Fintan O'Toole (columnist for the Irish Times and book author): “Known and Strange Things: The Political Necessity of Art - Lecture I: Against Artfulness”

Wed, Nov 9, 2022, 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm
Location: 
Friend Center, Lecture Hall 101
Audience: 
Free and Open to the Public (registration required)
Tanner Lectures on Human Values

ABSTRACT: The relationship between democracy and art has shifted simultaneously in opposite directions. On the one hand, very few people still believe that aesthetic experience has a positive political value. Yet, on the other, democratic practice is increasingly saturated in performativity and the fictional narratives of identity. Ideas that once belonged to artists – provocation, invention, and knowingness – are now the stuff of reactionary politics.

We need, therefore, to reassert the necessity of art for democratic citizenship. It is through art that we learn how to live at once in different time frames, as we must do if we are to come to terms with the climate crisis. The aesthetic experience engages with the past but does not pretend that is finished or complete. It creates mental spaces that are “neither here nor there/ A hurry through which known and strange things pass” (Seamus Heaney). It allows us to hover between states without having to land on the fixed terrain of absolutes. The democratic mindset is one in which this capability is embraced and we can behave as if we know who we are and what we are doing even while also knowing that we do not. 

Lecture I: Democracy has become, not so much aestheticized, as artful. Reactionary politicians create collusive relationships with their audiences in which exaggeration and provocation are performed and consumed. Citizens become fans. This is less a form of democratic deliberation, more an ersatz replacement for the aesthetic experience.
 

Fintan O'Toole is a columnist with The Irish Times and Leonard L. Milberg '53 Visiting Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton University. He is the winner of both the Orwell Prize for Journalism, the European Press Prize and the AT Cross Award for Supreme Contribution to Irish Journalism. He is currently working on the official biography of Seamus Heaney. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

Born in Dublin in 1958, he has been drama critic of the New York Daily News, and The Irish Times and Literary Adviser to the Abbey Theatre. He contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books and The Guardian.

His most recent book, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland was named Book of the Year in the 2021 Irish Book Awards.