Mark Foster Gage (ed.), Aesthetics Equals Politics: New Discourses Across Art, Architecture, and Philosophy

Mark Foster Gage (ed.), Aesthetics Equals Politics: New Discourses Across Art, Architecture, and Philosophy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2019), 328 pp. £27 Pb. ISBN: 9780262547710

Aesthetics Equals Politics: New Discourses Across Art, Architecture and Philosophy provides a timely appraisal of how aesthetics and politics interact. At a time when the arts are so notably politicised in both their creation process and public reception, the topic remains a focal point of ongoing dialogue. While previous studies have been published in relation to architecture, they have primarily focused on niche audiences. For example, within Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and The Truth about the Past (2022), Robert Bevan tackles constructed surroundings in relation to political histories. Meanwhile, Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness (2007) reflects on the psychological impact of architecture and potential consequences within the home. Although such monographs have contributed significantly to ever-developing discussions, Mark Foster Gage’s edited collection is notable for its interdisciplinary approach, which succeeds in deliberating on the previous concepts and more.  

Organized into four distinct parts, the collection of eighteen chapters examines the topic’s foundations, framing, praxis and alternatives to aesthetics. Threads of repeated philosophical thought unite the arguments throughout and highlight a definite object-oriented ontological approach across the collection.

The book’s first section addresses fundamental questions about the nature of aesthetic engagement and its implications for political discourse. Within the introduction, Gage first encourages the reader to dwell on the initial aesthetic movement. In 1891, Oscar Wilde mused that all ‘art is useless’ as ‘a flower is useless’, and of course we can now appreciate the irony of his assertion when blooms occur to ensure survival through pollination, fertilisation and further production. Gage articulates that aesthetic discourse should be contemplated through a lens of similarly evolving knowledge and presents aesthetics as ‘the primary discourse for a next generation of social and therefore ecological, spatial and political engagement’ (6). The evocative rejection of ‘theory-based strategies that function as ineffective tools for sociopolitical engagement today’ reflects an era of study that prioritises mediums that allow for more equitable communication (6).

The subsequent chapters delve further into this theme. Chapter Two features a riveting conversation with Jaques Rancière, leading philosophical thinker of the past four decades.  Rancière, whose contribution makes the book relevant to anyone interested in artistic mediums as a form for social change, asserts that ‘politics is aesthetics itself’ (10). Distinctions between the realms of aesthetics and politics are challenged within the conversation, as the speakers muse on balancing the duty to raise awareness with the knowledge that awareness does not itself necessitate action. Rancière additionally grounds such theory and thought in actuality when considering La Grande Borne, a utopian design intended to stimulate imagination that devolved into a violent area known for crime. This collection of essays is doubtless at its best when the contributors relate philosophical thought to modern reality, considering the egalitarian limits in a society that does not exist in abstraction from conditions of inequality.

The chapters within the first section include the experience of leading scholars Elaine Scarry, Graham Harman and Timothy Morton and cement the collection as a primarily philosophical investigation of the debate. Scarry’s contribution is an emotional exploration of cathartic beauty in trauma. She embraces Gage’s interdisciplinary approach by mixing mediums in consideration of poetry and architecture, and she details her theories through examples of hospital designs that are structured to accelerate healing and how ‘ugly spaces are punishing’ within the context of the industrial prison complex (34). The optimism of her chapter serves as a beautiful introduction to those less familiar with architectural study.

Harman furthers the argument through his object-oriented approach. He enforces the concept that aesthetics can shape reality just as ‘the metaphor produces a real object’ (56). Ultimately, he highlights aesthetics as reliant on human interpretation to create the ‘joint theatrical experience’ offered by a metaphor (61). Morton embraces Harman’s philosophy, and the argument peaks with a comment on society’s reluctance to employ wind turbines. Morton highlights the rejection of wind turbines in countering climate change as being due to the fact that ‘we like our energy invisible’ (74). The bluntly asserted application of theory pushes the reader to interact with their surroundings on a more practical level almost instantly.

