Artistic perspective enriches international relations research

By YAN ZHANYU / 02-16-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A South African artist gives final touches to a sand sculpture, calling for peace between Ukraine and Russia on the North Beach in Durban, South Africa. Photo: CFP

In 2001, Roland Bleiker, a professor of international relations at the University of Queensland in Australia, published an essay titled “The Aesthetic Turn in International Political Theory” in Millennium: Journal of International Studies. The study marked the beginning of academia’s self-conscious theoretical explorations on interdisciplinary research of art and international relations.  

Over the two decades following Bleiker’s publication, the “marriage” of these two fields gradually gained prominence from a previously marginalized status. Currently, research focus has extended from cultural and diplomatic issues to concrete topics including popular culture, visual images, symbols, and literature. Meanwhile, artistic thinking has also entered the research scope of international relations, becoming an alternative mentality to positivism. 

As such, clarifying the connotation and characteristics of the artistic perspective in international relations, grasping its main functions and value, and examining potential issues are conducive to understanding the focus and direction of the interdisciplinary research field. 

Connotation and characteristics

The artistic perspective in international relations refers to drawing upon the thinking pattern, tools and methods, and aesthetic strategies of art as a discipline to inspire researchers’ imagination and creativity to the greatest extent. While adding enjoyment to research, it expands the academic horizon and displays a humanistic touch in international relations. 

The artistic perspective emphasizes artistic qualities, such as sensibility, elusiveness, intuition, creativity, and imagination, while attempting to incorporate theoretical approaches in artistic creation and evaluation into the research process. In fact, we can interpret the field as understanding, perceiving, and experiencing international relations with artists’ eyes. 

Specifically, the artistic perspective in international relations has three characteristics. First, artistic thinking and scientific thinking are neither antagonistic nor subordinate to each other. On one hand, the artistic mindset and the spirit of science are not contradictory. Particularly when comprehending the construction of concepts, artistic thinking will generate more sensitive insights into soft aspects like emotions and experiences, compensating for these weak spots in scientific thinking. We cannot equate the claim that “art stresses sensibility while science emphasizes rationality” to antagonism between art and science or tension between imagery and logic. 

On the other hand, artistic thinking is not secondary to scientific thinking. Encouraging artistic thinking does not mean to conceive a set of alternative artistic theories for international relations, because the construction of artistic international relations theory using social sciences’ theoretical standards will forcibly incorporate artistic international relations into scientific international relations, which is neither realistic nor rewarding. 

Second, the artistic perspective pays attention to aesthetic expressions of phenomena in international relations. Art is an important source for imagination and creativity in international relations. Different from traditional international relations research, which attaches more importance to higher-level fields, such as security and the economy, artistic imagination provides us with lower yet more real angles to observe international relations. 

The artistic orientation of politics and the political orientation of art are key processes to understanding aesthetic expressions. The former refers to packaging political intents as artistic forms to make them aesthetically appealing, such as embellishing hostile attitudes, requirements for independence, and exclusionism, through film, drama, music, and architecture. The political orientation of art means to completely alienate art as a tool for attaining political goals. The political significance of related artworks far outweighs their remaining aesthetic value, if they have any. 

Third, the artistic perspective in international relations values reflection on and criticism of the course of world politics. As a critical tool, art can proactively interfere with political processes, revealing political events’ representational models under the influence of power, therefore unveiling diverse perspectives for interpreting the events. 

In international relations, art can be regarded as visual politics. It is not only an instrument for resistance, but is also a shelter. One of the tasks of the art perspective is to translate different artistic experiences into materials for research of international relations.  

Functions and value

When examining issues in international relations, the artistic perspective serves three valuable functions. 

The first function is perception. Through art, scholars can perceive political phenomena in everyday life from different points of view, and come up with multiple paths for understanding political events. Art behaviors are a crucial means of political expression. People express their political insights through street graffiti, political satire, cartoons, and the like. As a “bystander,” art witnesses the anxiety that people exhibit in political processes. 

Moreover, political events can be construed in different ways through the lens of art. The key to the artistic perspective lies in discovering what is hidden and seeking new angles for observation, rather than new facts. It can help transcend the certainty of empirical reality and restore ascertained events to break them down into different occasions as the events are presented, performed, and commented upon. 

