What art knows about democracy

Essay by Stefan Jonsson
»A democratic society is completely dependent on the existence of art«, writes Stefan Jonsson.

Stefan Jonsson is a professor at the Division of Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO) at Linköping University. Stefan Jonsson (1961) is also an essayist and critic for Dagens Nyheter. He is the author of several books on European modernity and modernism, and the colonial world order, the most recent of which is Där historien tar slut – makt, monster och motstånd i en delad värld. Together with Peo Hansen, he is the co author of Eurafrica: The Untold History of European Integration and Colonialism
(2014). He is currently involved in a major research project using aesthetics as an instrument to understand political protest and social movements.


People have always sung, drawn, told stories and created portrayals, interweaving political issues and relationships with their artistic creations. There is hardly any society or social group that has not used art to interpret their common history and future, their challenges and conflicts. I would like to address two things here, that only art knows about society and democracy.

Why every means of representation betrays democracy?

Democratic equality is scandalous. It sees no reason why anyone should decide more than others or preside over others. In a democratic community, everyone decides together. Any limitation of democratic influence, therefore, is an unjustified and arbitrary expression of power that violates the democratic principle that all voices must be heard. We are not living in a system of that kind. Our system is a representative democracy, that is, an enclosed and contained democracy. The small section of society and the people who appear within that enclosure get to represent the totality. In that sense, every political form of representation leads to a truncated, pale and shadow-like image of the democratic community. The democratic community is cropped. Most are excluded. Art is the medium that most swiftly and aptly reveals the shortcomings of representative democracy.

This is due to its capacity to penetrate beyond the boundaries of representation to pinpoint what and who is behind or
outside the frame: silenced voices, marginalised existences, subaltern life forms. Art brings out the voices and bodies to the parliament and gives them a distinct shape.

How can this capacity be explained? Unlike other instruments of knowledge, art is not primarily representative, but performative. It does not represent reality, but presents possibilities. This is what gives art the capacity to bring new things into the world, new issues and positions that the public sphere must relate to: a voice unheard until now, a figure that has not been seen, a connection that was ignored. Aesthetic portrayal is the only human activity that is congenial with the scandal of democracy: it has many voices (like democracy), it sees the world from many simultaneous perspectives (like democracy), it is, by definition, social and collective (like democracy), and it is unbridled and unbounded (like democracy). Therefore, art can point out the unavoidable shortcomings of confined, representative democracy. It knows that every political form of representation betrays the community it claims to represent. Therefore, art is also quick as a flash to blow the whistle every time the frame is made even smaller.

The art of resistance

Art brings something new into the world. It is performative. It constitutes an event. When the event has taken place, reality looks different. The inhabitants of society rub their eyes and try to grasp the new, to comprehend it. This is just another aspect of the art work’s existence as a democratic object: it initiates debate, dialogue, conflict and resistance.

In a book titled What is an Event, the American sociologist Robin Wagner-Pacifici relies almost exclusively on artistic and literary works to explain why we experience certain events to be decisive in society and the community. At the centre of her analysis is a painting from 1799 by the French artist Jacques-Louis David.

The Intervention of the Sabine Women. The subject is from a Roman myth. David’s painting shows the Sabines attacking Rome to take back their women, who had been abducted by the Romans. We see the two armies engaged in a vendetta to gain control of the women. David lived during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era and captured the political turmoil on the fly by identifying and portraying this serene moment in the eye of the storm – where opposing forces were counterpoised and even cancelled one another out. In the middle of the painting is Hersilia. She stands between the two armies, like a white, billowing yet firm cross. Both arms and hands, raised to the right and left, resemble mighty stop signs separating the antagonists.

It would be wrong to say that Hersilia reconciles the troops. Instead, she dissolves their differences and makes them appear like reflections of one another – both equally destructive, totalitarian and blinded by their soldierly, violence-affirming codex. David draws the viewer’s eye to Hersilia’s resolute intervention. She stands up to both armies, by virtue of an aesthetic of femininity and motherhood that has no truck with either patriarchy or patriotism. The scene exudes such power that it is impossible to dismiss the painting as a cliché.

When David made it, he put his faith in what only art knows about politics, and which makes art indispensable in a democratic community. It says that there are alternatives. Like memory resists oblivion, and like the sense of possibility resists stupidity, Hersilia stands up to masculine violence. She puts a stop to the vicious battle. And that is how art knows how to offer resistance.

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