Monday Night — 05.08.06 — Discussion on Rancière's Politics of Aesthetics

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Monday Night — 05.08.06 — Discussion on Rancière’s Politics of Aesthetics
1. About Monday Night
2. Berkeley Talk “Aesthetics & Politics: rethinking the link”
3. “The politics of aesthetics”
4. Brian Holmes Text on Rancière
1. About Monday Night
What: Discussion
Where: 16 Beaver Street, 4th Floor
When: Monday Night 05.08.2006 @ 7:30 PM
Who: Open and Free To All
A translation of Jacques Rancière’s “the politics of aesthetics” into English was completed in 2004. Since that time, these texts have been in wider circulation and discussion.
We have posted below two talks he has given on the subject in the last years which elaborate the positions outlined in the book. In addition to that we have a link below to a text Brian Holmes wrote some years back connecting to Rancière’s writings as they pertain to aesthetics and politics. We would like to take a moment to create a forum for discussing these ideas and to connect to some of the ongoing discussions we have been having at 16Beaver.
Check back online before Monday’s event, because we hope to be updating the page with some additional texts or resources.
2. Aesthetics and Politics: rethinking the link
There are different ways of dealing with art and politics. For a long time the issue had been set up as a relationship between two separate terms. The question was raised as follows: must art serve politics or not? Or: how can we assess the political import of artworks? This led to endless controversies about art for art’s sake opposed to engaged art. Another way of setting the issue was: how do artworks represent social issues and struggles or matters of identity and difference. This resulted in another kind of endless job. When you started scrutinizing how 19th century French painters or novelists had represented class-war matters, you already knew that they did it inadequately because of their own class position. And when you begin to ferret out hidden representations of social, sexual or racial difference, you never stop finding new biases, the more so significant and perverse as they are the more deeply concealed and indiscernible to everybody’s eye. For a while, some concepts offered a mediation, such as culture or modernity. The strategies of the artists, the contents of their representations or of their dismissal of representation were referred to the modes of perception and consumption of the new industrial world of work and leisure that you could call, according to your own political commitment, either capitalism and commodification or modernity and modern life. A lot of cultural and social history of art has been written to show how for instance the impressionist technique of coloured blotches had been fostered by the perception of the new scenery of the modern town with its shops, lights and windows or the new pleasures of urban or suburban leisure, cafés-concerts, boating on rivers and so on. So the issue of the autonomy of art with respect to politics turned out to be the issue of its autonomy in relation to common culture: did the impressionist blotches testify to a ‘truth-to-medium” strategy of autonomy or did they chart the new conditions of sensory experience in commodity culture?
Those discussions left the crucial point in the dark: how is it possible that the self-containment of painting be identified with the representation of popular leisure? More basically, how is it possible that we see – or read – on a canvas a representation of social life? How does it make sense to relate a way of painting that makes the strokes of the brush visible both to an idea of pure painting and to an idea of painting as an expression of a new kind of social life? In order that we pose these questions, there must already be a previous knot between a way of painting, a gaze cast on the canvas and a mode of interpretation of painting as expressing a way of life. The impressionists could paint their canvases and we can discuss whether they did pure painting, images of Parisian leisure or both at the same time because there already existed a visibility of painting as both self-affirmation of art and representation of common life. There must be a previous mapping of the visible, the sayable and the thinkable allowing us to connect in this or that way something that we call artistic form and something that we see as political content. Art and politics are not two terms that would be linked through some form of representation. They are constituted as such in the same knot of the visible, the sayable and the thinkable, in the same framing of a common space where some practices appear to be named “arts” and some matters to be viewed of as “political”.
Art is not political owing to the messages and feelings that it carries on the state of social and political issues. It is not political owing to the way it represents social structures, conflicts or identities. It is political by virtue of the very distance that it takes with regard to those functions. It is political as it frames a specific space-time sensorium, as it redefines on this stage the power of speech or the coordinates of perception, shifts the places of the actor and the spectator, etc.
Because politics is not the exercise of power or the struggle for power. Politics is first of all the configuration of a space as political, the framing of a specific sphere of experience, the setting of objects posed as “common” and subjects to whom the capacity is recognized to designate these objects and argue about them. My book Disagreement was an attempt to show that politics first is the conflict about the very existence of that sphere of experience, the reality of those common objects and the capacity of those subjects. A well known Aristotelian sentence says that human beings are political because they own the power of speech that puts into common the issues of justice and injustice while animals only have voice to express pleasure or pain. I tried to show that the whole political problem dealt with distinguishing they who get the power of speech from they to whom is only recognized the possession of voice. Artisans, Plato says, have no time to be elsewhere outside of their work. I tried to show that that matter of lacking time was by no means an empirical matter, that it was the mere naturalization of a symbolical separation. Politics precisely happens when they who have “no time” to do anything else than their work take that time that they have not in order to make themselves visible as sharing in a common world and prove that their mouth indeed emits common speech instead of merely voicing pleasure or pain. That distribution and re-distribution of times and spaces, places and identities, that way of framing and re-framing the visible and the invisible, of telling speech from noise and so on, is what I call the partition of the sensible. Politics consist in reconfiguring the partition of the sensible, in bringing on the stage new objects and subjects, in making visible that which was not visible, audible as speaking beings they who where merely heard as noisy animals. In so far as it sets up such scenes of dissensus, politics can be told to be an “aesthetic” activity, in a way that has noting to do with that adornment of power which Benjamin called “aestheticization of politics”.
