We speak as readily of the art of politics as we do of the art of cooking or writing, and what we have in mind in each case is what the French call savoir faire. This sense of “art” claims excellence for the activity of which the term is predicated, and since to know what to do and how to do it makes perhaps more difference in politics than in anything else, this well-established usage seems unobjectionable. And yet, praising politics as an art is somewhat misleading and may have disastrous consequences, because politics is not really an art, and its excellence is in some essential respects diametrically opposed to all but the most limited sense of “art.”
Cooking is indeed an art, but we may do better contrasting politics with poetry or composition or painting, that is, the so-called “fine arts,” which most philosophers see as our way of rising above our earthly daily experiences. For instance, Schelling describes a work of art as “the infinite finitely represented.” Similarly, locating its essence in what he calls “style,” Goethe believes that art penetrates “the essence of things, insofar as it is granted to us to know this in visible and tangible forms.” Croce may be said to translate that thought into Italian when he proclaims that “an aspiration enclosed in the circle of representation—that is art.” And Maritain may be said to do Croce one better when he asserts that a true “work of art . . . will deliver to the mind, at one stroke, the universe in a human countenance.”
This transcendent character of art is further confirmed by the requirement of “otherness” involved in its evaluation. In the case of cooking, the proof is in the pudding, not in the cook. In the case of fine arts, however, this requirement is, appropriately enough, doubled and applies not only to the artist but also to the beholder of art. In order truly to enjoy a work of art, we are told by wise philosophers, we must not even covet it, let alone consume it. Consumption or covetousness make it impossible to appreciate “beauty,” regardless of whether one thinks that it is found “in the eye of the beholder” or in the thing itself.
Tolstoy expresses doubts about “beauty” as a valid aesthetic standard and resignedly concludes that “we call ‘beauty’ that which pleases us without evoking in us desire.” But that is precisely what “the beautiful” meant to Plato. In the Symposium, at the end of a sumptuous banquet, the guests, without desiring any, are able to contemplate the sheer beauty of artistically arranged baskets of fruits. Indeed, as Yves R. Simon has suggested, “To describe aloofness as the privilege of the aesthetic eye is almost the same as to give a definition of beauty.” Politics, as we shall see, enjoys no such privilege. In politics, neither the actor, “the artist,” nor the beholders of his action can ever remain aloof or unaffected by its “product.” In contrast to art, politics is not about essences but about existence.
Of course, in real life, not even the most successful forms of art attain the ideal of total detachment from daily and indeed political reality. Thus while all may agree with Ernst Cassirer that art is a “symbolic form,” which in its own way gives us access to another “reality,” this by no means guarantees that all will judge particular works of art in the same way. Even if everyone shared the same definition of art, there would still be plenty of room for disagreement about whether particular works satisfied that definition and about who was qualified to pass aesthetic judgment.
To know good art is never easy, but an “artist’s artist” should be able to recognize it. A Phidias would know whether a piece of marble of a certain shape is a work of art, and a Michelangelo and a Rodin would probably agree. A young playwright would be lucky if he could submit his work to a Shakespeare, a budding poet to have his read by a Goethe, a neophyte novelist to have his judged by a Tolstoy, any musician to have his composition listened to by a Bach, and so on. A master artist not only is capable of creating what gives us pleasure without stirring desire, but he also knows exactly what he is doing. And because he can thus look at his own work and see that it is good, he can also tell about the work of others. To be and to know at the same time is said to be a divine privilege. Working in its shadow, the human creator, the master artist, must therefore be the best judge of art.
The second best judge of art would appear to be the professional critic who, while he may not be capable of producing great works, has devoted his life to trying to grasp what is intelligible in art and wants to let the rest of us in on it. Academic teachers of art history and philosophers specializing in aesthetics, as well as journalists covering the arts all perform this valuable service of fostering appreciation of art among their fellow citizens. Unfortunately, to distinguish a good from a bad critic may sometimes be harder than to distinguish good from bad art. There is always the possibility that a competent critic may have some personal ax to grind or has decided to put his pen up for sale. We must never forget that love of art and beauty is not the same as love of justice and fellow man. But note that in this respect the critics are not much different from the artists. For even among the greatest artists some leave much to be desired as human beings.
History and society at large have been dismissed often enough as less competent judges of art, but such dismissal proves ambiguous. No one can deny that judgment about what is beautiful differs widely from place to place and over time, or that some artists achieve fame only posthumously while others are soon forgotten. For instance, the music of Gustav Mahler is today appreciated much more than while he was alive, and the same goes for the paintings of Paul Gauguin. And were it not for the movie Amadeus, few people today would recognize the name of Salieri, once considered a great composer. In the past century or so, Impressionism, Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Neo-Classicism, Primitivism, Futurism, Imagism, Minimalism, and so on have all come and gone, to mention only the better known schools—or fashions—in art.
