Some thoughts on art – part 2 (Arendt)

In an interesting article on freedom, where Arendt posits a different view of freedom that our contemporary liberal ideology can learn a lot from [sidenote: make a post on Arendt’s notion of freedom], Arendt has an interesting passage on art and the role of the artist. In a previous post on art and Zizek, the general line of thought was that for Zizek art seems to have debased the world. As I had concluded there:

art no longer aspires to recreate or capture the beauty of the world – to get closer to it; quite the opposite, in its realization that that task cannot be achieved, art debases the world itself in order to be closer to it

To those familiar with Arendt’s work, this would seem somewhat strange, yet familiar. In Arendt there are some recurrent themes about the world (undoubtedly built on Heidegger’s terminology). With some minor stylistic changes, the above sentence could be attributed to her. Yet, her view is significantly different.

The point here is not whether the creative artist is free in the process of creation, but that the creative process is not displayed in public and not destined to appear in the world. Hence the element of freedom, certainly present in the creative arts, remains hidden; it is not the free creative process which finally appears and matters for the world, but the work of art itself, the end product of the process. The performing arts, on the contrary, have indeed a strong affinity with politics. Performing artists—dancers, play-actors, musicians, and the like—need an audience to show their virtuosity, just as acting men need the presence of others before whom they can appear; both need a publicly organized space for their ‘work’, and both depend upon others for the performance itself. Such a space of appearances is not to be taken for granted wherever men live together in a community. The Greek polis once was precisely that ‘form of government’ which provided men with a space of appearances where they could act, with a kind of theater where freedom could appear (Arendt, What is Freedom? – in Between Past and Future).

What we have here is the distinction of two types of art, and two types of corresponding spaces. Both the public and the private space are can be used for art, yet there is a limitation how that art will be perceived. Arendt refers to her phenomenological background in creating the distinct spaces. Performance art cannot function within a private space – it is not only that it needs an audience (one can think of small theatres where artists perform), but the meaning of the art is lost once performance is confined to a space where the public is restricted.

It seems as though Arendt places art across socio-economic boundaries – Shakespeare’s plays have little effect when played only for a specific groups; they may very well excite or give rise to certain emotions, but they will ultimately lose the variety that is present in them.

The political message in this is quite interesting. Although art may seem as being for all socio-economic strata, Arendt posits that it is not [sidenote: it seems in this she precedes [amazon text=Bourdieu’s Distinction&asin=0674212770]. A Picasso in my bedroom, regardless of its political message, if there is any, is lost to the public; and so is a performance piece – Dance of Zalongo in my bedroom would be meaningless politically. Yet, it is not so that my exhibition of Picasso in a public space would make it more political by virtue of it being in public – it is only an art piece that enters the world among many other ‘objects’; whereas a performance piece is political because of its direct interaction with the audience.

Here, we need a little background information. In Arendt’s phenomenology we find two concepts: work and action. Both concepts (as activities) may play a role in the public space – things we produce ultimately create a public space and the way we act is only meaningful within a public space. Yet, for her, it is only the latter that is political, whereas the former is only a condition for (or a possibility of) politics.


Some thoughts or art – part 1 (Zizek)
Some thoughts on art – part 3 (Zizek again)

For those interested in seeing more art on Arendt, visit Shy Abady’s website.


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1 Response

  1. January 8, 2016

    […] Part 2 of thoughts on art (Arendt) can be found here. […]

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