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Aesthetics and Politics

How is aesthetics relevant to politics? Why study aesthetics in terms of the political? Is an artist ever independent from political reality? Can aesthetics influence environments and our lived experience? Is it possible for aesthetics to become institutionalized?

Bloomsbury Philosophy Library includes a selection of primary texts, secondary literature and exclusive articles connecting aesthetics and politics.

The featured content below focusses on theories of aesthetics and politics from a variety of time periods and cultural contexts, providing examples across a range of art forms.


Portrait of Friedrich Schiller by Anton Graff, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Introduction to Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man: In a Series of Letters, by María del Rosario Acosta López

Friedrich Shiller offers a powerful example of the ways in which philosophy can speak to its time and become a relevant form of critique. As an artist, Schiller understood his practice as a way of denouncing, subverting and interrupting what he saw as the forms of violence inhabiting his present. As a philosopher, he sought to clarify the sense in which this suspension, interruption, or resistance against violence can take place aesthetically.

In this new introduction to Schiller’s letters, María del Rosario Acosta López’s shows how approaching Schiller on his own terms, and following his own historically located concerns, we can arrive at a reading of his Aesthetic Letters as timely as ever.

You can read the introduction here.


Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man

For Schiller our aesthetic frameworks are always already intertwined with the social and political context we live in and they are transformed by it in ways that, in turn, transform our ways of perceiving and understanding the world around us. An attention to the aesthetic as condition of possibility of our experience means therefore, for Schiller, also an uncovering of the kinds of structures that quietly and unperceivably end up a-critically determining the way we act and interpret reality altogether.

This is the reason why, for Schiller, there is no political revolution without a revolution in the way we feel and sense the world. Or, put the other way around, our sensibility and sensitivity to the world are already determined by mechanisms of control and power which condition us in a certain way; they are as historically determined as everything else.

Aesthetics, in Schiller’s work, is the critical outlook par excellence. It is not merely one more topic in addition to ethics and epistemology, as it is for Kant; instead, it opens up and makes possible another ethics and another epistemology, new and distinct ways of knowing, feeling and relating to one another.

Read the Second and Third Letter here.


Front cover of Political Aesthetics

Political Aesthetics: Addison and Shaftesbury on Taste, Morals and Society, Introduction

The 18th century is often said to have involved a radical transformation in the concept of art: from the understanding that art is tool for some practical purpose, to the modern belief that it holds a distinctive and intrinsic value. By exploring the ground between these notions of art’s function, Karl Axelsson reveals how scholars of culture made taste, morals, and a politically stable society an integral part of their claims about the experience of nature and art.

Axelsson re-examines the political relevance of theories by two of the most prolific men of letters in the eighteenth century, Joseph Addison (1672–1719) and the third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), Axelsson shows that they were, first and foremost, seeking to fortify a natural link between the aesthetic experience and the consolidation of modern political society.

Political Aesthetics is a wonderful re-write of the history of early eighteenth century British aesthetic thought.

You can read the introduction here.


Front cover of The Bloomsbury Research Handbook to Indian Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art

The Bloomsbury Research Handbook to Indian Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art

This one-of-a-kind collection imitates the heterogeneity of Indian aesthetic experience in its unusually diverse range of topics. Not only does it cover contemporary scholarly, historical, creative and comparative extensions, criticisms, and transcreations of “rasa” theory, it presents a philosophy of artistic practices across a wide range of genres - epistemology, phenomenology, ontology, ethics, and politics.

Each essay affords a glimpse of the original philosophical research of a leading thinker in the field of Indian aesthetics right now in early twenty-first century. More than a history of Indian aesthetics and survey of Indian philosophies of art, these essays add new waves to the ocean of Indian reflections on art, aesthetic experience, and practice.

Mahatma Gandhi is widely perceived to be indifferent if not opposed to aesthetic experience. An icon of uncompromising moralism, Gandhi led a sparse life, in the austere surroundings of his ashrams and is assumed to be opposed to aestheticism and the arts that flourish in leisure. Openly critical of Western civilization and its seduction of the senses, Gandhi can be imagined to be out-Plato-ing Plato in denigrating the shadow-world that movies immerse us in.

‘Towards a Gandhian Aesthetics’ explores Mahatma Gandhi’s outwardly dry but inwardly highly emotional aesthetic life, enriched by his relationship to medieval devotional poetry and the Hindi poet Tulsidas.

You can read Tridip Suhrud’s essay here.


Front cover of Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics

Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière, translated by Steven Corcoran

Dissensus comprises a series of articles written by Jacques Rancière between 1990 and 2008 in which we learn about two of his most important concepts: the “aesthetics of politics” and the “politics of aesthetics”. The aesthetics of politics refers to the power of dissensual practices which can manifest social change. These are actions in which collective subjects’ exercise their equality and the way in which it is threatened through popular organizations in which existing rights are deployed or new ones are created, to assert denied entitlements and challenge conditions of injustice, creating institutions that allow for the expansion or creation of egalitarian possibilities. For Rancière, emancipation refers precisely to this demonstration of equality that anyone can put into practice, in various manifestations of their capacity.