But is society to blame for this rapid and perhaps erratic turnover? New styles are invariably introduced by artists themselves, and critics have a lot to do with their social acceptance. With greater or lesser degree of inertial resistance, society simply seems to go along. In considering the validity of sociohistorical judgment in art, however, we should also note that, albeit again on advice from experts, modern societies especially have provided generously for the preservation of works of art done in every style imaginable. Displayed with pride in museums of art, these collections testify to an undercurrent of deeper understanding of the place of art in communal life. Thus Tolstoy certainly is right when he observes that art is a necessary condition of human life, which has in all societies and at all times exacted great sacrifices.
The most suspect aesthetic opinion would have to be that of the so-called independent-minded individual who insists that he needs no guidance because he knows what he likes. This seems to be a special problem in modern mass democratic societies whose ethos encourages assertion of omnicompetence by “the man in the street” and produces what critics have called “mass culture” characterized by wholesale “lowering of standards.” Among writers who have addressed this problem, we find T.S. Eliot and Irving Babbitt, as well as Tocqueville and Henry Adams, all of whom have complained about the decline of “high culture” in modern times. But the new “popular culture,” including the hope of spreading ever “higher” culture among the masses, also has its highly articulate defenders. Herbert Read and Susan Sontag, Richard Hoggart and Edward Shills, among others, have variously questioned the validity of the distinction between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture. Film is as legitimate an art as theater, they say, and so is the music of the Beatles compared to that of Beethoven.
While it may not be exactly the same as going to a live Philharmonic concert, listening to records is a genuinely aesthetic experience. While the working classes have always possessed a vital culture of their own, modern technology—helped by certain appropriate sociopolitical adjustments—now holds out the promise of a universal high culture. As Read puts it with some exaggeration in To Hell With Culture, in the democratic civilization of the future all workers will be artists, because “the artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.”
Because it makes “the finer things in life” accessible to the many, the affluence of the advanced industrial countries in the West seems further to aggravate this problem. Here the meaning of “art” is daily decided by millions who are neither critics nor members of the relatively small “leisure class.” By a kind of supply-side economics in an aesthetically neutral free market, the meaning of “art” expands to include anything that can be sold under that label. J.B. Priestly a generation ago coined the term “admass” to denounce this situation, and protests against such “commercialization of art” in the “consumer society” virtually at the mercy of the “mass media” have never really ceased. But they tend to be drowned in the noise of cash registers.
For some critics, this development is simply another proof of “capitalist decadence” and disintegration, and they may well be right. If beauty is what gives pleasure without stirring desire, true enjoyment of art just might be one of those few things that money cannot buy. But it by no means follows that the salvation of art is to be found in “socialist realism.” For if it is not for sale, so to speak, the experience of transcendent beauty certainly is not in the power of politics to give either.
Art and politics go together in our experience, because there is no art except in an organized community, and there is no community without politics. But that does not mean that politics and art cannot be meaningfully separated in social practice, and historical evidence suggests that such separation is especially beneficial to art. The flourishing of the fine arts in ancient Greece, in the Renaissance, and indeed in modern times must be attributed at least in part to their relative freedom from political interference. By contrast, to the extent that official policy in totalitarian states includes not just censorship of the arts but often also persecution of dissident artists, art suffers. Can mere makers of symbols of social reality ever attain transcendent beauty? Whatever one may think of the possibilities of a “command economy,” “command art” is a contradiction in terms.
Showing that politics has no place in art, however, is only half of our problem. The complementary and much more difficult task is to show that art has no place in politics either. People readily grasp that art free from politics is possible only in a society in which politics, too, is in some sense free. But what even some great political philosophers do not seem to understand is that in order to be really free, politics must above all be free from art. The separation of art and politics, in order to be beneficial to society, cannot be one-sided. Free art in a free state is attainable only to the extent that the politics of that state is not turned into an art.
Political savoir faire in the sense of knowing how to get ahead and make the most of it to further one’s own interests has been widely admired at least since the sophist contemporaries of Socrates offered this art for sale in ancient Greece. Thrasymachus summed up the formula: “To be really precise one must say that the ruler, insofar as he is a ruler, makes no mistakes, and so infallibly enacts what is best for himself, which his subjects must perform. And so, as I said to begin with, ‘right’ [justice] means the interest of the stronger party.” We can hear an echo of this “sophisticated” view in H.D. Lasswell’s famous definition of politics as “who gets what, when, how,” a definition which haunted the behavioralist movement in the American political science a generation ago and may be expected to be heard again.