Second, art has an interference function. It can serve as a critical tool to proactively intervene in political processes, revealing power’s event representation mechanism, thereby realizing political expressions and even impacting political processes. Amid mutual construction between art and the sovereignty concept, some artworks have actually been involved in complicated international power relations, although they seem to be irrelevant aesthetic experiences to politics. These pieces agree or disagree with sovereignty narratives behind art, reflecting upon prevailing stereotypes regarding different races, cultures, and civilizations in the context of globalization. Art’s viewpoints and approaches in international relations are useful for dispelling myths of this kind and uncovering the many potential influencing factors and explanatory mechanisms that have been overlooked by positivism. 

Third is the formation function. Art itself plays a subject role in international interactions. Distinct from traditional art, contemporary art has been developing in an interactive format. This means personal experiences are no longer the sole source of inspiration for artistic creation. Daily experiences of the masses, including artists, also provide material for artistic creation and objects for reflection. 

In fact, individuals’ immersion in the culture of the art world is, per se, a profound experience of socialization. At present, art has become a channel for verbal communication and consultation. Its intersubjectivity has outperformed subjectivity. Many vanguard artists are also political activists, so researchers have to not only heed artists’ aesthetic motives, but also consider them as basic sources for understanding international relations. 

Potential issues

To extend the artistic perspective in international relations, we can further explore at least three issues. 

First is the identity issue in the joint construction of emotions and art. Art, emotions, and identity constitute an interrelated research topic. Specifically, art is in a central position in affective politics. It is capable of expressing social realities in intricate power relations, such as representing identity and exclusion experiences. For example, politicians can give value to certain artworks to advance state construction and sovereignty claims, while artists can convey other political goals through artworks. 

Art not only mirrors emotions, but can also construct emotions. Artworks embody emotions, and the embodied emotions can reinforce, reshape, filter, enrich, and even reverse some other emotions, thus affecting identity. Simple study of the relationship between emotions and identity will make argumentation oversimplified or excessively abstract. Thus, between emotions and identity, art should serve as a concrete entity to facilitate communication and as a social medium to substantiate emotions. 

Second, we can delve into changing social connotations and political demands concealed in artworks. It is generally believed that an art form reflects the ethos of an era, but it is difficult to find the correspondence between an artwork and a specific phenomenon in international relations. That’s because changes in art are usually slow and arise from complex backgrounds, and art is autonomous to some degree. Nonetheless, researchers can investigate intertextual relations between societal and artistic changes over a long period of time to provide more clues for reflections on international relations. 

In this regard, three topics are worth deeper discussion: how marginalized groups express their identity through artworks and respond to mainstream narratives in artistic ways; individuals and pertinent justice issues; and changes in the content and form of religious and secular art.  

Third, attention can be paid to “art’s self-sufficiency” and “artistic resistance” in the wave of globalization. Considering art as a self-sufficient subject will open up new research perspectives. The so-called “self-sufficiency” means that art is a substantive participant in international relations itself and is not attached to any existing international relations knowledge systems, because art can deliver values across borders, thereby promoting social harmony. 

For example, art can express, communicate, and hold political opinions of different groups, not only healing war traumas, but also providing spiritual comfort for displaced civilians. This research agenda can at least cover issues such as to what extent art is a major means of practice to resolve international conflicts, how art becomes a tool to revolt against autocracy and cultural hegemony, and how art expresses appeals of oppressed groups through independent voices and offers them an alternative symbol for imagination. Generally, art’s transnational nature and its possible impact on world politics deserve further study. 

In conclusion, the artistic perspective can narrow international relations down to concrete issues, since it rejects borders. In terms of thinking, it opposes the boundary of rationality set by scientism. It’s neither against the guiding role of rationality, nor negates non-rational factors’ passion and potential. Essentially it objects to binary opposition. In practice, the artistic perspective is transnational, or is capable of crossing all kinds of borders. Although it cannot provide specific suggestions for decision-making and strategic evaluation, it is able to fully reveal a policy’s impact on individuals after implementation. In other words, art doesn’t provide answers to certain questions, but it can obtain value by explaining the answers.  

Yan Zhanyu is from the School of International Relations at the University of International Business and Economics.