The issue “aesthetics and politics” can thus be rephrased as follows: there is an “aesthetics of politics” in the sense that I tried to explain. Correspondingly, there is a “politics of aesthetics”. This means that the artistic practices and their forms of visibility and intelligibility, take part in the partition of the perceptible in so far as they suspend the ordinary coordinates of sensory experience and reframe the overall network of relationships between spaces and times, subjects and objects,the common and the singular. There is not always politics, though there always are forms of power. Nor is there always art, though there always are poetry, painting, music, theatre, dance, sculpture and so on. Plato’s Republic is a good case in point. It is sometimes misunderstood as the “political” proscription of art. But politics itself is withdrawn by the Platonic gesture. The same partition of the sensible withdraws a political stage by denying to the artisans any time for doing something else than their own job and an “artistic” stage by closing the theatre where the poet and the actors would embody another personality than their own. The same configuration of the space-time of the community prevents for both of them the possibility of making two things at once, putting the artisan out of politics and the mimetician out of the city. Democracy and the theatre are two forms of the same partition of the sensible, two forms of heterogeneity, that are dismissed at the same time to frame the republic as the “organic life” of the community.
So the “aesthetical knot” is always tied before you can identify art or politics. The present situation might be another interesting case of this articulation.As we know our present is very often characterized as a time of desidentification of art. Many art lovers fail to recognize the identity of art in front of the videos or installations that spawn in the place where they used to see paintings. But as the same time, it very often happens that you have to go to museums or art exhibitions to see forms of staging of political issues or even hear a discussion about politics. It sometimes transpires as though we were not sure to find art in the galleries and museums but get a better chance to see politics there than in parliamentary debate. As though the attempts of challenging the museum as a separate place had the opposite effect to reveal a strong linkage between the specific existence of places devoted to the exhibition of art and the framing of the political community.
This link, I think is by no means casual. Plato dismissed at once theatre and democracy. Strange as it may appear, there is perhaps some similar kind of linkage between modern democracy and the existence of a place dedicated to what seemingly has little to do with it : not the gathering of a theatrical audience around men acting on the stage, but the blank space of the museum where the solitude and the passivity of the visitors passing-by confronts the solitude and the passivity of artworks. To put it differently, the present situation might show a specific form of a far more general linkage between the autonomy of art places as such and its seemingly opposite, the political commitment of art, that is the indetermination of the boundaries of art. To understand this apparent paradox, a little journey backwards may prove useful, to look at a kind of primal scene of the museum which is, at the same time a primal scene of revolution.
At the end of the 15th of his Letters on the aesthetic education of Man, Schiller takes us in front of a Greek statue, known as the Juno Ludovisi. The statue is as he says “self-contained” – an expression which would be strongly revived at the time of Clement Greenberg. But precisely this “self-containment” soon proves to be a little more complicated than the modernist paradigm would make it appear. It is no matter of demonstrating the specificity of a medium or materials. The “medium” which is involved here is not the material on which the artistic will works. It is the sensorium that links two forms of suspension. First the self-containment of the statue expresses the main characteristic of divinity: her “idleness and indifference”, her getting free from any kind of care and will, free from the task of achieving any aims. Second the spectator in front of that “free-appearance” feels a state that Schiller characterizes as “free-play”, meaning the suspension of the very opposition of activity and passivity, form and matter, aims and means. To sum it up, the “player” is “doing nothing” in front of this idle goddess and the very work of the sculptor is taken within that circle of “inactivity”.
Now, as well-known, Schiller, in the same letter, makes this strange statement that this “free-play”, this suspension of activity, is the very “humanity” of Man and that this apparently paradoxical statement is capable of bearing “the whole edifice of the art of the beautiful and the still more difficult art of living”. I think that this statement has to be reinvestigated, far beyond the usual interpretations that see in it an irenic dream of humanity reconciled by the cult of Beauty and the artistic education of the lower classes. Such a reinvestigation has to grapple with the heart of the paradox, which, I think, is not the paradoxical statement of a single thinker but a contradiction constitutive of a whole regime of identification of art and of its “politics”. The paradox can be summarized as follows: there is a specific aesthetic experience that is an experience of suspension, of withdrawal of power. And this experience of suspension is the principle of two seemingly contradictory things: an edifice of art as such, the autonomization of a “self-contained” sphere of art and the identification of that power of “self-containment” with the framing of a new form of collective life”. Understanding this constitutive paradox may help us to get away from some stereotypes about modernity, its “unachievement” or collapse, or passage to postmodernity.