The second section of the collection delves further into the theoretical frameworks. Ferda Kolatun highlights hybrid entities of form and material as a necessary base for aesthetics to interact and cause meaningful change. Whereas Chapter Seven delves into the intersection with digital technology, as Adam Fure campaigns for a new theoretical wave that embraces a societal shift and calls for further research. Michael Young then links back to Part One, tying the philosophies into his consideration of ‘The Aesthetics of Abstraction’ and the possibility that abstraction in art is representative of the changing reality of human existence.

The focus shifts in the Part Three to the practical application of theory in achieving change and this section sees scholars embrace a wider variety of social movements for analysis. Nettrice R. Gaskins notably embraces Gage’s interdisciplinary vision in her consideration of the Kongo cosmogram which ‘triggers the aesthetic response’ (152). Gaskins further links this into a consideration of the modern myth of Drexciya, where the Third Space of postcolonial theory is made physical through the music of the electronic duo who created the narrative. Gaskins’s compelling analysis of the space in which art, music and folklore meet provides relevant cultural commentary to a Western society where racial prejudice somehow remains a contentious discussion point.

The following chapters in the section offer similarly exciting applications of theory. Roger Rotham anticipates the fashion in which aesthetics can only truly be achieved through anarchy and the anarchic qualities of movements like the WTO protests, Occupy movement and Arab Spring. The concept of beauty arising through rebellion offers an optimistic and thrilling prospect for the activist reader. Diann Bauer similarly inspires through considering the role of aesthetics in the processes of alienation, a concept reclaimed through xenofeminism. A crucial moment exists within Bauer’s chapter in the acknowledgement that ‘the meaning of a particular aesthetic does not need to be clear for it to have an aesthetic quality’ (200).

In Chapter Twelve, Matt Shaw aligns with a shift in scholarly discourse that purposefully rejects a priori reductionism and emphasises the importance of the interdisciplinary approach. This argument is further contemplated on by Albena Yaneva and Brett Mommersteeg in a rejection of the ‘pure’ aesthetic in favour of a reality where architecture should be understood by its ongoing existence as opposed to ‘posed’ moments.

In Part Four, the book concludes with exciting considerations of unconventional approaches to aesthetics and proffers direction for future discussions of the field. Lydia Kallipoliti’s discussion of BigDog results in a thought-provoking examination of human existence and the ugliness that exists in humans navigating the difficult terrain of life. The lack of aesthetic that is inherent in human existence is further exemplified by Ariane Louise Harrison. There is a passionate call for feral architecture that challenges traditional notions of sustainability, which are deemed insufficient in an era where humanity’s actions have coalesced in the Sixth Mass Extinction. Harrison makes a convincing argument for how green architecture glosses over and idealises the issues of humankind, whereas the feral can serve as a reminder of ‘future human actions and a memento mori of the negative consequences’ (265).

Rhett Russo's chapter on deep and cryptic architecture further expands the discussion linking to Michael Young’s earlier concepts of abstraction. The consideration of how architecture should be considered through contributed time and labour and resulting durability also verifies the importance of earlier chapters like Chapter Thirteen. Contrastingly, Peggy Deaner's exploration of aesthetic activism underscores the transformative potential of art in effecting social change and highlights how art itself is more effective in achieving social change than the philosophical debates surrounding it.

The final chapter by Caroline Picard offers an engaging discourse on the role of art in bridging political divides, with entertaining anecdotes on cats serving as a metaphor for the unknown. While initially surprisingly in the tonal shift, the chapter conjures a phrase (often attributed to Wilde) pertinent in creating a link between aesthetics and cats: cats ‘were put on earth to remind us that not everything has a purpose’. Picard’s extended metaphor allows the reader to interpret what they will from both cats and aesthetic discourse.

Overall, this collection succeeds in fostering a dialogue around the intersection of aesthetics and politics but there is scope for this to be expanded beyond the focus on philosophy and architecture that makes up so much of the book. The majority of chapters will be best enjoyed by those with philosophical expertise and a more focused interest in architecture. While the existence of literary activism, artivism, and musical activism are mentioned in passing, further focus on these areas would aid Gage’s interdisciplinary goal. Regardless, Gage’s introduction and conversation with Rancière alone make the book a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in how aesthetics can equal politics.

Caitlin Cronin, University of Buckingham