In this illuminating collection, Rancière engages in a radical critique of some of his major contemporaries on questions of art and politics: Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou and Jacques Derrida. The essays show how Rancière's ideas can be used to analyse contemporary trends in both art and politics, including the events surrounding 9/11, war in the contemporary consensual age, and the ethical turn in aesthetics and politics. Rancière elaborates new directions for the concepts of politics and communism, as well as the notion of what a 'politics of art' might be.

You can read chapter 9, ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes’, here.

You can read more about the life and work of Jacques Rancière here.


Front cover of Laruelle and Art

Laruelle and Art: The Aesthetics of Non-Philosophy, Jonathan Fardy

The first academic monograph dedicated solely to Laruelle's unique contribution to aesthetic theory and specifically the 'non-philosophical' project he terms 'non-aesthetics'. This undertaking allows Laruelle to think about art outside the boundaries of standard philosophy, an approach that Fardy explicates through a series of case studies. By analysing the art of figures such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Anish Kapoor, Dan Flavin, and James Turrell as well as the drama of Michael Frayn, Fardy's new book enables new and experienced readers of Laruelle to understand how the philosopher's thinking can open up new vistas of art and criticism.

You can read the introduction here.


Front cover of Deleuze and the Schizoanalysis of Visual Art

Deleuze and the Schizoanalysis of Visual Art, Edited by Ian Buchanan and Lorna Collins

Schizoanalysis holds that art's function is both political and aesthetic – it changes perception. If one cannot change perception, then, one cannot change anything politically. This is why Deleuze and Guattari always insist that artists operate at the level of the real (not the imaginary or the symbolic). Ultimately, they argue, there is no necessary distinction to be made between aesthetics and politics. They are simply two sides of the same coin, both concerned with the formation and transformation of social and cultural norms. Deleuze and the Schizoanalysis of Visual Art explores how every artist, good or bad, contributes to the structure and nature of society because their work either reinforces social norms, or challenges them. From this point of view we are all artists, we all have the potential to exercise what might be called a 'aesthetico-political function' and change the world around us; or, conversely, we can not only let the status quo endure, but fight to preserve it as though it were freedom itself.

Edited by one of the world's leading scholars in Deleuze Studies and an accomplished artist, curator and critic, this impressive collection of writings by both academics and practicing artists is an exciting imaginative tool.

You can read the introduction here.



World Philosophy Day

Philosophy flourished in the Islamic world for many centuries, and continues to be a significant feature of cultural life today.

Find out more through our free content made available in celebration of World Philosophy Day.

Access articles on all the major and less well-known thinkers of Islamic philosophy since the foundation of the faith, many of which have not previously been profiled or described in English. Every major school of thought, from classical falasifa to Sufi mysticism, is represented, ranging across the early years of the faith to the modern period.


Women in Philosophy

From medicine to mysticism, existentialism to phenomenology, the lives and work of women thinkers have all too often been marginalised in ways that have erased their contributions from the record.

The weight of this historical exclusion has led and continues to lead to creative theoretical responses to art, sexual difference, and lived experience which remain ripe for study and research today.

Bloomsbury Philosophy Library includes a selection of primary texts, secondary literature and exclusive articles exploring the crucial work of women philosophers. The featured content below opens up our understanding of the role women have played in shaping intellectual thought and philosophy.

Queen of Existentialism

Simone de Beauvoir was one of the twentieth century’s most infamous women. She was half of a controversial intellectual power couple with Jean-Paul Sartre. And, unfortunately, for much of the twentieth century popular perception was that he contributed the intellectual power and she contributed the couple. When she died in Paris in 1986, Le Monde’s obituary headline called her work ‘more popularization than creation’. In the decades since these words were written a series of revelations about Beauvoir have come to light, surprising readers who thought they knew her. But they have also – ironically – obscured Beauvoir the thinker by perpetuating the illusion that her love life was the most interesting thing about her. After all, it was her philosophy that led her to live – and to continuously reflect on and re-evaluate – the life she lived. In her words: ‘there is no divorce between philosophy and life. Every living step is a philosophical choice’. 

Simone De Beauvoir (1908-1986)

Simone De Beauvoir (1908-1986). (Credit Getty Images © Keystone / Stringer)

When the public figure Simone de Beauvoir picked up her pen she wrote not only for herself but for her readers. Her best-selling autobiographies have been described as embodying a philosophical ambition to show ‘how one’s self is always shaped by others and related to others’. To read more about Beauvoir’s vast and rich contribution to 20th-century philosophy read the chapter, ‘Queen of Existentialism’, from Kate Kirkpatrick’s critical biography of her life, and for a shorter overview of her life’s work read the encyclopedia article on the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers.