The first point to understand is as follows: there is art, in general, to the extent that there is a specific regime of identification. I call a regime of identification of art an articulation between three things: modes of production of objects or of interrelation of actions; forms of visibility of these manners of making and doing ; and manners of conceptualizing these practices and these modes of visibility. These modes of conceptualization are not simply added interpretations. They are conditions of possibility of what artistic practices can produce and what aesthetic gazes can see. The same statue of the goddess may be art or not be art as it falls under different regimes of identification. There is first a regime in which it is perceived as an image of divinity. Its perception and the judgment about it are thus subsumed under the following questions: is it allowed to make images of the divinity? Is the divinity portrayed a true divinity? If she is, is she portrayed as she should be? In such a regime, there is no art, as we have it, but only images that are appreciated in relation to their truth and to their effects on the behaviour of the individuals and the collectivity. I call this regime an ethical regime of the images.
There is a second regime where the tone goddess does not fall any more under those issues of authenticity. This regime includes the statues of the gods or the stories of the princes in a specific category, the category of imitations. The Juno Ludovisi is the product of a fine art, sculpture, that deserves that name for two reasons: because it is the shaping of a form out of a matter, and because its is the working out of a representation, meaning the shaping of a likely appearance, binding together the imaginary traits of divinity and the features of feminity, the monumentality of the statue and the expression of a specific character. The statue thus is a representation. It is appreciated within a whole set of standards determining the ways in which the skill of an artist, shaping the raw materials, can dovetail with an artistic capacity to give to his or her figures the forms of expression that suit the character or the action. I call this regime a representational regime of the arts.
Now the Juno Ludovisi in Schillers’ scenario no more belongs to any of these regimes. She already belongs to a third regime that I call the aesthetic regime of art. And my assumption is that the abstract “self-contained” canvases of the so-called modernity as well as the performances or installations of the so-called postmodernity still belong to the same regime of visibility and intelligibility, that they are still taken in the same partition of the sensible which makes art entirely autonomous and, for the same reason, entirely political. In this third regime, the statue of Juno does not get its artistic identity thanks to its conformity to an adequate idea of divinity or to the canons of fine art and representation. It gets it thanks to its belonging to a specific sensorium. The property “being a work of art” is no more referred to a distinction among modes of doing. It is referred to a distinction among the modes of being. The statue is a “free-appearance “, meaning a a sensory form which is heterogeneous, with respect to other forms of experience. It is apprehended in a specific experience, suspending the ordinary connections between appearance and reality, form and matter, activity and passivity, thought and sensation.
Why does this experience bear a new form of collective life? Because “free play ” and “free-appearance” frame a specific sensorium by breaking through the partition of the sensible that shaped the traditional forms of domination. Free play is opposed to work, as free-appearance is opposed to the appearance referred to a reality. But those categories, work, play, appearance are categories of a partition of the sensible, I mean categories that frame in the very fabric of sensory experience the issues of domination, hierarchy or equality. In the platonician republic the impossibility of free-appearance for the mimetician came along with the impossibility of play for the artisan. Appearance could no more go without a “reality” than work could come along with the purposelessness of play. More generally the legitimacy of domination lay on the “fact” of a sensory partition of different humanities. Feeling and tasting, Voltaire stated, do not mean the same thing for the cultivated people and for common people. And the power of the high classes was the power of the educated senses over the raw senses, the power of activity over passivity, understanding over sensation, form over matter, etc.
Free play and free appearance thus show up as the dismissal of that partition of the sensible. This is how Schiller interpreted Kant’s “free-play” of the faculties by politicizing it: the power of “form” over “matter” was the power of the State over the masses. It was the power of the class of intelligence over the class of sensation, of the men of culture over the men of nature. The aesthetic experience was the dismissal of that power. It framed an “equality” which would be no more a reversal of domination but the destruction of the very partition of the sensible sustaining domination in general. As we know, he opposed that sensory “revolution” to the political revolution as it had been implemented by French Revolution. The latter had failed precisely because the revolutionary power had plaid the traditional part of the Understanding – meaning the state – imposing its law to the matter of sensations – meaning the masses. By so doing it was still in line with the old partition of the sensible where the culture of the elite had to rule over the wilderness of the common people. The only true revolution would be a revolution overthrowing the power of “active” understanding over “passive” sensibility, the power of a “class” of intelligence and activity over a class of sensitivity and wilderness. This is what was entailed in the aesthetic experience of suspension of the opposites: a revolution of sensory existence itself instead of a revolution in the forms of government.
