European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The Gaze and the Touch in the Public Space. Toward the Political Aesthetics. by Adam Chmielewski

An empty space

   The image of an empty space is the first thing that usually comes to our minds when we begin thinking about a public space. We tend to see it as an open place in which we are able to move about freely, fill it with what we are, what we possess, and what we are able to do. The space thus understood is supported by a firm and solid ground on which we take our usual steps and negotiate our everyday paths. Such an idea of space, imprinted in our minds by Euclid (geometry), Newton (physics) and Kant (philosophy), has become a “transcendental form of apperception” of our culture. It seems, however, that the meaning of this phrase eventually boils down to a familiar stereotype which become of late a subject of critical scrutiny.
   For contemporary geometry, physics and philosophy teach us that this image of space is inadequate: it is just theoretical make-believe, an ideal type which has become a widespread yet false concept. This idea is also very misguiding. The intractability of the deception involved in it, along with its ideological dominance, seems to lie at the heart of the political problems of our times. The problem becomes visible when looked at from a perspective of what I would like to call the political aesthetics.
The above idea of space has its theoretical and political representation in the form of a liberal public space, an agora, a forum on which people gather to exercise their rights to their share of an initially empty place, in order to fill it with themselves, with their demands, and their artefacts. The right to participate in this space is supposed to be afforded to each individual by virtue of his or her being born human. No one can deny those rights to anyone as long as they conform to precepts of morality, decency and appropriate conduct; transgression of these precepts is forbidden.

The particles in a space

We know, however, that it is not so: just as physical space exists in so far as there are particles which fill it with their own kinetic energy, so the public space exists inasmuch as there are social particles that are filling it with their political and moral energy. Accordingly, an understanding of a public space which would be more close to reality would involve a vision/metaphor of a container whose size, volume and shape is dependent upon the kinetic energy of the elementary particles composing it; the particles being ourselves, if we are to believe Michel Houllebecq. The container becomes bigger and its internal temperature higher when their movements become more energetic. The public space is therefore a place of rivalry in which everyone struggles for a room for oneself; it is a place of an agonistic struggle for existence. This space grows and changes accordingly to the moral and aesthetical – i.e. the political – energy of the individuals encompassed by it.

To be is to be visible

   I shall begin by saying that a rather risky metaphysical truth esse est percipi – “to be is to be seen” – was declared false immediately after it was formulated by George Berkeley. Even though this truth has never had a genuine chance to develop its full metaphysical force, today, in our culture of visibility, it has earned a painfully poignant political content: for, indeed, to be in the public space is to be visible in it.
   We owe our ability to find our ways within physical space thanks largely to our senses, “especially the sense of sight” . But this is not all: in order to be able to move within it, and to assume in it a place which we see as necessary or desirable for our existence, one has to be noticed and heard (I postpone the issues of smell and taste for an another occasion). That is why women and men often do very unusual things in order to focus other people’s attention on themselves. They show themselves, show themselves off, in order to show themselves in a way they would like to be perceived, in order to convey an image of their own, even if radically distant from the truth about them, in such a way as to elicit an interest in the eyes of others.

The exposition space

   The public space is thus a place in which we never want to be seen the way we “really” are. Who we “really” are, how we “really” look like, we conceal in the intimacy of private space. The public space is then a stage, an arena, a catwalk, also a rostrum, all designed in order for us to be seen not the way we are but the way we think others would like us to see.
   This may best be explained by reference to the old aesthetic truth that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder: for before we enter the public space, we beautify ourselves in such a way as to turn ourselves into an object of desire of an imagined other. The public space, a place of display, of an exposition, a demonstration, is thus a realm of mutual deception. Even if we treat ourselves as works of art conforming to the requirements which make their exposition in the public space possible; even if we move ever more boldly from demonstration to exposure, we are not so much uncovering and denuding ourselves, but rather intimating, signaling, merely suggesting our thoughts, and – if sometimes too literally – our bodily presence, our carnality. We do this, on the one hand, in such a way as to keep our authenticity and intimacy covered, barely mentioned, thus invisible, yet, on the other, we simultaneously labor to invite the exploration, the revealing and touching, which, in their turn, are being postponed for the private sphere only. This dialectics generates a principle whose contents is continually modified by our histories and cultures; but no matter how flexible its boundaries are, its transgression invariably boils down to an act of exhibitionism or pornography.

