Today's date:
Winter 2012

Politics and the Aesthetic Imagination

Paul Keating is the former prime minister of Australia. This article originally appeared in the Australian.

Sydney—Friedrich Schiller, the German philosopher, said: “If man is ever to solve the problems of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom.”

Romantic and idealistic as that view may seem to some, the thought is revelatory of the fact that the greater part of human aspiration has been informed by individual intuition and privately generated passions, more than it has through logic or scientific revelation. The moral basis of our public life, our social organization, has come from within us—by aspiration and by light, not by some process of logical deduction.

Immanuel Kant referred to our inner impulses as “the higher self,” an unconscious search for truth, going deeply into ourselves to establish who we are and what we should be.

Beauty is about the quest for perfection or an ideal, and that quest has to begin with aesthetic imagination—something informed by conscience, carved by duty. Kant called it “the inner command,” the ethical construct one creates to guide one from within.

But we need tools to mine good intentions: inspirations, ones which await the creative spark, the source of all enlargement. Creativity is central to our progress and to all human endeavor.

Music provides the clue: unlike other forms of art, music is not representational. Unlike the outcome of the sciences, it was never discoverable or awaiting discovery. A Mahler symphony did not exist before Mahler created it.

E.T.A. Hoffman, a contemporary of Beethoven, famously said: “Music reveals to man an unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world surrounding him, a world in which he leaves behind all feelings circumscribed by intellect in order to embrace the inexpressible.”

This is not to turn our back on reason. Or to argue that modernism, with all its secular progress through education, industrialization, communications, transport and the centralized state, has not spectacularly endowed the world as no other movement before it. But a void exists between the drum-roll of mechanization with its cumulative power of science and the haphazard, explosive power of creativity and passion. Science is forever trying to undress nature while the artistic impulse is to be wrapped in it.

While these approaches are different—perhaps often diametrically opposite—they inform related strands of thinking in ways that promote energy and vision.

This is what I have found when these forces are contemplated in tandem. When passion and reason vie with each other, the emerging inspiration is invariably deeper and of an altogether higher form. One is able to knit between them, bringing into existence an overarching unity—a coherence—which fidelity to the individual strands cannot provide.

In the world I have lived in, the world of politics, political economy and internationalism, the literature exists in abundance. But what is far from abundant are the frameworks for the intuitive resolution of complex problems that require multi-dimensional solutions.

But from where do we glean this extra dimensionality?

For me, it has always been from two sources: policy ambition in its own right and from imagination—the dreaming. Policy ambition arising from Kant’s higher self and imagination promoted by those reliable wellsprings—music, poetry, art and architecture—blending the whole into a creative flux.