Fortunately, whether recommended as an ideal or merely presented as a “reality,” this view of politics has always met with spirited challenge in both popular and philosophical opinion. In the American usage, “politician” carries a negative connotation precisely because people know that taking advantage of public office for persona! gain is wrong. Thus even when they grudgingly admire a particular skillful politician in action, most people, including behavioralists, recognize that what they are watching is a performance by a “con-artist” and wish for a different kind of politics.
The art—techne—of politics, in the sense of “might makes right,” is invariably associated with the teachings of Machiavelli. Yet what Machiavelli and Thrasymachus expect from politics are two quite different things, and their difference illustrates both the difficulty of ridding politics of art and the urgent necessity for it. Thrasymachus holds simply that there is nothing “wrong” with looking after one’s own interests first and foremost. But Machiavelli seeks power for a far loftier end, and that makes his defense of “the art of politics” so much more difficult to challenge.
The old Greek Sophist not only claims to be a realist but also admits freely to being a cynic. The wily Italian, however, wraps his equally cynical view of human nature and power in the colors of a patriot. Thrasymachus says. If I do not look after No. 1, who will? But Machiavelli claims legitimacy for his treacherous means not just in the name of “the art of politics” but also on behalf of its true end, namely, the public good. The Prince is urged to do all sorts of nasty things not for himself but for the greater good and glory of the State. It is the nobility of the end that justifies the wickedness of the means. As Mazzini was to say much later, “What scoundrels would we have been had we done these things for ourselves”—rather than for La Patria.
But is there really that much of a difference between Machiavelli’s politics and that of Thrasymachus? Can one’s art be said to be higher, or nobler, than the other’s? Or do they not rather both make us think that perhaps politics ought not to be cultivated as an art, after all? To see better what these popular views really have in common and why they are both equally unacceptable, we need only to consider how Socrates himself claims to have proved Thrasymachus wrong. The art of politics as such, like the art of medicine or navigation or even sheepherding, Socrates holds, must be exercised not in the interest of the ruler but rather of the people, just as those other arts are exercised not in the interest of the practitioner but in the interest of the patient or the ship’s crew and passengers or even the sheep. Convincing as it sounds, this argument is in fact profoundly misleading. For well-intentioned as it is, it represents but a cleaned-up version of politics as the supreme art, and were it to be accepted uncritically, it could cause more harm today than ever before in history.
Even the wisest of geniuses have their blind spots, and in defense of Socrates one could argue that it was actually love of mankind that prevented him from seeing that politics is no more an art than knowledge is a virtue. But be that as it may, the record shows that in constructing his ideal, just, and happy city, Socrates saw nothing wrong with employing some dubious means. True, in contrast to Machiavelli, he does not recommend assassination, terror, or even plain lies. But as is well-known, Socrates does insist not only on a “noble myth” of inequality among human beings but also on the need for continuous and most rigorous censorship of all the arts for the sake of universal happiness.
Even though the guardians of Socrates’ ideal state—as described by Plato—care nothing about gold, fame, or anything else for themselves, they take care of the people precisely in the manner in which a good physician (or psychiatrist?) or a shepherd would care for his patients or sheep. More infallible than Thrasymachus’ ideal ruler and more refined than Machiavelli’s ruthless prince, Socrates’ pliilosopher-king remains a political artist, engaged not so much in living as in making politics. His savoir faire consists in knowing how, literally, to make others happy.
From the modern democratic point of view, the advantage of government by philosopher-kings totally dedicated to the public good is nullified by Plato’s (and Socrates’) exclusion of the people even from the selection, let alone the control of the rulers. Consequently, Plato’s political theory is often held up to ridicule and dismissed as aiming at something completely different from the aspirations of democratic politics. That, however, may be a serious mistake. For whatever else may be wrong with Plato’s theory, it is not inconceivable that both elected leaders and those who elect them could adopt attitudes approximating more or less exactly the prescribed behavior of the two classes in the ideal city of Socrates. In fact, that is precisely the kind of situation that Tocqueville worried might develop as democracy takes hold and prospers, and it is not exactly the tyranny of the majority. He had no name for it, though he tried to describe it:
The species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything else that ever before existed in the world. . . . I seek to trace the novel features under which [this] despotism may appear. . . . The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.
We recognize here the problem of political apathy traceable to a caricature of rugged individualism. But that is not the worst of it. For above this race of men, Tocqueville sees another small group of men:
An immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure [men’s] gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
In contrast to Plato’s eugenically bred guardians, the government Tocqueville fears is a freely elected government. But why does this government of the people, by the people, and most definitely for the people carry on more or less exactly as Plato expected his guardians to rule? The answer is simple: Because it practices politics as an art over people who accept politics as an art. Of course, totally dedicated democratic rulers are even less likely to be elected than philosopher-kings are to be born to power, but that is not the point. What matters here is that the ideal democratic state practicing politics conceived as an art would be at least as bad as the ideal aristocratic state wished for by Plato. In neither of these two models are the rulers taking advantage of their position; on the contrary, they willingly surrender their own happiness for the good of the whole community. And yet in both cases, the result is a human disaster. For, as Tocqueville puts it, such government “every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will with a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself . . . Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” It is enough to make one glad for the guaranteed supply of corrupt politicians in perpetuity.
