This article contributes to studies in democratic theory and civic engagement by critically reflecting on the role of contemporary art for the transformation of the public sphere. It begins with a short assessment of the role of art during the Enlightenment, when the communicative function and the public role of art were most clearly articulated. It refers in particular to the analogies between aesthetic and political judgement in order to understand the emancipatory role of artistic production within a philosophical project centred on reason’s capacity to liberate itself from the dogmatism of authority and from the errors of superstition, both elements considered crucial to the development of a functioning public sphere. The article then discusses the historical transformation of art following a number of philosophical and sociological critiques to a similar project of the Enlightenment and assesses the attempt of historical avant-gardes to appropriate this critique yet maintain art’s emancipatory function in society. Having examined some problems raised by these attempts, the article turns to the analogies with contemporary artistic production. It examines the role of contemporary visual art in the public sphere and shows how the anti-rationalist theories articulated to reflect on contemporary works of art, and the works themselves, both fail to develop art’s emancipatory role in society. Without rethinking artistic experience in a way that places emphasis on reason’s capacity for critical and constructive self-understanding and without reconsidering art theory in a way that brings back the emphasis on the emancipatory role of rational communication, contemporary art, far from contributing to the revitalization of the public sphere, will contribute to its decline
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