Art is “political”, in the aesthetic regime of art, insofar as it is identified within an autonomous form of experience. This regime sets the relationship between the forms of identification of art and the forms of the political community in a way that dismisses in advance any opposition between an autonomous and a heteronomous art, art for art’s sake and art committed to politics, art in the museum and art in the street. Because the “aesthetic autonomy” is not, as the “modernist” paradigm has it, the autonomy of the work of art as such. It is the autonomy of a form of experience. And this autonomous form of experience appears as the principle of the self-formation of a new humanity. There is no conflict opposing the “purity” of art and its “politicization”. On the contrary, it is thanks to its very purity that the materiality of aesthetic experience can be posed as the material anticipation of a new form of community. If the creators of the pure forms of so-called abstract painting could become constructors of the new Soviet life, it is not due to their subjection to an ideology came from the outside. For the non-figurative purity of that painting – the flatness gained over the illusion of the third dimension did not mean the self-containment of the art of painting within the accomplishment of the potentials of its own materials. Much more it asserted the egalitarian power of the surface, as an interface where fine art and applied art, functional art and symbolic art would fuse, where the geometry of the ornament became the symbol of interior life and the purity of the line the instrument for building a new setting of life, liable to become the setting of a new life. Abstract painting was part of a whole vision of a new man, living in new buildings among newly designed objects. That’s why the pure poets and the social engineers could share in the same project. In 1897 Mallarmé writes his Throw of Dice and he wants the disposition of the lines and the sizes of the characters on the printed page to match the form of the idea. Some years after Peter Behrens designs the lamps and the kettles, the trademark and the catalogues of the German General Company of Electricity. What have they in common? I would answer: a certain idea of design. The poet wants to replace the representational subject matter of old poetry with the design of a general form, making the poem like a choreography or like the unfolding of a fan. He calls these general forms types. The engineer/designer wants to create objects whose form would fit their use and advertisements giving an exact information about those objects instead of commercial embellishments. He also calls these forms types. He thinks of himself as an artist inasmuch as he attempts to create a culture of everyday life, fitting the progress of industrial production and artistic design instead of the routine of commerce and petty-bourgeois consumption. His types are symbols of common life. So are Mallarmé’s types as well. They are part of the project of building, over the level of monetary economy, the level of a symbolic economy, displaying a collective “justice” or “magnificence”, a celebration of the human abode, standing in for the forlorn ceremonies of religion and monarchy. Far from each other as the symbolist poet and the functionalist engineer may seem, they share the idea of art forms as forms of collective education. Both industrial production and artistic creation are committed to do something else that(n) what they do, to create not only objects but a new sensorium, a new partition of the perceptible.
There is no conflict between purity and politicization. But there is a conflict in the “purity” of art, in the very conception of that materiality of art which foreshadows a new configuration of the common. Mallarmé still is a good case in point: on the one hand, the spatialization of art makes the poem a self-contained block of heterogeneous sensible, set apart from what he calls the “space identical to itself” and the “uniform drip of ink” of the newspaper. On the other hand it is a vanishing performance, alike the fireworks of Bastille Day or it is a ritual of the community, similar to Greek theatre or the catholic mass. On the one hand the power of a new community is enclosed in the solid volume of the work, on the other it is ephemerally drawn in the gesture that designs a new common space.
This means that the contradiction lies at the very heart of the aesthetic experience. The Schillerian scenario can still help us to understand it. On the one hand the free appearance is the power of a heterogeneous sensible. The statue, like the goddess, stands in front of the subject, idle – which means indifferent to any will, to any combination of ends and means. She is self-contained, which means, unavailable to our knowledge, our aims, our desires. And it is only thanks to that strangeness, that unavailability that she bears the promise of a future humanity. The subject of the aesthetic experience is promised the possession of a new world by that statue that he cannot possess in any way. And the “aesthetic education” that must replace the political revolution is the education by that strangeness of the free appearance and by that experience of dispossession and passivity.
But, on the other hand, the autonomy of the statue means the autonomy of the way of life that she expresses. Free-appearance is such because it is the expression of a free community. But the very meaning of that freedom comes to be overturned. A free, autonomous community is a community whose lived experience does not rend itself into separate spheres of activity, of a community where art and life, art and politics, life and politics are not severed one from another. According to that logic, the Greek statue is art for us because it was not for the sculptor. And the free-appearance promises a community that will be free to the extent that it will no more know those separations, it will no more know of art as a separate sphere of activity.
