“Politics is the art of the possible”–these are the words of the famous German statesman, Otto von Bismarck. Many politicians and political scientists, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Masao Maruyama who referred to it affirmatively, have quoted these words as a statement that neatly captures the essence of politics. Bismarck made similar statements throughout his lifetime, and once was recorded in parliament as declaring that “politics is not a science, but an art.”
The political commentator Minoru Morita describes these statements as arguing that “politics cannot be understood through scientific reason alone; it is important to be equipped with an intuition that we might say is closer to the domain of art,” and that “politics isn’t simply about rhetoric; it shares its roots with the arts.”
They say that the etymology of the word art can be traced to the Latin word ars. Ars corresponds to the Greek word techne, and so “art” referred generally to the “skill (ars) of commanding knowledge and methods informed by classical knowledge” until the first stages of the modern era.
Bismarck’s “art” is probably closer to that definition. It was not until the 19th century that the word “art” came to refer to “works of art” or “the fine arts.” Our definition of politics today, “the skill of obtaining the consent and agreement of the people,” resembles Bismarck’s words, and this is closely related to the fact that, etymologically speaking, “art” used to refer to “general scholarship and skills that include politics as their object.”
Words change over time.
Many concerns are shared around the world today, including anxieties related to the increase in terrorism, cutbacks in hiring domestic workers, crime, and making ends meet. Feelings of aversion towards refugees and immigrants have risen to unprecedented heights in the United States and Europe. The United Kingdom voted to leave the EU in 2016. Donald Trump was voted president in the United States under the platform of “America First.” Xenophobic voices have become emboldened here in Japan as well. At the source is anxiety–the anxiety of an uncertain future, and the anxiety of feeling unsafe and vulnerable to danger.
The thirst for openness and connectivity has propelled the development of globalism since the dawn of modernity. At the same time, underlying the rise of contemporary nationalism is the reactive desire for relief gained by closing oneself off from such elements. The clash between these two forces has widened the gulf between the two sides, and polarization has continued to grow more extreme.
The over-proliferation of information has exacerbated matters. Our “emotions” are affected by information we encounter through various channels. Mass media foments anxiety and amplifies calls for justice for the sake of ratings and sales, while social media platforms encourage the spread of false information to those who want to attack their opponents. A breathtaking amount of information is transmitted for the purpose of agitating its users.
This is identical to the circumstances in which politicians who promote simple answers to complex social issues are more popular than those who pursue an agreement through deliberation and negotiation. With the rise of data-centric politics aimed only at winning elections, the old art (ars) of governance informed by the knowledge and skills of the humanities has grown obsolete.
To make matters worse, once emotions are “validated” by “information,” it is difficult to alter them. According to research conducted by computational sociologist Walter Quattrociocchi at the IMT School for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy, when readers of a website based upon false information are confronted with information uncovering the falsehoods of that website–in other words, the “truth”–the likelihood of their continued readership of that website increases by a startling 30%. Researchers like David Rand at Yale University have reported similar findings.
People privilege the desire to believe in others over “facts” because “truth” doesn’t simply arise from an accumulation of facts. They need to be considered separately. It is also misleading to understand all problems in oppositional terms. Very few matters in this world can be understood in black and white–most take on a shade of gray.
According to the Fifth Revised Edition of the Kanji dictionary Kanjigen, the character jō (情) possesses three different meanings: “movements in the heart that arise from sensation or emotion (kanjō, jōdō),” “true things and true appearances, information (jitsujō, jōhō),” and “empathy and compassion (ninjō, nasake).”
It was a single photograph that captured the figure of a three-year-old Syrian refugee who had drowned and washed ashore that turned the tide of public opinion that staunchly, and with “emotion (kanjō),” rejected the thousands of people seeking refuge from war-torn Syria. The photograph spurred Germany and France to jointly propose to the EU a new system of accepting refugees, and England followed suit, shifting its former policies and announcing its own acceptance of refugees. Could we not say that it was “solidarity” and the “power to imagine other people,” the most primitive and quickly expressed forms of jō that humans possess, that washed away the information (jōhō)-generated anxiety that had overtaken Europe?
It is easier to understand the world in terms of oppositions. Uncertainty makes people anxious. They cannot bear being in the dark. Though they acknowledge that hardship brings perseverance, perseverance brings experience, and experience brings hope, more people today have given up on that process from the start, figuring that it is more reasonable to treat gray matters as black and white.
In his book The Taming of Chance, Ian Hacking invoked Foucault’s concept of “biopower” in expertly explaining how, beginning in the 19th century, modern society developed in tandem with the birth of statistics and methods of efficiently managing people as groups as if they were herds of animals. Society in the 21st century is an extension of this. We are managed as though we were animals by power and media.
But humans are not animals. Humans are capable of lending a hand and offering solidarity to others in need in the spur of the moment, even if their traditions and ideals are different or it is against their rationally conceived interests. Though the problems facing humanity today have their causes in jō (emotion and information), it is this very same jō (compassion) that can break through these problems.
We must develop the skills (ars) for taming jō with jō. This is precisely the original definition of “art.” Art can take up anything that exists in this world. It liberates us from the world of rational choice where big numbers always win, and eschews the simplification of a gray, mosaic world into black and white.
Aichi, a leading region in the manufacturing industry (ars) since the modern era, is a unique society that is at once a metropole and on the periphery, populated by people who consider themselves to be “ordinary Japanese.” With nationalism and globalism, elitism and anti-intellectualism, universalism and relativism, idealism and realism, metropole and periphery, young and old, the stage is set for recapturing the lost original domain of art.
Aichi Triennale 2019 Artistic Director
(English translation by John PERSON)