Recap of the November 2022 Tanner Lectures on Human Values with Fintan O' Toole

Feb. 16, 2023

Fintan O'Toole gave his Tanner Lectures, Known and Strange Things: The Political Necessity of Art, in the Friend Center at Princeton on 9 and 10 November 2023.

Recap of Lecture 1: "Against Artfulness"
Written by: Micheal Smith, McCosh Professor of Philosophy

The first lecture, "Against Artfulness", began with an observation. The simple-minded idea that art will inevitably make us morally better was well and truly squashed by the rise of fascism in the mid-20th century, and the highly aestheticized propaganda machine that supported it in Nazi Germany. Though one reaction to these horrors might have been to keep art and politics entirely separate, the hope being that democracy would sustain itself entirely by the force of argument without any help from the arts, O'Toole noted that in fact the opposite happened. Populist politics of the kind that has been so prevalent in western democracies in the first part of 21st is similarly aestheticized, and it is moving in a similarly authoritarian direction.

Moreover, even if we could keep art and politics entirely separate, O'Toole suggested that now would seem not to be the time to do it. One of the signal failures of our time has been to address the climate crisis while it was still looming. What's sorely needed now that it is upon us, he suggested, is more in the way of an imaginative engagement with our future of the transformative kind art makes possible, not less. But for art of that kind to be produced, we must first understand the obstacles to its production. How has the aestheticization of politics enabled authoritarianism, and is there still a kind of art that would contribute to its undoing? In the remainder of the first lecture, O'Toole addressed the first of these questions, arguing that five tools formerly used mainly by artists have been either co-opted or defanged by populist politicians.

The first is the suspension of disbelief, something that (say) a playwright must be able to induce in an audience for them to enjoy a play. To the extent that politicians used such a tool in the past, they were quickly removed from office. Successful politicians had a political agenda, they induced in the public the conviction that they would deliver on that agenda, and then they delivered. But nowadays success in politics doesn't necessarily require either convincing the public of a political agenda or delivering it. O'Toole illustrated this point with the example of Trump's promised wall on the Mexican border. His admirers seemed neither to believe nor disbelieve that he would build that wall, something that became clear when they didn't care when he built so little of it. Trump had managed to induce in them a suspension of disbelief. This suggests that what his supporters admired was the attitude he expressed when he said that he would build a wall. The political performance had replaced the political agenda.

The second distinctive tool of artists is transgression, the breaking down of barriers. O'Toole's examples included Dadaism, punk rock, surrealist paintings, and the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. These are all cases in which conventions that served to suppress the expression of minority viewpoints, something that is anathema to democracy, were challenged by artists with great effect. Indeed, in some cases the effects have been so great that, for example, sex scenes in television programs that would once have shocked— think Game of Thrones—are now thoroughly mainstream. In more tolerant and liberal times, it has therefore become much harder for artists to be transgressive. It is this void that has been filled by populist politicians, and it is the conventions of liberalism itself—the practices of acceptance of people without regard to their sexuality, gender, race, or ethnicity, and of calling people out for derogating others on such grounds—that they transgress, and the effect of these transgressions has been chillingly anti-democratic.

The third tool of artists is irony. The satirical takedown of politicians has in the past been one of the main ways in which artists have engaged in political action. But such ridicule requires that the object of ridicule hasn't already embraced the ridiculous, making it their brand. Yet that is what has happened. O'Toole's example was Giorgia Meloni, the first female Italian prime minister and an admirer of Mussolini, posting a Tik Tok video of herself holding two large melons in front of her breasts. Or think of the many times Trump says something outrageous but then says that it was just a joke. This embrace of irony has enabled populist politicians to portray the difference between themselves and their opponents as the difference between irreverent fun-lovers who enjoy a good laugh and woke party-poopers who can't take a joke.

The fourth tool employed by artists is a narrative trope. If there are people within a story who don't know something, then if they come to know that thing, storytellers often ensure that that brings with it a further and significant change of fortune. O'Toole's example was Oedipus being told that the person he killed was his father. This isn't just upsetting for Oedipus, it means that his entire life has changed, as he can no longer be king. There is, as O'Toole puts it, a current that runs from recognition to reversal, and the flow of that current has been crucial to holding political leaders accountable in democracies. But populists have somehow managed to defang this narrative trope in contemporary politics. Revelations of crassness and wrong-doing have few if any consequences for them. Think of Trump and the Access Hollywood tape.

The fifth and final tool of the artist is authenticity. To react to an artwork as a serious piece of art, the audience needs to believe that the artist has put all of themselves into the production of their artwork; that they aren't having the audience on. Artists thus achieve their purposes in part by convincing consumers of their own integrity as artists, and in the past the same was true of politicians. They needed to convince their audience of their sincerity in putting forward their agenda. But O'Toole argued that populism has reset the default assumptions people have about politicians when they listen to them. Since it is now assumed that all politicians lie, the most sincere among them must be the most brazen liar and overt bully. These are the authentic politicians, the ones who clearly aren't having their audience on.