The space of invisibility

   The obligation of making oneself visible is tantamount to a requirement that we permanently display ourselves; which, as we know already, is not the same as a complete exposure. Genuine success in being seen is rather rare and ephemeral. Some people never succeed in achieving it. Invisibility is not only a fate of middle-aged women who usually pass unnoticed by men’s gazes: we studiously avoid the sight of sickness, old age, ugliness, death and otherness, all those things that were kept from sight of the young prince Sakyamuni, the later Buddha. We have learned not to see them because we do not want to see them; when their presence becomes too intrusive, we turn our gaze away from them. The public space is thus a place of repression and exclusion: that is why it is a political space.
For even if we manage every now and then to make an appearance in it, it does not mean that we have succeeded in securing our permanent public existence; being noticed is far from sufficient to grant us a firm existence; an incidental, intermittent appearance is not a permanent existence. That is why to be is to be continually supported in our existence by the attention of others who are to focus their attention upon us. That is why the public space is an arena of a constant rivalry for looks of the others, for a place in the spotlight.

Society as a spectacle

   It may seem that the gaze of others only touches upon our superficiality, that it only glides upon our partly (un)covered carnality. In fact, however, their gaze thoroughly penetrates us, reaching straight into our inmost depths. The image, the appearance, and the pretence we turn ourselves into before we expose ourselves in the public space in order to breathe the air of existence is a cluster of roles played by us in a public show. It is a show performed not for our own private eyes, but for the benefit of the public gaze of others which has crept inside us, become our own, and has always been telling us how make a show of ourselves: “Being subject of the gaze, we are pictured as objects of a self-reflexive given-to-be-seen. We are given coordinates within the parameters of the picture. We are produced as looking and looked at, constructed from successive instances of being seen by others that go beyond the particular instance or any succession of them, taking on the expansive characteristics of structure itself. It is a structure of seen/being seen or imaging-as-consciousness that reduces us to ‘beings who are looked at, in the spectacle of the world’".
   The collective, public gaze of others is constitutive both for our existence and for the society itself. The society is a society inasmuch as it is a spectacle in which individuals perform in front of each other the roles willingly self-imposed upon themselves played for the benefit of others, and themselves. Due to the irremediable spectacularity of society, aesthetics as a science of perception is a political science proper.
   It would seem that for a genuinely private and intimate gaze – when no one is looking – there is no need for us to stage any spectacles; yet this is not so. For society is always and inescapably a performance directed by a director who always is out there. However, he is able to exercise his directorial agency only by virtue of his inhabiting simultaneously our inmost depths, and constantly telling us from our own inside what we are to do. That is why what we call private and intimate space is neither private nor intimate – it is, likewise, political.

The touch in space

   Once we have been seen, or heard, in the public space, we have also visually to display the strength necessary for us to secure a foothold within it, in order to inhibit others from pushing us away from it, or to prevent them from expelling us from it altogether. To be in the public realm is thus a permanent effort and a continuous struggle for recognition of our right to be within it.
We think that to exist truly in the public space is to reside permanently within it. A part of the nature of public space is that, however, a place once taken by us within it will not remain “ours” forever; for when we wish to return to it again, it will usually be taken already by someone else, by someone who not always may be willing to make room for us. For the nature of the public space is such that he does not have concede the room for us, and we cannot force him to move without breaking the rule of untouchability.
   In this context one has to bear in mind that touch, unlike sight, is a subject not of the aesthetics but of the political mechanics. The touch sensu proprio is permissible and legitimate only in the private sphere. In the public space it is acceptable only when it assumes a ceremonial, ritualized form, or when it is a private gesture between persons whose hands and bodies knew each other beforehand. Yet even in their case it cannot be an intimate touch. The private touch, insofar as it is to be permitted within the public space, cannot be a genuine one; it can be only an exposition and an demonstration of the touch proper. When the touch in the public space becomes genuine, it is perceived as an offence or a misdemeanour: a violation of public decency or personal bodily integrity. Thus even if we are touching each other in the public space, we do not do it in a genuine way; within the public space we are, and we want to remain, untouchable. The boundary between untouchability and touchability delineates a borderline between the public and the private.