So the statue promises a new world because it is captured in a specific partition of the sensible. But that partition itself may be interpreted in opposite ways. On the one hand the statue promises a new community because it is art and it frames a specific sphere of experience. On the other hand, it makes the promise because it is no art, because it expresses a way of dwelling in a common space, a form of life that knows no separations between different spheres of activity. The aesthetic education thus is the process which transforms the free appearance into a lived reality and the aesthetic free play into an agency of the living community.
The politics of art in this regime rests on this founding paradox: the autonomy of aesthetic experience is an experience of heteronomy as well. We don’t need to figure out some pathetic end of “modernity” or cheerful outburst of postmodernity. There is no dramatic breakthrough but an original contradiction. From the very outset of the aesthetic regime, art is art in so far as it is no-art. The solitude of the work bears a political promise. The accomplishment of the promise is the suppression of art and politics as separate activities. From this point on, the aesthetic self-formation divides itself into two “politics”: a politics of accomplishment and a politics of unaccomplishment. On the one hand, the program of the aesthetic revolution where art becomes a form of life, thereby suppressing its difference as art, and suppressing politics as well. On the other, the resistant figure of the artwork that holds in store the political promise, thanks to the very separation from the outside and the inner contradiction that prevents it to be accomplished.
The first plot, the plot of the aesthetic revolution intends to transform the aesthetic suspension into the principle of a free world. It opposes to the political revolution a revolution in sensory experience itself, the framing of a community of feeling. This scenario was first set out in the little draft associated with Hegel, Schelling and Hölderlin, known as the “oldest system-program of German Idealism”. This scenario opposes to the “dead mechanism” of the State the living power of living thought. But this sheer opposition of life and death makes politics vanish. It dismisses the “aesthetics of politics”, the practice of political dissensus. It replaces it with the framing of a consensual community: not a community where anybody agrees with everybody, but a community achieved as a community of feeling. The task of the “aesthetic education” assumed by the “oldest program” is to make ideas sensory, to make out of them the equivalent of the ancient mythology: a living tissue of experience and belief shared by the elite and the common people. This is ultimately the program of a metapolitics that purports to achieve in the realm of sensory experience what politics can only do in the realm of form and appearance.
As we know this scenario did not stay on the mere stage of philosophy and poetry. Though Marx could never read the draft, he exactly transposed it, forty years after, when he framed the scenario of the no more political but “human revolution” – that revolution aimed at achieving philosophy by suppressing it and giving men the real possession of that which he had only known in the dream of appearance. By so doing, he shaped the new enduring identification of the aesthetic subject; the producer, producing both the objects and the social relations in which the former were produced. It is on the ground of that identification that the Marxist avant-garde and the – suprematist, constructivist and even symbolist – artistic avant-garde could meet in the 1920’s and make agreement on a common program: the suppression of both political dissensus and aesthetic heterogeneity in the edification of new forms of life and the buildings of a new life.
This scenario is too easily equated with the disastrous plot of utopia and totalitarianism. But the project of “art becoming life” cannot be reduced to the program of the constructivist engineers or futurist artists in Soviet Revolution. It shaped a wider and more enduring tradition, reaching back at least to the artists of Arts and Crafts, carried on by the engineers of The Werkbund and the Bauhaus or l’Art nouveau through to the situationists architects and even to the more modest contemporary proposals of the so-called “relational art”. But even the symbolist poets shared in this program of an art, suppressing its singularity to frame the sensible forms of a community that would be no more the “formal” community of democracy. This is no matter of “fascination” for the song of totalitarian sirens. This comes as a direct consequence of the founding contradiction of the metapolitics grounded in the very status of the aesthetic work, stemming from the original linkage between the singularity of the idle appearance and the activity transforming the appearance into reality. The aesthetic metapolitics can achieve the promise of living truth that it finds in the aesthetic suspension only by invalidating that suspension, transforming the aesthetic form into a form of life. That form of life itself can take on different shapes. It may be the soviet edification that Malevitch in 1918 opposes to the “old Greek ladies”. Or it may be the play and the urban “derive” that Guy Debord opposes to the totality of a life alienated in the spectacle. Anyway the politics of the “free form” asks it to accomplish itself, to suppress that sensory heterogeneity which bore the aesthetic promise.
That suppression of form in act is precisely what is rejected by the alternative politics of aesthetics, the politics of the resisting form. In this scenario, the politicity of the form is maintained by providing it to take any part outside of its own realm, may it be as partisan commitment or aestheticization of prosaic life. The Schillerian goddess bears the promise because it is idle. The social function of art, Adorno will echo, is to have no social function. The egalitarian promise is enclosed in the self-sufficiency, in the indifference of the work towards either any program of social transformation or any participation in the adornment of prosaic life. Perhaps the conservatives understood it before the revolutionaries. That’s why, for instance, in the 1850’s, the work on nothing, the work resting on itself of Flaubert was immediately perceived by the literary and political conservatives a strong manifestation of democracy. The work which wants nothing, the work deprived of any “point de vue”, which gives no message and does not care neither for democracy nor for anti-democracy, this work proves to be egalitarian out of this very indifference, suspending any kind of preference or hierarchy. Later generations would argue that it is subversive thanks to the way it sets the sensorium of art away from the sensorium of everyday aestheticized life.
