And the wisdom that becomes available over a deep, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic cannot, I venture to say, be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness. Indeed, the various definitions of beauty come at least as close to a plausible characterization of virtue, and of a fuller humanity, as the attempts to define goodness as such.
I believe this with every bit of me. And I am completely convinced that, as egregiously privileged as I am, this is not a privileged position. Susan Sontag had radical left politics, but she put the aesthetic first. She’s a lot smarter than me, but I’m still going to try to make some sense of that position here.
Politics are terminal. They are finite. We might say we are interested in raising questions when we talk about gender or race or other categories that are defined and upheld by politics. But politics is really about finding answers. This has its place, but its place is not in art.
Artists know that finding real answers is not possible in this world. The failure of politics to recognize this fact is why the lasting thing from any culture has been its expression. Desperate people turn to story, turn to verse, performance, art. When nothing is assured, when help doesn’t come, when standards aren’t met and good people suffer, the only thing left is to confront mystery, to confront tragedy and eternity.
The aesthetic means simply the representation of all this mystery, tragedy, eternity without the dissembling claim of wrapping them up neatly. Keying into the aesthetic instead of the political in a work of art is about asking what choices of form the art-maker made to best help the audience to access the mystery, the eternity. To help the audience feel human.
As Sontag puts it, “a fuller humanity.” That is what art is after. Art shouldn’t be a prettier journalism or history or sociology. Art is about reaching people through empathy, not data or facts or argument. And learning certain facts or believing in certain causes and wanting to win people over to them is not the impetus toward real art. There are causes I believe in, certainly–I am not politically apathetic, and I will tell you all about why you should donate your organs or support same-sex marriage. I will prove to you that the New York Times transmits really weird messages about gender, and I will get heated about it, and finally so will you. There are things that really must change, problems to which solutions must be applied even if there will always be injustice both cosmic and human-made.
But I won’t attempt to make art to get those messages across (I say attempt because art is not, cannot be and still be art, about messages, it is about representation, and the only value judgment is whether an artist is representing as truthfully as possible, which doesn’t mean as realistically or as faithfully to real or even possible events). I’m interested in the bigger things, more mysterious, more permanent things. A bigger thing is having empathy for someone you thought you had nothing in common with. A bigger thing is seeing the world through unshaded eyes. A bigger thing is realizing you are powerless to change any of it, but that you still have the will, courage, and stamina to muddle through, most likely for someone else’s sake. A bigger thing is realizing you are not alone. That you are not the only person built this way but that the world won’t stop calling you a freak.
That is radical indeed.