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Tanner Lectures on Human Values: “Known and Strange Things: The Political Necessity of Art”

Fintan O'Toole, English; Lewis Center for the Arts; Fund for Irish Studies

November 9, 2022 · 4:30 pm6:30 pm · 101 Friend Center

University Center for Human Values

ABSTRACT: The relationship between democracy and art has shifted simultaneously in opposite directions. On the one hand, very few people still believe that aesthetic experience has a positive political value. Yet, on the other, democratic practice is increasingly saturated in performativity and the fictional narratives of identity. Ideas that once belonged to artists – provocation, invention and knowingness – are now the stuff of reactionary politics.

We need, therefore, to reassert the necessity of art for democratic citizenship. It is through art that we learn how to live at once in different time frames, as we must do if we are to come to terms with the climate crisis. The aesthetic experience engages with the past but does not pretend that is finished or complete. It creates mental spaces that are “neither here nor there/ A hurry through which known and strange things pass” (Seamus Heaney). It allows us to hover between states without having to land on the fixed terrain of absolutes. The democratic mindset is one in which this capability is embraced and we can behave as if we know who we are and what we are doing even while also knowing that we do not.

Lecture I: Against Artfulness

Democracy has become, not so much aestheticized, as artful. Reactionary politicians create collusive relationships with their audiences in which exaggeration and provocation are performed and consumed. Citizens become fans. This is less a form of democratic deliberation, more an ersatz replacement for the aesthetic experience.

Fintan O’Toole
Columnist with The Irish Times and Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Visiting Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton University

Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with The Irish Times and Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Visiting Professor of Irish Letters at Princeton University. He is the winner of both the Orwell Prize for Journalism, the European Press Prize and the AT Cross Award for Supreme Contribution to Irish Journalism. He is currently working on the official biography of Seamus Heaney. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

Born in Dublin in 1958, he has been drama critic of the New York Daily News, and The Irish Times and Literary Adviser to the Abbey Theatre. He contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books and The Guardian.

His most recent book,”We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland” was named Book of the Year in the 2021 Irish Book Awards.


Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw–Class of 1940 Bicentennial Term Associate Professor
University of Pennsylvania

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is the Class of 1940 Bicentennial Term Associate Professor in the Department of the History of Art. Her research focuses on portraiture and issues of representation, with an emphasis on the construction of race, class, gender, and sexuality in the American context. She has previously served on the faculty of Harvard University and as the Director of Research, Publications, and Scholarly Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

In addition to her books, “Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (2004)” and “First Ladies of the United States (2020)”, Professor Shaw has also curated numerous exhibitions, including “Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century (2006)”  at the Addison Gallery of American Art, “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art (2015)” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and “I Dream a World: Selections from Brian Lanker’s Portraits of Remarkable Black Women,” which is on view (through August 2023) at the National Portrait Gallery.

Wendy Brown–UPS Foundation Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study

Wendy Brown is best known for her interrogation of identity politics and state power in “States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity;” her critical analysis of tolerance in “Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire;” her account of the global political inter-regnum in “Walled States, Waning Sovereignty;” and her study of neoliberalism’s multi-pronged assault on democratic principles, institutions and citizenship in “Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution” and “In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West.” Her forthcoming work, “Knowledge and Politics in Nihilistic Times: Thinking with Max Weber” reflects on other forces corroding democratic politics and education. Her work has been translated into more than twenty languages, and she has held a variety of fellowships and visiting professorships. She credits her thinking life to the excellent and accessible public universities of her youth and has worked in recent years to prevent their extinction.

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Center for Collaborative History
Department of Anthropology
Department of Art & Archaeology
Department of English
Department of Philosophy
Department of Politics
Lewis Center for the Arts
Princeton School of Public and International Affairs
Princeton University Art Museum
Princeton University Humanities Council
Princeton University Public Lectures
The Program in Creative Writing at Princeton
The Program in Journalism at Princeton

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