it is our political goal to rebut this arrogance, to protect the individual from the fervour of the state that fashions itself into a god. With such a goal in mind, what can a liberal world possibly look like? The short answer is that it does not look like anything. Of course, liberal democracy does not create art at all: it allows the artists to do it for themselves. A liberal perspective can only ask whether liberalism in society sets up the conditions that allow art to be made.
A favourite trope of the conservative right is the notion that 20th century totalitarianism was bound up in the destruction of traditional social structures, beliefs, and in particular, the advent of atheism. The fascistic and communist life, they argue, is bound up with alien forms, landscapes, aesthetic experiences, and a ‘brave new world’. Another favourite trope of the conservative right is the idea that religion produced great art, and that aesthetic ‘decay’ has something to do with the decay of belief.
Both assertions are largely wrong. The political structures of the Western Church in the medieval period shared many features common to totalitarianism, some of which are strikingly familiar, such as the requirement in the IVth Lateran Council of 1215 that Jewish people wear identifying clothes. Events like the Albigensian ‘Crusade’, the massacre of heretics who did not accept the interpretation of the Trinity, were not incidental to Medieval society, but actually constitutive of it. Such acts were editorial—even creative—since they literally defined religion’s ‘acceptable’ limits. Organised religion was not the lock on Pandora’s box, it has often been one of its contents.
Yet, another piece of the medieval West’s history is its art. And that art is of course bound up so very closely with the society that produced it. I say this as someone who has great respect for the masons and painters, weavers and metalsmiths that produced medieval artefacts. I also say this as someone with a strong interest in the religious and ethical content that these works can express. But we must look at these objects fully aware that the social programme of this past was a programme that would be bitterly at variance with the principles and freedoms we cherish.
We enjoy art for both its formal and its moral content. A basic observation that is not often made is that these aesthetic and ethical contents are not always active at the same time. The fact that medieval masons managed to produce stone vaults of great height and size has very little relevance to religious or political belief. There is also absolutely no evidence that the features of their design were stipulated from higher-level political structures. These stone decorations are certainly ‘good’ at being bits of stone, superb even, but they are not ‘good’, in a moral sense. Nor can they be ‘bad’, misogynistic or antisemitic. Medieval images that certainly are antisemitic are the numerous racist caricatures that feature in paintings of the ‘Mocking of Christ’. Moral judgements can be quite clear for figurative, representational artworks. It is much more difficult to make moral judgements about aniconic and abstract artworks. But the harder people try, the more authoritarian they are likely to be. Authoritarianism will always attempt to expand its territory, and the aesthetic realm is no exception.
So, even in authoritarian societies, some artistic content will only bear a tenuous relationship with the orthodoxies at play, even if the authorities would like to pretend otherwise. What, then, about liberalism? Both its formal and its moral properties will be open to criticism and censure as in any other form of society. But the criticism can no longer be directed in an evident ‘chain of command’, and it makes little sense to speak of an aesthetic achievement attributable to a whole culture.
By simply letting go of aesthetic control, liberalism grants artistic agency to artists, that is, the people who are actually capable of making art. We should credit Vasari’s biographically skewed vite de’ piu eccellenti pittori scultori e architettori for making this crucial individualist observation as early as 1550. In the end, the idea of ‘societal artistic production’, that political structures are or should be responsible for art, is inherently illiberal. It both assumes and promotes the tenet that entire nations can become ‘united’ actors with abilities akin to individual people—in fact replacing individual people—a ‘vision’ of life that should be nothing but chilling.
Aesthetic properties are generally much more incidental to political conditions than many would like to admit. In liberal democracy, much terrible art will be made—some morally objectionable. But the political system, by definition, will not be responsible for making it. And, as for the good works of art that do get made, we can at least be proud of the fact that we did not suppress them out of existence.