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Between Justice and Cruelty: The Ambivalence of the Aesthetic

One of the remarkable—yet often overlooked—features of aesthetic experience is its capacity to enact both promises and threats. Neither enlisting itself unequivocally in social utopias, nor allowing itself to be jettisoned in favor of a morally, politically, or epistemically more salutary alternative, the aesthetic domain is a field of pleasure and pain, of ignorance and knowledge, of brutality and life-sustaining agency. Its alliance with invidious forces and histories notwithstanding, the aesthetic enables us to confront tensions in the realms of epistemology, social interaction, and public life in a manner that is of vital moral and political importance and indispensable to the creation of a valuable existence. Artist Kara Walker highlights the resulting ambivalences. She brings out the vibrant aesthetic possibilities that we can activate in a world filled with aesthetic destruction and permeated by an aesthetic reluctance to mend or even recognize that injustice, a world where antiracist and feminist mobilizations go in tandem with intensified racist and misogynist agendas.

Walker’s monumental, 6-by-91/2-foot 2010 graphite and pastel drawing “The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos” (fig. 1) launches a powerful, controversial inquiry into the limits and possibilities of official political action. We see an image of former president Barack Obama lecturing in the midst of a highly energized public arena. The nation he had set out to move toward a more perfect union exhibits scenes of white supremacist terrorization.

Fig. 1. Kara Walker, “The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos,” 2010. Graphite and pastel on paper, 72 x 114 inches (182.9 x 289.6 cm). Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Aesthetic pleasure, in the drawing, appears in its ethical ambivalence. The work’s left and right planes bear this out: the ecstasy of a white man on the right is contingent on his sexual exploitation of black women. The viewer is asked to contemplate a form of subjugation that is not legible in terms of crisp oppositions between oppressor and oppressed, as black women, in turn, are revealed to be complicit in it. Analogously, the performance of a dancer on the left resonates in the register of entertainment no less than agony. The dancer’s act summons an ambit of delight, while also signaling a cataclysm. Bodily rapture coincides with an outcry for change in the face of disaster. What should we make of the aesthetic if it is present in both violence and life-affirming modes of creation?

“The moral arc” enacts ambivalence both at the level of visual form and as a matter of content: lines, streaks, flows, and colored patches generate images that partially occlude or are passed through by other figures and movements (figs. 2, 3, and 4). These forms intimate multiplying narratives that acquire their meanings in relation to variable shapes.

Fig. 2. 
Fig. 3. 
Fig. 4. 

Walker’s drawing examines the fruitfulness of iconic images of domination and resistance, situating the viewer in cycles of atrocity and desire that unsettle the position of contemporary spectators vis-à-vis the polarities of civilization and barbarism, justice and cruelty, whiteness and blackness. Visual modes of address, in this case, resonate with verbal ones.

Scribbled phrases in the drawing’s left margin amplify the sense of the double binds provoked by current U.S. racial conditions (fig. 5). Along with her name and the work’s date and title, Walker gives us to read the paradoxical remark: “righting the incorrectable wrongs.” Below that, she adds the ironic comment “thanks for the memories,” a phrase that proclaims two opposite things in one go. The locution “Dark Night of the Soul” suggests that existent images of blackness fail to provide already invented answers to the dilemmas that the work underscores. Holding up a mirror to her black detractors in a direct address, Walker, indeed, asks: “Black people are always angry to [or ‘at’] me. Why are you so Angry?”[1] Placed adjacent to the work’s actual title, the inscriptions “righting the incorrectable wrongs” and “Dark Night of the Soul” invite us to try them out as possible titles.

Fig. 5. 

The idea of repairing ill-doings that cannot be rectified enmeshes us in a tangle of contradictions. The denomination “Dark Night of the Soul” plays upon widely circulating metaphors of blackness and invites us to understand the cosmos as a whole as immersed in blackness. What does it mean to see the universe in that fashion? Where do we begin to apprehend and conceptualize blackness? Walker’s phrase marks a blackness that is capacious. This blackness is filled with history, feeling, vision, cognition. It encompasses human interconnection, aesthetic practice, and touch, for both better and worse. So we clearly have already embarked on the process of giving this blackness form. How do we go on from there? The blackness we inhabit appears to be profoundly meaningful. It reveals and withholds. It is somehow tethered to the “Soul” that it qualifies. “Blackness” itself thus is both allied with and subjected to other metaphors. Walker incites the viewer to reflect on aestheticized blackness (and whiteness) and black (and white) aesthetics. More than that, the drawing challenges us to ask how we can move society in aesthetically, ethically and politically more propitious directions, taking cognizance of the violations and tensions that, so far, have gone in tandem with aspirations toward change for the better.