The public agoraphobia

   When faced with thus arranged space, we are in fact facing ideological constraints embodied in it, rigid rules regulating acceptable ways of letting ourselves be seen and touched, continuous demands to engage in a great deal of histrionics while within it. In the space of the modern society we have continuously to claim its pieces for ourselves, in which we have to jostle without touching. No wonder that many people respond with a public agoraphobia, trying in this way to escape from these mutually contradicting demands and from the agonistic struggle associated with them.
   Agoraphobia is one of the symptoms of the pain associated with mental internalization of the rules of appearance in the public space. We have to accept these rules as our own, yet at the same time we are often not able to conform to them. We perceive these rules as ties which bind us tight, and ourselves as unable to untie them on our own. A modern man is often a self-tied knot that cannot untie itself. In such a predicament, human internal energy, instead of releasing itself, turns against itself, devours itself, and strangles a human in his own claustrophobia. Thus vacated public space shrinks and transforms itself into a flaccid balloon.
   As Charles Darwin taught us, the struggle for being seen is the most rudimentary form of the distribution of goods. The rivalry takes place in every social relation: between a woman and a man, a parent and a child, the old and the young, between peers and every social group: everyone wants to be visible in order to assert one’s existence, to have it publicly recognized, authenticated, legitimated.
The public space is thus a subject of continuous distribution; its distribution is a partition of the perceptible . The discovery that the public space can be divided, distributed into parts, and sold as a commodity, was one of the most liberating and at the same time most damaging of human accomplishments. The present form of the public space has been shaped for the most part by those who, with the help of the modern powerful visual media, have claimed it for themselves, and especially by those who were capable of appropriating its huge chunks for their own exclusive, hegemonic use. The commoditization of public space is not only fuelling agoraphobic attitudes but it also amplifies the scope, the range and acuteness of exclusion.

Art as an imagery

   The contents of art is not reality-in-itself but a representation of it. Within artful imagery, the rules and prohibitions responsible for the regulation of reality are suspended. Art is an invitation to imagine another reality, therefore to criticise and to transform the existing one. For this reason precisely nothing becomes an object of more severe repression than the spirit embodied in art, and the liberating images created by a human spirit which has managed to break away from its own agoraphobia and was bold enough to demonstrate in the public space that an another world is possible.
   Bearing in mind that human individuals are the greatest obstacles for themselves, history of the arts, on an individual level is, and has always been, a history of the struggles with internal restraints. For the most part, however, it has also always been a battleground with external restraints, with changeable yet invariably repressive canons of what is aesthetically, that is politically, acceptable. On the societal level art is both a realm of a struggle for freedom and a subject of continuous political restrictions. That is why nothing serves better the liberation of the human inner energy than art, a realm of free creativity and of creative freedom.
   Artefacts and actions which constitute the realm of art should be understood as tools and instruments of the struggle for freedom. That is why art has always been the object of hatred of those who hate freedom. That is why nothing is more urgent than the aesthetic – that is the political – transformation which would enable the practical implementation of the aesthetic turn that has already taken root in the realm of thoughts. Nothing is more urgent than opening our communities and our minds for art. Nothing is more important than opening our public space for art, for a voice and a gesture of freedom.

