There’s only a little to say about this – Michel Foucault was born October 15, 1926, and by weird coincidence, Friedrich Nietzsche was born on the same day 82 years earlier- October 15, 1844. Big thinkers in the canon of Dead White Men. So what, you might be asking — and what does that have to do with political art?
Well, Nietzsche was big on aesthetics. There are I’m sure a hundred Nietzsche scholars out there who will set me straight, but to my mind, Nietzsche was one of the early thinkers in the West to reject Truth, or at least to see its darker side bound up as it is in complicated human relationships and social hierarchies. Nietzsche preferred aesthetics to truth as a model for life and considered art the highest human achievement and a means of transcending our cultural and ideological limitations … “what lifts a thing beyond itself”.
Foucault similarly rooted a sense of transcendence in the aesthetic. (Again, I’ll resign myself to waiting for the slings and arrows of scholars who know more of these things.) Not transcendence in any religious sense, but rather an ability to overcome the conditions of our possibility — or to put this in political terms, to overcome the limitations imposed on us by society.
As an example – and topical – consider a heroine addict reviled by society, wounded by childhood trauma, told he is worthless and pathetic, told his life is not worth caring about or living. The act of seeing himself as an agent of political change – not only someone with rights but with ownership over the society where he lives, enough so to break laws to make new laws to make society into a better place – this strikes me as an act of overcoming conditions of possibility. And just such a thing happened in the creation of Insite, Canada’s first safe injection site who just won their Supreme Court of Canada case against the federal government allowing them to continue to operate. Vancouver addicts worked together with local activists to create two illegal safe injection sites long before the opening of the legal site. But I digress …
Foucault thought life should be lived as a work of art — a creation of the self rather than discovery. And that it was through aesthetic experience that individuals could overcome the conditions of their own sense of self. I think this is what artists who engage in political art are trying to manifest, at least in part, a way to encounter and challenge the truths that power demands without getting ruined by the rules of knowledge that power sets.
Anyways, it’s their birthday. And it seems to me that artists engaged in challenging dominant truths and narratives and structures of power follow a little in their wake.
Maybe I’m overstating this. Maybe I just wanted to take this opportunity to remember a couple of thinkers whose relevance to Western thought and to the work celebrated here at Art Threat still shines a little through.