The Role of Aesthetics in the Politics of Hannah Arendt

Article excerpt

Hannah Arendt's work is often interpreted as promoting an aesthetic form of politics. For Arendt, political action discloses who someone is in words and deeds, and reveals her unique character. Because political actions disclose the uniqueness of the individual actor, Arendt's politics seems to advocate the artistic expression of the political actors as the primary purpose for politics. Politics would be like a work of art, in which a few political actors express themselves to an audience of spectators who view their artistic work. Politics becomes an expressive art for the benefit, distinction, and fame of certain individuals, rather than focusing on the needs of the community as a whole. Arendt's discussion of political judgment provides further evidence for an aesthetic interpretation of her work. For Arendt, political actions are judged by a community through the use of reflective judgments of taste that are similar to Kantian aesthetic judgments. The term "taste" is most often used in relation to art objects, so politics is assumed to be aesthetic for Arendt, given her model of judgment in based upon Kant's theory of taste. Overall, Arendt has received both criticism and praise for the perception of her politics as a type of artistic display. However, the relation between aesthetics and politics in Hannah Arendt's thought is complicated, and she was very careful not to conflate the two.1 In this essay, I argue that Arendt does not aestheticize politics or believe that political actions should be interpreted through aesthetic categories. First, this view would violate her distinction between the activities of action and work, and second, this interpretation would ignore her assertion that the spectators who judge are more important than the political actors. Although there are some points of commonality between politics and aesthetics in Arendt's project, she remained suspicious of attempts to aestheticize or romanticize politics, even at the level of judgment.

Arendt's account of action in The Human Condition is the initial source of the difficulty in interpreting the relation between aesthetics and politics in her thought. In this work, she distinctly divides the activities of labor, work, and action. Labor is a human activity concerned with the cyclical and repetitive biological needs of human life that must be renewed continuously. Work, in contrast to labor, builds more permanent fabricated structures that begin to separate persons from nature. Through work and fabrication, humans build a world with a higher degree of permanence and durability to stand against nature and to separate themselves from the cyclical demands of nature. Finally, action is participation in the political life that discloses persons in their singularity, and gives them the opportunity to be remembered. Action is important for Arendt because through words and deeds persons can accomplish acts that are unique to them. She writes in The Human Condition, "in acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world."2 In other words, political action discloses "who" someone is.3 Also, through political action, one can attain a degree of immortality because through oral and written record and tradition, an individual's action can be remembered beyond one's lifespan. Many have interpreted Arendt's discussion of action from The Human Condition as an aesthetic activity because action discloses persons in their individuality through performance. Politically, Arendt seems to be endorsing an aesthetic model of politics which promotes the creativity and individuality of the actor above all else.

Once action is interpreted as aesthetic, Arendt is generally either criticized or applauded. The critics of Arendt's "aestheticization" of politics believe that she promotes the creativity and virtuosity of the political actor, at the expense of others within the community. …