That idea of a politicity entailed by the “indifference” of the work would be appropriated by the political avant-gardist tradition. That tradition would have political avant-gardism and artistic avant-gardism fit together out of their very absence of connection. Its program can be summed up as follows: let us save the heterogeneous sensible which is the heart of the autonomy of art and consistently of its power of emancipation, save it from a twofold threat: the transformation into a metapolitical act or the identification to the forms of everyday aestheticized life. That twofold polemics is best summoned in the adornian aesthetics. The political potential of the work lies in its separation from commodity culture and the administrated world. But this potential cannot consist only in that external separation. It also lies in the contradiction inherent in that solitude. The autonomy of Schönberg’s music, as conceptualized by Adorno, is a double heteronomy: in order to denounce the capitalist division of labour, it has to take that division yet further, to be more technical, more inhuman than the products of capitalist mass production. But this inhumanity in turn makes the blotch of what has been repressed appear and disrupt the perfect technical arrangement of the work. The promise of emancipation can be kept only by sweeping aside any kind of reconciliation, any kind of “agreement” inside the work and in its relation to the outside. This view of the politicity of art has a dreadful consequence. It sets the “political-apolitical” difference of the aesthetical promise as a difference to be experienced in the most sensory way. There is an extraordinary pathos in the tone of the passage in the Philosophy of New Music where Adorno states that some chords of 19th century salon music are no longer audible unless, he says, “everything be trickery”. If those chords are still available, if they can still be heard with pleasure by our ears, the promise of art is proved a lie, which also means that the historical path to emancipation is lost.
As we know, it appears some day that they still can be heard. As it appears some day then you can still see figurative motifs on a canvas or make art by merely borrowing and re-exhibiting items from ordinary life. This, I would assume, is no radical shift from modernity to postmodernity. Modernity and postmodernity are only restrictive interpretations of the more complicated logic of the aesthetic regime of art. There is no historical shift onto a radically new regime of art. But there is a dialectic of the “apolitically-political” work that draws it to a limit. That limit, I think, is clearly perceptible in the lyotardian “aesthetic of the sublime” which is both the accomplishment and the entire reversal of the adornian dialectic. In a sense, Lyotard is still in keeping with Adorno or Greenberg when he goes to war against trans-avant-gardism. I quote from the essay: Representation, Presentation, Unpresentable, included in The Inhuman: “Mixing on the same surface neo- or hyperrealist motifs and abstract, lyrical or conceptual motifs means that everything is equivalent because everything is good for consumption. This is an attempt to establish and have approved a new taste. This taste is no taste (…) To the extent that this postmodernism, via critics, museum and gallery directors and collectors, puts strong pressure on the artist, it consists in aligning research in painting with a de facto state of “culture” and in deresponsibilizing the artists with respect to the question of the unpresentable. Now in my view this question is the only one worthy of what is at stake in life and thought in the coming century “. This sounds entirely adornian. But the emphasis on the heterogeneous sensible is entirely overturned in the lyotardian interpretation. That heterogeneity turns out to be the pure inscription of the power of the Other. The avant-garde has to draw indefinitely the border separating art from commodity culture, to inscribe indefinitely the link of art to the “heterogeneous sensible”. But it has to do it in order to invalidate indefinitely the “trickery” of the aesthetic promise itself, to denounce both the promises of revolutionary avant-gardism and the entropy of commodity estheticization. The avant-garde is endowed with the paradoxical duty of bearing witness to an immemorial dependence of human thought that makes any promise of emancipation a trickery. So this scenario just alike its opposite comes to a self-invalidation: no more in the archipolitics of the sensible community but in the identification of the “autonomous artwork” to the ethical task of testimony. The politics of the resistant form eventually comes down to another kind of desidentification of art, of identification of art and life.