Again, to expose the use of public power for private gain as an injustice is relatively easy. But in order to refute the legitimacy of artful means in what is perceived as a necessary defense of national interest, general welfare, and universal happiness, nothing less will do than a clear distinction between art and politics. Recent historical trends do not suggest that Tocqueville’s fears for democracy were unfounded. But really to appreciate the dreadful menace hidden in politics conceived as an art, we must turn to a modern philosopher who cares more about art than about politics. For it is only when consciously approached from a radically aesthetic point of view that the inhumanity of politics conceived as a work of art is most plainly revealed.
Even though in The Republic Plato includes a theory of art as well as a discussion on the immortality of the soul, his main goal is still human justice. By contrast, all Nietzsche cares about is art, and he arrives at politics only by pursuing the ultimate in the aspiration of the human artist. In doing so, however, he also reveals for us the ultimate and the least tractable excuse for treating human beings as means, which is neither the greed of the strong nor the reason of State. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says that he strives not for happiness, his or anyone else’s; he strives for his work. But what is the greatest work available to man? It is politics, whose raw material are beings made in the image of God: “The finest clay, the most precious marble—man—is here kneaded and hewn.” The would-be superman—lurking in many a human heart—looks at politics as a work of art, that is, as something extraneous to man, and he will find beauty when it gives him pleasure without stirring compassion.
But politics can never be extraneous to man, a symbol of some “higher” reality. The good of the city pursued by politics is not something to be made, which could then be contemplated in its “otherness.” Politics is forever what the ancients called an immanent activity, meaning that it cannot be judged apart from whoever is involved in it. The cook and the painter or composer or writer may all be rascals, or worse, and their work could still be beautiful. But that privilege is not afforded to either the statesmen or the citizens. Politics always asks, What is to be done? And the answer given, whichever way it turns out, shapes not so much the external reality as the character of the participating actors.
Recall how Lincoln explained his monumental decision to try to save the Union: “I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.” These immanent actions constitute what Hannah Arendt has called vita activa, the public life conducted by speech and judged not according to aesthetic but according to moral standards. To distinguish political decisions from what goes on in the world of art, we may also borrow from Gabriel Marcel. In making of things, we inevitably encounter “problems”; but in acting we are also confronted by “mystery,” that is, “a problem which encroaches upon its own data.” In other words, as we have already suggested, the aloofness which is required, in one way or another, for our art to be successful, has no place in either doing or evaluating politics.
Unfortunately, because it often pays off, artful pseudopolitics will never lack either practitioners or admirers. There will always be greedy politicians and others who will use politics to impose their own ideas of what is good for the people. Moreover, these rulers will always have defenders who will excuse or praise them, because they confuse politics with art. But right now, the efforts of influential thinkers seem to be in the opposite direction. While just a few years ago B. F. Skinner could write Beyond Freedom and Dignity in defense of allegedly scientific political techniques and receive a respectful, albeit mostly critical, response, social scientists today think nothing of publishing their research under such tides as Social Science as Moral Inquiry and Habits of the Heart.
Readers of the work of Jurgen Habermas, Alasdair MacIntyre, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Richard Rorty, William M. Sullivan, and others may easily conclude that all of them are trying in their different ways to revive or reinterpret or reinvent Aristotle’s crucial distinction between phronesis (prudence) and techne (art), precisely in order to save politics from evaluation by standards proper only to art. To the extent that these writers and others succeed in their efforts, our understanding of politics is bound to improve. We shall come to see more clearly that politics is about people as persons and that any transcendent aspirations rather than elevating reduces it rather to artificial manipulation of human beings as means and things. We shall understand better that good intentions and even good results of manipulative politics are, as Tocqueville warned, deadly to humane living, and we shall try to change our practices accordingly.
In neither of these endeavors must we expect more than gradual and modest improvement. But we shall be helped in both if we remember that for a community to remain free it must not only keep politics out of the arts but also keep all art out of politics. In a free state, the leaders will not try to be political “artists,” and the citizens will not have to judge their actions as they would judge a theatrical performance. Today it is still possible to describe a particularly clever move by an accomplished politician as “beautiful,” even though everyone understands that the adjective describes an act that falls short of ordinary standards of human decency. We shall know that we have made progress when “ugly” and “beautiful” applied to politics do not mean the same as what they mean in art. For in the pursuit of the good life in common, artful actions are ugly; the beautiful—and the only truly decent kind—is totally artless politics.