- Radical History and the Politics of Art by Gabriel Rockhill
Gabriel Rockhill’s ambitious book responds to an acute need to re-think the relationships between aesthetics and politics. Radical History and the Politics of Art is an innovative, interdisciplinary attempt at stepping out of discontinuist models of the history of art and ontological approaches to understanding art’s ties with the sociopolitical. It challenges theorists and critics alike to abandon the “classic, common sense trinity—what is art? what is politics? what is their relation?” and accept fully the idea that these concepts have no determinable, transhistorical essence (3). They are always in flux, always a matter of renegotiation, and their relations defy the binary logic that still dominates aesthetic debates (complicity vs. resistance; authentic vs. inauthentic; form vs. context; causality vs. indeterminacy; consubstantiality vs. opposition, etc.).
Rockhill relies on a threefold conceptual framework. The first fundamental principle motivating the book is an attack on what he terms the ontological illusion, that is, the widespread belief that art and politics are discrete entities with a fixed essence and a definable relationship.1 The ontological illusion implies that there are some determinable criteria for what counts as authentic art and politics. Secondly, Rockhill calls for a broader understanding of the political efficacy of art works. The relation between art and politics has frequently been framed in terms of causality and success or failure. Art is either expected to create direct sociopolitical change or forced into isolation for its inability to do so. However, both of these positions rely on what Rockhill calls the talisman complex, the assumption that, in order to be political, works of art in themselves must have quasi-magical effects in the world. The talisman complex thus supports fusional and oppositional aesthetic theories, which both hold a reductive view of the political context and possibilities of art. Finally, Rockhill advocates for thinking the relationships between art and politics in the context of radical history by paying attention to the intricate temporal, geographic and social variations in historical practices. Radical history eschews discontinuous periods or epochs, inviting us instead to examine fluid, overlapping phases that are subject to reactivation and projection.2
Three minor conceptual threads also subtend the book’s discussions. Rockhill observes that thinkers often focus on a particular artistic tradition, assume it to be homogeneous, and treat it as grounds for making universal claims. He argues that this historical hegemony must be countered through careful attention to both geographic diversity and social [End Page 178] variation within a given culture at any time. Considering the diversity of aesthetic practices necessarily relativizes the dominant view of the artist as idiosyncratic creator, placing individual inspiration in relation with a multiplicity of sources of aesthetic and political agency. Similarly, the ideology of autonomy gives way to a complex web of forces involved in the production, circulation and reception of works. These significant theoretical stakes are laid out in the introduction and first chapter.
The second chapter focuses on Lukács, Marcuse and Sartre, as representatives of realism, formalism and commitment. Rockhill provides a solid, straightforward summary of their theses on art, showing how, despite their substantial differences, each of these thinkers remains locked into some form of aesthetic ontology. For Lukács, true realism highlights the essential sociopolitical forces that shape the world, independently of authors’ intentions; for Marcuse, authentic art, identified with form, holds an ahistorical, emancipatory potential; and for Sartre, literature (prose) is an inherently instrumental address to the reader’s freedom and an appeal to change the world. Rockhill does not explain his choice of these particular thinkers, nor does he dwell on nuances or contradictions in their thought that occasionally lead away from these schematic positions. However, this does not detract from his central point, which is that all three perspectives rely heavily on selective historicism or transhistoricism, binary normativity in the form of a criterion that separates true and false art, ethnocentric history passed off as a universal account, and the belief that art works could or should directly effect political change. Rockhill’s...