Drawing on existentialism’s relevance to the creation of identity, as well as its ability to challenge “essentialist” conceptions of identity, in terms of both the individual self and categories such as gender, race, and culture, The Bloomsbury Companion to Existentialism provides a fruitful resource for a range of applications. Read more in the chapters Existentialism, Feminism and Sexuality and Existentialism and the Emotions.

Modern European Women Philosophers

On the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers you can access over 400 entries on American and European women in Britain, North America, France and Germany who contributed to modern thought between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. Each entry is accompanied by a bibliography and further reading. These entries cover their life and work, explaining why we might have not already heard about them. 

Read about Dorothea Christiane Erxleben (1715-62) the first women in Germany to become a doctor of Medicine who wrote one of the most significant, and neglected, pieces of Enlightenment feminist theory.

Dorothea Christiane Erxleben (1715-62)

Dorothea Christiane Erxleben (1715-62). (Credit Alamy © Fine Art Images/Heritage Images)

A great letter writer of her time, Caroline Schlegel-Schelling (1763-1809) (who was married to both August Wilhelm Schlegel and F.W.J. Schelling) was at the centre of literary activities, personal friendships and feuds. Johanna Charlotte Unzer (1725-1982) a poet laureate and one of the few female thinkers allowed to speak publically. Gabrielle Suchon (1632-1703), a precursor to French feminist theory, was also the earliest female philosopher whose work has been preserved in its entirety. Marie de Gournay (1565-1645) is known mainly as the first editor of Montaigne’s Essais, but her ‘feminist’ texts and her status as a woman of letters (she was linked to the creation of the Académie française) make her a true intellectual who was critical of many aspects, both literary and philosophical, of her era.
 Marie le Jars, Lady Gournay (1566-1645)
Marie le Jars, Lady Gournay (1566-1645). Lithograph by Pierre Langlumé. (Credit Bibliothèque de Bordeaux, public domain)

An influential and controversial figure of French mysticism, Jeanne-Marie Guyon (1648-1717) was condemned for the personal sacrifice she made to her work.

Sexual difference 

The theme most frequently associated with Luce Irigaray’s philosophical work is sexual difference, later termed sexuate difference. Her insistence on the need to recognise sexual difference guides her interrogation of the Western philosophical tradition in her early works as well as her issue with what she termed the ‘phallocentrism’ of western philosophy. Questioning how major thinkers in the Western philosophical tradition have written about women, the other and otherness, and the means by which this tradition, embodied in the works of Freud, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and Hegel, constitutes itself as the province of truth and sense. 

'In the Beginning, She Was', Luce Irigaray

To engage more with Irigaray’s work read this encyclopedia article on Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers, and delve into a selection of her primary works on Bloomsbury 20th-Century French Thought


Anna Jameson and 19th Century Aesthetics and Religion 

Once a household name, Anna Jameson will be unfamiliar to many people today. A successful art critic, Jameson achieved her position of influence in an era when women’s publications on art were still relatively rare. Her writings doubtless contributed to the rise in representations of biblical women and female saints from the 1840s to 1860s, especially in paintings by women. Rossetti read her essays on the early Italian painters and she certainly influenced George Eliot. But why did Jameson fall out of history so swiftly? Why was she so quickly dismissed as old-fashioned? 

Read Anna Jameson’s Legends of the Madonna, as Represented in the Fine Arts 1852 and discover writing by an author who inspired a generation of later women art critics, including Julia Cartwright, Emilia Dilke, and Vernon Lee. 

Women and Critical Phenomenology

Critical phenomenology involves challenging the dominant strands of male phenomenology via Husserl, whilst continuing some of the key questions and debates which arise out of the tradition of transcendental phenomenology.  Inextricably tied up in work of feminist theory, critical phenomenology undertakes a normative task, and seeks to dismantle the very concrete social, historical, political, and economic realities that operate in everyday experience to propel a collection of hostile forces, including white supremacy, settler colonialism, global capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and ableism, to name a few. 

The work of critical phenomenologists elucidates the way lived experience is constitutive of and constituted by these forces, to highlight how these forces confer meaning and undermine the possibility for a meaningful existence at the “level” of embodied subjectivity, and aims to cultivate new sensibilities that allow for ethical transformation. Taking cues from various modes of social critique, critical phenomenology wrestles with and against such realities of power and domination. To read more about the re-invention of transcendental phenomenology through the work of pioneering critical phenomenologists like Linda Martín Alcoff, Alia Al-Saji, Bonnie Mann, and Mariana Ortega, you can read Megan Burke’s full introduction to the subject here.