In Christoph Menke’s essay Aesthetics of Equality (Hatje Cantze, 2011), he quotes Renée Descartes,
“Good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed, for everybody thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that even those most difficult to please in all other matters do not commonly desire more of it than they already possess. It is unlikely that this is an error on their part; it seems rather to be evidence in support of the view that the capacity of forming a good judgement and of distinguishing the true from the false, which is properly speaking what is called Good Sense or Reason, is by nature equal in all men. Hence too it will show that the diversity of our opinions does not proceed from some men being more rational than others, but solely from the fact that our thoughts pass through diverse channels and the same objects are not considered by all. For to be possessed of good mental capacities is not sufficient; the principle matter is to apply them well.”
When I describe my efforts discussing art work, I expect a shared reasoning style–a style based on experience both contemporary and canonical. Nevertheless, the more I go on within a contemporary art world, the more specialized my experience becomes. The network of informing associations grows ever more complex, complicit with and substantiated by established routes of judgement and critique. Standing in stark contrast to Descartes, Menke quotes Artistole’s claims that some of humanity is naturally slave-like while another group possesses inborn and independent leadership ability–in Aristotle’s version those who are enslaved do not possess reason. “For he is by nature a slave who is capable of belonging to another (and that is why he does so belong), and who participates in reason so far as to apprehend it but not to possess it” (Aristotle, Politics). Menke draws the conversation farther along, suggesting the sense of inequality stems from variant educations. According to Arendt, we aren’t naturally imbued with slavery or leadership; rather those traits are contingent on a civilization–relative to a common, self-organized structure. “Equality existed only within this specifically political realm, where men met one another as citizens and not as private persons…Neither equality nor freedom was understood as a quality inherent in nature.” We might therefore arrive at a new, political equality through an education of aesthetics, but that equality will always be contingent on the circumstances of its sociopolitical (and economic) context.
I love this idea, but wonder after the iconoclasts–the bastions of community who reject conventional ideas about what is good and what is bad. There is something significant in the sign of their gesture–a punk rock rebellion poised to force consensus to question itself. Even the artist residencies in the woods–communities pitched in the middle of the nothing; they go there to create new bodies of work outside the usual confines of everyday life. While their interruption is transitory–an impermanent rebellion–it is still a kind of rejection, perhaps an attempt to shed the education of urban civilization (what is so often the site for contemporary art practice). Such a gesture seems important as a challenge of power; I can’t help think it most successful when it is informed (not only brutish), and reflective (not only impulsive), and open (not simply intimidated). This even seems to be Menke’s point, “In aesthetically transgressing our social experience we experience that we are equal. Political equality is an aesthetic effect. We make ourselves aesthetically equal; aesthetically, we make ourselves equal.” Still, the resulting hypothesis is so interesting to me! Somehow through a shared education and rebuke of hierarchy embedded within that education, we can experience equality.