Conference The Politics of Form: What Does Art Know about Society?
17.11.2016 – 19.11.2016
Ort: ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Trajekte-Tagungsraum 308
Organized by Ulrich Plass (ZfL/Wesleyan U, Middletown), Matthias Rothe (U of Minnesota, Minneapolis), Falko Schmieder (ZfL)
“The situation becomes so complicated because a simple ‘rendering of reality’ says less than ever about reality. A photograph of the Krupp Works or of A.E.G. yields
nearly nothing about these institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relationships, such as the factory, no longer produces the latter. So there is in fact ‘something to construct,’ something ‘artificial’, something ‘put in place’.”
Bertolt Brecht, The Three-Penny Trial, 1931
What is the task of literature and the arts “when all heads turn towards useful subject matters dealing with administration, commerce, agriculture, import and export,
and finances. […] In the midst of this spirit of calculation our taste for comfort expands and our enthusiasm is lost. […]
It is a nice thing, this science of economics, but it turns us into morons.”
Denis Diderot, Salon of 1769
Diderot’s criticism here is in reference to Raynal’s multivolume history of European colonialism (Histoire des Deux Indes). What disquiets him is the mode of representation. Numbers and data narrow our perspective and thereby interfere with the actual task of critique, a task that, at every step along the way, requires attention to a larger context. Over 150 years later, Brecht puts this challenge in more radical terms: The focus on facts, as that which can be readily seen and objectively verified, makes it impossible to understand capitalism as something which is grounded in specific modes of social relations. Diderot and Brecht both respond to this “withdrawal of reality” with artistic means. Diderot participates in Raynal’s project and ‘theatricalizes’ it; Brecht, too, employs theatrical means in representing the social world in its complexity and contradictoriness. He advances a realism that harnesses the constructive powers of aesthetic form in order to undermine the mere appearance of what is right before our eyes.
Both Brecht and Diderot assert implicitly that aesthetics and epistemology ought to be thought of in conjunction, that art makes knowledge available by bridging the gap between the factual and the structural. At issue is not persuasive presentation (which would be the task of rhetoric), but how things are shaped into form. Where art is concerned, a mode of knowing is at play that does not differentiate any longer between the object and its representation. Art, as Adorno says, derives critical social meaning through the autonomy of its forms. The crisis of rhetoric was the politicization of form.
In light of the (ideal-typical) constellation 1769 – 1931 – 2016, our conference enquires into the historical genesis of aesthetic form and into the potential of contemporary art to serve by means of its form as – in Adorno’s words – “stand-in of a better praxis and the critique of praxis.” Aesthetic form, tentatively understood as construction or as mediation between ‘contents’ and modes of representation, is our main concern. Throughout this conference, its theoretical and practical vicissitudes will be at stake.
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