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Fintan O'Toole, columnist for the Irish Times and book author 

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 II: Negative Capability

Democracy cannot sustain itself without what John Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity to live with doubts, uncertainties and mysteries without having to impose apparent resolutions. The current crisis of democracy is rooted in the loss of this capacity and the insistence that contradictions are inherently intolerable. How can artists seek to restore it?


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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