The aesthetic turn

   Aesthetics has usually been understood as a study of arts. As such, it is very distant from the original meaning of the Greek term aisqhsiV which was used to refer to almost anything related to sensory perceptions. Both usages of the term seem to have, prima facie at least, very little to do with the political. Yet it is rather easy to demonstrate that even the limited understanding of the scope of aesthetics as the study of arts has an important political dimension.
   The emancipatory dimension of art, nowadays transparent, has not always been evident for philosophy. The hierarchy of its disciplines, quite rigid until recently, has undergone however, an irreversible transformation. Traditionally, the hierarchy of philosophical disciplines consisted of ontology, which was situated at the top and was propped up by epistemology. Ethics and aesthetics were usually treated as supplements rather inessential for strictly philosophical theory and were actually seen as derivable from the “properly” philosophical theories of being and cognition. Thanks to Hume and Kant, however, ontology has been deposed from its throne and consigned to the limbo of disciplines that refer to things of which nothing certain can be said. It was replaced by the knowledge of human cognition. Priority of the rules of cognition was soon overcome, however, by the rules of ethics which were proclaimed more primary.
   Against the philosophical attitude which sees art as instrumental to other philosophical or moral aims, I would like to argue that the philosophers who barely got over the excitement of the primacy of ethics should now accommodate themselves to the thought that it is the aesthetics that is the foundation of all things philosophical.  I would like to make a point that is it the aesthetical which is at the very source of the ethical. The aim of this assertion is not so much to argue in favour of the aesthetisation of the ethical, but rather to open a space for an investigation of how moral human capacity may be explored and explained as a human ability supervenient upon a more basic ability to perceive and to discern between things as those to be wanted, required and acquired, and those to be shunned, escaped from, and discarded.
   Aesthetics thus understood is a knowledge of human needs and of human freedom; that is why it is strictly a political discipline. The aesthetic turn enables one also to make novel sense of the ancient idea of kalokagathia, a symbiotic concatenation of the perceptibly beautiful which is also perceptibly good. It is a knowledge of objects which we turn our gaze to and focus our attention upon. It is also, most importantly, the knowledge of reasons which make us to do so.
   Despite the transformation that is being staged in philosophy by a thus envisaged aesthetic turn, the revolution is tantamount to stating the obvious: after all, even epistemology, until recently considered as the fundamental philosophical knowledge of knowledge, must irrevocably focus itself on something which, ultimately, is a point of view. For this reason it must place the visual at the centre of its attention. It does not mean, however, that this obvious truth will not have to struggle for its recognition among the philosophical establishment which will persistently stand by its traditional, repressive canon of the philosophical.

Discipline and punish

   The public space in Poland is an example of an exceptionally flaccid balloon. Ravaged politically, morally and aesthetically by the former regime which gradually falls into oblivion, it has now been seized by ideologies and religions whose repressiveness is especially prominent in the context of art. As if diligent readers of Michel Foucault, the present regimes relentlessly supervise all movement in the public space, and harshly punish all offences. The artists are being denounced by politicians and priests, put on trials by servile prosecutors, exhibitions are being closed down, the directors of cultural institutions are being fired, sculptures destroyed, paintings taken down and hidden from view, the museums are not so much places of shelter for the works of art but rather prisons for them. The intellectuals spill cascades of words, yet engrossed in the enforced agoraphobia, they carefully self-censor themselves, thus thriving in their noisy silence.
   The most disturbing is the fact that art is being dishonoured, and its presence among the people inhibited. The young are being systematically abused by the neglect and denial of the entrance to the realm of the beautiful and the sublime. We are anti-aesthetic in our thinking, in our choices, also the political ones, in our customs, and in the way the we want to be seen by others.
   The aesthetic aspect of the public space has been dealt an irreparable blow especially by the caricature of architecture. Its destruction is an aesthetic imperative, yet at the same time it would spell an economic ruin for individuals and the communities. This means, however, that our material poverty has already sentenced us to countless years of life in the visual poverty and structural ugliness. In response to this aesthetic debasement, a new yet no less pathological architecture is being born, which only demonstrates the range of aesthetical barbarism we have fallen into due to our turbulent history and our present fecklessness.
   That is why nothing more is urgent than the aesthetic – the political – transformation which would practically implement the aesthetic turn that already took a root in the realm of thoughts. Nothing more is urgent than to open for art our country, our cities and especially our minds.
Nothing is more important than opening our public space for art. For a voice and a gesture of freedom. Only then we shall be able to see further, and to breathe easier.

Adam Chmielewski


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