My purpose, in sketching out these two forms of self-contradiction, was not at all to join the mourning or cheerful choir singing the “crisis of modernity”. Rather it was an attempt to get away from those simplistic categories. I also wanted to stress the inner tension that dwells in the heart of the seemingly simple project of a “critical” art that would give the “consciousness” of the forms of domination and make the spectator become an actor of a process of social and political transformation. The hitch of the project is that “politics” has its own aesthetics, its own way of “making people conscious” and reframe the issues of domination and rebellion, by inventing new plots, reframing the visibility of “political” matters, putting new objects on the stage. On the other hand, aesthetics has its own politics, its two opposite politics, so that the project of a “critical art” is from the outset dragged between the two opposite logics: the logic according which art has to suppress itself in order to become life and the logic according which it does politics only at the cost of not doing it. The tension within the critical model has been well exemplified by the brechtian model whose legacy is still at play in so many contemporary projects. This model has to come to terms with a very simple contradiction: the work that “makes people understand” by disclosing the reality under the appearance dismisses that “strangeness” or uncanny of the resistant appearance that bears witness to the arbitrariness or the unbearable of a world. In so far as it invites us to decipher the signs of capitalism and commodification behind everyday things and behaviours it locates itself within the closure of a system where the transformation of things into signs is redoubled by the excess of interpretation that takes yet further the becoming-sign of every thing. So a critical art must be an art that both gives the spectator both the intelligence of what he or she did not understand and the power of refusal, attached to the spectacle of the unconceivable. It must be a kind of third way, a negotiation between the two politics of aesthetics. That negotiation must keep something of the tension that withdraws the power of aesthetic sensuousness from the other spheres of experience and something of the tension that pushes aesthetic experience toward the reconfiguration of collective life. It borrows from the zones of indiscernibility of art and life the connections that provoke political intelligibility. And it borrows from the separateness of art works the sense of sensory strangeness that enhances political energies. The main procedure of critical or political art consists thus in setting out the encounter and possibly the clash between heterogeneous elements. This is for instance what Brecht did when he blended the scholastic forms of political teaching with the enjoyments of the musical and the cabaret and staged allegories of Nazi power discussing in verse about matters of cauliflowers. The clash of the heterogeneous elements is supposed to provoke a break in our perception. On the one hand it is aimed at disclosing some secret of power and violence. The connection of cauliflowers and high rhetoric conveys a political message. But, on the other hand, the clash is produced insofar as the heterogeneity of the elements resists the homogeneity of meaning. Cauliflowers have to remain cauliflowers, enhancing political energy out of their very opaqueness.
This means that the formula of critical art was made possible by a third kind of indiscernibility between art and life: neither the self-suppression of art in collective life, nor its reduction to sheer testimony, but a micropolitics based on the ongoing permeability between the realm of art and the realm of prosaic life and commodity culture. The blurring of the boundary between high culture and low or popular culture has often been viewed as the hallmark of postmodernism. But the crossing of the boundary reaches back far earlier. It is consistent with the whole logic of the aesthetic regime of art. As soon as the sublimity of high literature came to terms with the triviality of journalism and “literary industry”, it transpired that, while poetry fell into the realm of commodities, commodities themselves began to travel in the opposite way. In Balzac’s Lost Illusions, the muddy shops of the wooden barracks where the poet Lucien de Rubempré has to sell his verse and his soul among businessmen and prostitutes turn out to be themselves a fantastic scenery, a new kind of living poem. It appears then that the heterogeneous sensible can be found everywhere. By becoming obsolete, unavailable for everyday consumption, any commodity, any familiar article became available for art as a body ciphering the history of a society and an object of disinterested pleasure or uncanny excitement. Forty years after, Zola’s fictional painter Claude Lantier would transfer the power of the Juno Ludovisi to the vegetables of the Parisian Halles and claim as his best work its ephemeral re-arrangement of the window display of his cousin’s pork butchery ( The Belly of Paris). Fifty years after Zola, Aragon in turn would see a fantasy of German mermaids in the window of an old-fashioned umbrella-shop in the Passage de l’Opéra ( Le Paysan de Paris). And Benjamin would identify in that phantasmagoria the “dialectic at work in the things”. Our contemporary exhibitions of recycled commodities or commercial videos still thrive on the same process.
This poetics of exchanges between art and non-art was the way in which the resistant otherness of the aesthetic work and the active appropriation of the common world could meet. Indeed that poetics went through various forms. In Zola’s novels, the permeability between art and commodity was emplotted in an epics of modern life and modern beauty. In the 1920’s the surrealists made him serve the attempt of recognizing in everyday life the absolute power of dream, overcoming the prose of bourgeois rationality. In the 60’s Marcel Broodthaers put into play in order to emphasize the commodification of art. In the 70’s Martha Rosler’s photomontages used it to demonstrate both the violence of the Vietnamese war hidden between the idyll of American consumption and the violence of the commodity sustaining the violence of war. That critical function is stilled posted in the agendas of art. A significant amount of exhibitions presents us with reduplications of commodities and commercial videos, assuming that those artefacts offer a radical critique of commodification and force us to cast a new gaze on the world of commodities, media and ads which surrounds us. I wonder how many people still give full credence to that power. Though still posted on our agendas, the critical claim is increasingly shifting onto two different attitudes.