With this account of the ways in which populism has either co-opted or defanged the tools used by artists, O'Toole left us with a question. Can art any longer serve a democratic function? It is this question that is the topic of the second lecture.

The first of the commentators was Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw who reminded us that there is another way in which art can be political. She had served as the Director of Research, Publications, and Scholarly Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery at the time Black Lives Matter activists were pulling down statues that memorialize settler colonialists and white supremacists across the United States. Since some of those whose portraits appear in the National Portrait Gallery were themselves settler colonialists and members of the Confederacy, she had to take steps both to secure the collection and to make sure that the Gallery's displays were suitably informative about their subjects.  She was also part of a fraught and on-going conversation about how the work of artists who are part of the Black Lives Matter movement are to be appropriately recognized by art institutions like the National Portrait Gallery.

The second commentator, Wendy Brown, returned to the topic of the climate crisis with which O'Toole's started, and questioned the role that populist politicians play in our ignoring it. She reminded us that addressing the climate crisis would require that those like us in Western countries, where the causes of the climate crisis lie, to change our lifestyle in radical ways, ways so radical that we would find it repellant to do so even if we could imagine it. In this context, she argued that populist politicians may well be the effect of the climate crisis, rather than a cause of it, as they enable us not even to consider the changes to our lifestyle that our very survival may well require of us. In anticipation of the second lecture, Brown also reminded us that, for all of the obstacles O'Toole described, transformative art is still being produced. Her example was the haunting "Baraye", a song composed by Shervin Hajipour out of tweets in support of the youth-led popular uprising in Iran that was in its second month at the time of the lectures. Nominated for a Grammy, the song is performed by supporters all over the world, and has been played more than a million times on YouTube. Brown played the YouTube video of "Baraye" for those present. It was a poignant note on which to close.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Class of 1940 Bicentennial Term Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania, and Wendy Brown, UPS Foundation Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, gave responses.

Recap of Lecture 2: "Negative Capability"
Written by: Stuart Middleton, Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellow

In his first Tanner lecture, Fintan O’Toole reflected on aspects of the artfulness, or aestheticisation, of contemporary populist and reactionary politics. He opened his second lecture by asking what was distinctive about the contemporary forms this had taken. There are four key aspects to this, O’Toole suggested, none of which is entirely new, but the combination of which is novel and problematic.

First, reactionary politics now uses art not to create myths that bind a whole community, as Plato envisaged, but to create divisions within it. Second, whereas spectacle has traditionally been thought to be separate from the real business of wielding power—as in Bagehot’s celebrated account of the British monarchy—now spectacle has become inseparable from governance. Third, the purpose of artfulness in contemporary politics is not to stimulate action, as it was in totalitarian regimes, but to demobilise the electorate and produce political disengagement – something that was exemplified in Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia prior to the invasion of Ukraine. Finally, O’Toole suggested that whereas Hannah Arendt thought totalitarianism attempted to create a world that had an internal consistency characteristic of art, the contemporary aestheticisation of politics makes no such attempt; instead, it seeks to abolish truth altogether, so that whatever the leader might say in any particular time and place can be true until, in different circumstances, it is required to be false. In this latter respect the contrast between “full-blown fascism” and “fully-fictionalized democracy,” O’Toole suggested, was that in the former it was impermissible to contradict the leader, whereas in the latter it is in a sense impossible because leaders constantly contradict themselves.

Since it seems unlikely that democracy can be altogether separated from art, O’Toole identified as the fundamental question raised by this new predicament that of how it might be possible to distinguish between good and bad art in politics; and if such a distinction can be made, whether good art might in some way exemplify good politics.

To answer this question, O’Toole began by suggesting that what we understand as good art recognises its own powerlessness: as W.H. Auden declared in his poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”, “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ […] A way of happening, a mouth.” Good art gives voice to people to whom it was denied, an act that is distinctively democratic and which brings silenced, hidden histories to life – histories that are unruly and that do not easily fit into currently-dominant ways of thinking and speaking.

In this sense, O’Toole suggested, art gives to democracy “its double”: the pasts and victims it has forgotten, which disrupt the ways it presents itself now. And in doing so, art can enable us to live with that doubleness, without either seeking an easy resolution, or lapsing into a version of what George Orwell called “doublethink” – the persistent contradiction that is one of the hallmarks of contemporary reaction. This capacity to live with doubleness is a form of what John Keats termed “negative capability”, the condition “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. By developing this capacity, good art might help us to recognise that “democracy” does not denote any single, fixed condition or historical trajectory – that it is, rather, always contingent and unfinished, a dispensation under which, O’Toole said, “everything that has been done can be undone.” Whereas contemporary anti-democratic politics tends to pathologize anything that can be represented as antithetical to its objectives or constituency, art makes the negative desirable and teaches us to understand the “other” as part of ourselves.

Rebecca Solnit, writer and activist, and Alexander Nehamas, Edmund N. Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Comparative Literature, Princeton, gave responses.

Access Lecture 1 "Against Artfulness" here.

Access Lecture 2 "Negative Capability" here.