South Asian Aesthetics

University of Pennsylvania, Fall 2014

Session 19: The Aesthetics of Dissent Part I- Art and Power

Political poster in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Photo: Tyler Williams, 2009.

Political poster in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Photo: Tyler Williams, 2009.

In this session we will explore the relationship between the aesthetic realm, aesthetics as a discourse, and power– in all its political, social, religious, and gendered forms.  The conceptual readings are intended to help us think through the following questions: How are relationships of power implicated in, naturalized by, or reproduced through certain aesthetic regimes?  How are these relationships critiqued or supported by discourses of aesthetic theory?  Is it possible to consciously construct a new aesthetic that is free of such relationships and aligned with progressive political consciousness?  Or does the artist/writer/composer always have to work within existing aesthetics and adapt or subvert them from within?

The first reading, consisting of excerpts from Karl Marx and Frederich Engels’s writings on art and literature, turns our attention to the role of labor in the production of art.  Across the various materials collected here, we see Marx and Engel’s idea of creative activity as a potential in the subject that, through the processes of alienation, is re-presented back to the subject as a work of ‘art’.  We also see their concern with the role of art and the artist in the epoch of capitalism, and with the revolutionary potential of art.

The second reading, a chapter from Raza Mir’s Anthems of Resistance, a history of progressive writing in Urdu, explores the challenges that Urdu writers faced as they tried to incorporate the ideas of Marx, Engels, and others into a revolutionary literary aesthetic in colonial (and later post-colonial) India and Pakistan.  These writers and thinkers stood at the confluence of several different ideological and political streams in the early twentieth century, including socialism, anti-colonialism, and nationalism.  Mir’s book draws our attention to the idea that perhaps a progressive or revolutionary aesthetic is a process instead of a static set of aesthetic ideals.

Omprakash Valmiki’s essay, “The Aesthetic of Dalit Literature” (Dalit Sāhitya Kā Saundarya Śāstra), maps the dimensions and challenges of creating a Dalit literary aesthetic.  (You will recall from previous sessions that ‘Dalit’– lit. ‘the oppressed’–  refers to those caste communities, formerly called ‘outcastes’ or ‘untouchables’, that have historically suffered the brunt of caste discrimination and violence.)  Although this powerful essay could have just as easily been grouped with the next session’s materials (“Identity and Authenticity”), I felt it belonged here because it not only asks what a Dalit aesthetic could and should be, but also identifies the various forms of social, political, and economic oppression that are implicated in any literary aesthetic, be it in South Asia, the industrialized ‘West’, etc.

The final piece of material for this session is not a reading but a video recording of a talk given by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at the Tallinn University, Estonia, on the subject of “An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization.”  In the talk (which summarizes some of her arguments in the collection of essays of the same name), Spivak proposes a definition of aesthetic education as “training the imagination for epistemological performance,” and surveys what this may mean in an age of globalization, empire, and the digital.

Conceptual readings:

  1. Marx, Karl and Frederich Engels. On Literature and Art. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978. [Selections.]
  2. Mir, Raza. “Chapter 2: Urdu Poetry and the Progressive Aesthetics.” In Anthems of Resistance : A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry. New Delhi: India Ink, 2006. 26-49.
  3. Valmiki, Omprakash. “The Aesthetic of Dalit Literature.” In Dalit Sāhitya Kā Saundarya Śāstra. New Delhi: Radhakrishna, 2011 (originally 2001). Translated by Tyler Williams.
  4. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization.” [Videorecording.] Tallinn University, Estonia, 2012.

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