The first attitude brings the critical pretension back to the undecidability of a game. It plays on the very indiscernibility of its operation and sets forth the vanishing character of the difference severing the subjection to commodified imagery from its ironic denunciation. That double play was obvious in the case of the exhibition first presented in Minneapolis under the pop title Let’s entertain, then repackaged in Paris as Beyond the Spectacle. This last title plaid on three levels: first the pop anti-high culture provocation; second, Guy Debord’s critique of the “spectacle”, meaning the triumph of alienated life; third, the identification of “entertainment” with Debord’s concept of “play”, viewed as an activity opposed to the passivity of the “spectacle”.
The second attitude tends to come back from the critical disclosure of the relations of power hidden behind the images and the self-critique of art to a new attempt to set forth, in a positive way, the potential of common history enclosed in the images and objects of our world. Rather than denouncing the boundary between elite museums and popular culture, it presents the anonymous visitor with sets of items that witness to a common history and emphasize the kinship between the art of the collector and the art of the rag-picker, between the gestures of artistic invention and the multiplicity of inventions at play in the arts of living and arts of doing of anybody. The so-called “relational aesthetics” has it that art creates no more objects but ephemeral situations and encounters, inducing new behaviours and new forms of social relationships. It is part of a more general shift from critical art to a new consensual idea of “art in our life”. For instance, the Guggenheim Museum in New York recently presented an exhibition called Moving Pictures. Its purpose was to show how the extensive use of reproducible media in contemporary art was rooted in the critical art practices of the 60’s and the 70’s, questioning both social and sexual stereotypes and artistic autonomy. Nevertheless the videos, photographs, installations and video-installations displayed around the rotunda illustrated a significant shift from that straight line. Instead of critique, they enhanced a half-realistic half-symbolist sense of the strangeness of the everyday life and the common people. That shift was over-stressed by the video installation of Bill Viola located at the top of the museum and entitled Going forth by day. Those five video- projections, embracing the cycles of Birth, Life, Death and Resurrection along with the cycles of Fire, Air, Earth and Water, brought us back to the great symbolist and expressionist frescoes of Human Destiny. It transpires as though the three politics of Aesthetics (shaping the forms of a new life, preserving the power of the heterogeneous sensible and exchanging the signs of art and the signs of life ) were fused into a new kind of indiscernibility.
This undecidability can be referred to a global situation in which concerns with
Humanity and attempts to “restore the social link” are increasingly prevailing over political concerns. But it is also consistent with the whole logic of the aesthetic regime. In this regime the identification of art forms as such involve political – I would rather say meta-political – potentials whose full actualization cannot be achieved without suppressing either art or politics or even both of them. Aesthetics promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy and it thrives on that ambiguity. As the awareness of that ambiguity grows, it enhances two attitudes: one of melancholy with respect to the failure of the promise, another of play with its very uncertainty. But, just as art becomes aware of the limits of its power, it is pushed toward a new political commitment by the weakening of politics itself. It transpires as though the narrowing of the public space and the lack of political invention gave to the performances and installations of the artists a new capacity of framing scenes of dissensus. How far they can contribute to the reconstruction of a political space instead of working as mere substitutes is still at issue to-day.
Jacques Rancière
Berkeley, September 2002
3. “The politics of aesthetics”
4. Brian Holmes Text on Rancière
Hierglyphs of the Future: Jacques Rancière and the Aesthetics of Quality
Brian Holmes
We’re not a surplus, we’re a plus. The slogan appeared at the demonstrations of the French jobless movement in the mid-90s in journals, on banners, and on tracts printed by the political art group, Ne pas plier. It knitted the critical force and the subjective claims of the movement into a single phrase. To be “a surplus” (laid off, redundant) was to be reduced to silence in a society that subtracted the jobless from the public accounts, that made them into a kind of residue—invisible, inconceivable except as a statistic under a negative sign. Excluded, in short: cut out of a system based on the status of the salaried employee. Until they finally came together to turn the tables, reverse the signs, and claim a new name on a stage they had created, by occupying unemployment offices in a nation-wide protest during the winter of 1997-98. The people with nothing erupted onto the public scene. “We’re a plus,” they said, intruding through the TV cameras into the country’s living rooms. Which also meant, “We’ll drink champagne on Christmas eve.”
A way to grasp the aesthetic language of the French social movements in the 90s—and of the transnational movements now emerging—is through the work of Jacques Rancière and his writings on the politics of equality. In Disagreement (published originally in 1995), he confronted the philosophy of government with the scandal of the political.1 Government fulfills an ideal of order when it administers, manages, and tries to totally account for a population; but its reality is the police. The police keeps everyone in their place, imposes the calculations of value, apportions out the shares in society.
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