What I want to explore by way of Walker’s stunning drawing is the part that the aesthetic plays in this latter predicament. Strikingly, “The moral arc” conscripts aesthetic powers that have lodged aesthetic existence itself in ethical and political ambivalences. Yet the work’s artistic critique, the tenacious questions it raises, and its insistence on aesthetic potentialities also exemplify the centrality of the aesthetic to our engagement with these acute conundrums.

The ties of our aesthetic endeavors with historic aesthetic constellations in which we are embedded leave us in an intricate position as aesthetic actors and theorists. For the bonds between aesthetic meaning, form, and experience, on the one hand, and ethical goodness or political justice, on the other, do not quite hold in the ways philosophers like Plato and Kant thought they would. Where does this leave us?

A quick note on my use of the term “the aesthetic.” Surpassing art and beauty while also crucially pertaining to both, the aesthetic encompasses a vast range of experiences, activities, and objects of culture, nature, and quotidian life. The aesthetic field, in other words (as I elaborate in my book, The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic), consists of an assembly of conceptually suffused, socially embedded, multimodal practices. These practices bring into being specifically aesthetic meanings that traverse frequently recognized boundaries between reason and affect, the public and the private, the general and the particular. They fundamentally take shape as elements of webs of relationships among people, among people and things, and among things, webs into which they also intervene. While the resulting agglomerate of activities, objects, and relations is vital to projects of critique and culture making, it does not comprise a sphere to which we can simply imagine returning after having left it aside. First, we never rigorously put it behind us—even anti-aesthetic stances unfold on aesthetic terrain (I’m thinking here of views by Hal Foster and Fredric Jameson). Second, the aesthetic engulfs us in states of desire and delight that are central to our ability to thrive, even in difficult circumstances, yet also immerses us in unjust forms of pain and suffering. Aesthetic existence includes commendable as well as objectionable strands of experience and interaction (for example, exuberantly generative knowledge along with dogged, no less generative, ignorance). We therefore cannot embrace the aesthetic as an unequivocally valuable phenomenon. The problematic aspects of the aesthetic are part and parcel of the webs of relationships that we enjoy with each other, things, and places, just like the aspects of the aesthetic that we treasure. Both sides inhere in the intersubjective affiliations and disaffiliations, the institutions, and the material environments we inhabit.

“The moral arc” emplaces the viewer in a social orbit that conjoins an ostensibly calm, deliberative mode of public comportment (epitomized by the figure of former President Barack Obama) with routines of violent terrorization (exemplified by the scenes of a KKK rally and a lynching mob). An idealizing vision of a historically discernable path toward justice unfurls in the same plane as a trajectory of cruelty spanning generations. Walker’s lengthy title underscores these interlacings as they unfurl over time by recalling a saying Obama repeatedly quoted in his many public orations. Via Obama’s pronouncements, the work then alludes to Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, which, in turn, recall the language of nineteenth-century abolitionists. This web of associations prompts us to ponder the gaps as well as the links between Obama’s composed demeanor and the impassioned public arena that, we can imagine, is the object of his address.

Foregrounding the question of aesthetic publicity, Walker’s drawing signals the theme of the aesthetic conspicuously through the image of the dancer, the natural setting, and the construction of a collective space. The aesthetic, here, marks a set of self-reflexive questions for philosophy, critical theory, and the arts: How do existent bodily performance vocabularies and entertainment conventions circumscribe the potentialities of the aesthetic? What types of public spectacle and consumption, templates of fantasy and imagination, and figurations of the landscape does the aesthetic foster? How does it shape desire? At the same time, the aesthetic also exerts a vehement calling: how can we recruit it so as to forge alternative patterns of communal life? What novel constellations of promises and threats does the aesthetic hold out? How do we energize it to put into play liberatory forms of what, in The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic, I call aestheticized and aestheticizing racialization and gendering?

What we can see Walker doing, on a reading that places her drawing in conversation with the notion of the aesthetic, is putting established aesthetic constellations into action to reshape the aesthetic, in its racialized and racializing, gendered and gendering operations. Thus Walker critically animates given notions of aesthetic publicity and cultivation. She complicates Walter Benjamin’s view of the imbrications of civilization and barbarism, which her title may bring to mind for readers of this journal.

Walker’s magnificent drawing emblematizes the multiple valences of aesthetic agency and experience. It alerts us to the ties of the aesthetic to enduring brutality. At the same time, it highlights the pivotal powers that aesthetic forms and constellations channel toward our efforts to push society toward justice and to give society an aesthetically more enticing bend. We find ourselves in the middle of that: as makers of aesthetic promises and threats.


[1] On the controversies surrounding this Walker drawing (among other works by her), see http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/kara-walker-newark-library/.