Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art
by Jacques Rancière
Published June, 2013
The term theory has been used for quite a few decades to, among other things, put fear in the hearts of unsuspecting humanities students, antagonise classics scholars, infuriate quantitative researchers, and help make many academics appear far smarter than they actually are. It should come as no surprise that many self-proclaimed champions of real research and proper criticism have nothing but disdain for the proponents of theory, and that theory has been blamed for a host of cultural malaises. Even the supposed decline in the fortunes of Australian literature has been in part viewed as a consequence of the putative tyranny of, in the words of one literary patriot, ‘the most recent iteration of French theory’.
In my opinion, however, ‘theory’ is more or less a trendy name given to philosophy. It is a modern signifier which denotes the love of wisdom. And it is up to today’s genuine philosophers, such as Jacques Rancière, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris-VIII, to present sceptics and believers alike with properly wise and compelling new theoretical engagements with art and literature.
Rancière’s contributions to continental aesthetic theory are among the more recent developments in his work, coming after his significant interventions in political philosophy, sociology and pedagogy during the 1970s and 1980s. With La parole muette: Essai sur les contradictions de la littérature (1998), Rancière launched, according to Gabriel Rockhill in the introduction to the book’s English translation, ‘a major offensive against the modernist doxa (and its postmodernist avatars)’. Rejecting the fashionably depoliticised, poststructuralist perspectives of the era and participating, as Alison Ross has written, in ‘the discursive field that articulates the stakes of political topics in literary terms’, Rancière may be viewed alongside other major contemporary European philosophers of the Left, such as Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Žižek, as leading the revival in both radical philosophy and what Walter Benjamin called the politicisation of aesthetics.
Rancière’s new book, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, the original French version of which was first published two years ago, is his most comprehensive and panoramic illustration of the ideas he has developed since La parole muette. Key among these is what the philosopher has termed the distribution of the sensible, first proposed in Le partage du sensible: esthétique et politique (2000). This condition coincides with historical modernity, or the period – beginning with the French Revolution in politics, German Idealism in philosophy, and Romanticism in art – in which the political and the artistic become inseparable, coterminous and at times interchangeable.
According to Rancière, modern democratic politics and modern non-classical arts are two manifestations of the same new, revolutionary social space. In this space, sensibility or sense perception (aisthesis in Greek: the origin of the word aesthetics) is shared and distributed across social divides, providing the impetus for both a new egalitarian politics and a new democratic regime of artistic appreciation and practice, which Rancière has called the aesthetic regime of art. His new book is a lucid, engaging and at times breathtaking investigation of historical episodes and works of art crucial to the development of this aesthetic regime. It is also a rigorous argument in favour of a radically anti-elitist theory of art which, according to the book’s prelude,
shows how a regime of perception, sensation and interpretation of art is constituted and transformed by welcoming images, objects and performances that seemed most opposed to the idea of fine art: vulgar figures of genre painting, the exaltation of the most prosaic activities in verse freed from meter, music-hall stunts and gags, industrial buildings and machine rhythms, smoke from trains and ships reproduced mechanically, extravagant inventories of accessories from the lives of the poor.
The fourteen scenes of the vulgar and the mundane entering artistic milieus, as narrated and interrogated by Rancière in this extraordinary book, are not simple celebrations of the popular, the kitsch or the marginal. These instances of ‘the prose of the world’ – a phrase Rancière uses after G.W.F. Hegel – are significant because they revolutionised the classical arts of poetry, theatre and architecture, radically reconfigured dance and fiction, and launched the new art forms of photography and cinema.
Rancière is not a theorist of the transaesthetic – Jean Baudrillard’s term for everyday, non-art objects that are perceived as artistic by passive consumers in contemporary postmodern contexts. Among the writers central to his discussion are such canonical figures of nineteenth century Western literature as Stendhal, Walt Whitman, Stéphane Mallarmé and Henrik Ibsen. And yet it is the enthusiasm of modern artists and aestheticians for non-art, and the fundamental and transformative impact of this enthusiasm on the traditional arts, that forms the subject of Rancière’s vignettes, which prove to be fascinating and often surprising documentations of the work of art in the age of political emancipation.
Rancière’s exploration of this new schema begins in Dresden in 1764 with the German art historian and archaeologist Johan Joachim Winkelmann reflecting on the Belvedere Torso, the remaining fragment of an apocryphal Roman or possibly Grecian marble statue of a naked male, most probably representing Hercules. While such classical depictions of mythical figures belong to a much older order of artistic conception – a regime in which art represents myth, which Rancière has referred to as the poetic regime of art – in the eyes of the eighteenth century German aesthetician, the headless, armless and generally decrepit stone remnant signified ‘the destruction of what lies at the heart of the representative logic – namely the organic model of the whole, with its proportions and its symmetries’.
It is commonplace among the proponents of modernism to view symbolism as the first movement to resist and reject representative logic, or mimesis. Yet as Rancière argues, rather persuasively, ‘the silent revolution’ that undermined the tenets of artistic representation can be traced back to the thought of Winkelmann, one of the founders of neoclassicism, more than a century before symbolism:
Winkelmann inaugurates the age during which artists were busy unleashing the sensible potential hidden in inexpressiveness, indifference or immobility, composing the conflicting movements of the dancing body, but also of the sentence, the surface, or the coloured touch that arrest the story while telling it, that suspend meaning by making it pass by or avoid the very figure they designate.
The liberation of the work of art from its designation – an often regal, religious, mythological, or at any rate socially powerful referent, figure or narrative – allows the work to become ‘the property of a people, the expression of its form of life’. This far-reaching admission of a perceivable ‘form of life’ into art is the subject of the book’s second chapter. In the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that transmitted the Revolution’s ideas across Europe, Hegel noted a ‘new milieu of “liberty” and “equality” called art’, while commenting on popular Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Beggar Boys Eating Grapes and Melon (1645-6). Art certainly had existed before Hegel; but according to him, it is not the subject matter of Murillo’s supposedly middlebrow, sentimental painting – the poverty and hunger of two urchins in ragged clothes – but the urchins’ ‘complete absence of care and concern’ which ‘shines forth’ from the painting, providing the work with an autonomous objectivity. Rancière views the painting, via Hegel and the prism of Romanticism, not as a representation of something external to the work, but as ‘the illustration of subjects towards the pure potential of appearance’.
Rancière’s phrases may occasionally remind one of the jargon of postmodernism, and the theme of ‘appearance’ as a central tenet of modern art may indeed strike one as a kind of fetishisation of style over substance and form over content – a fetishising not dissimilar to the bourgeois aesthete’s ideology of art for art’s sake. Rancière is careful, however, to avoid such pitfalls. He emphasises that, in his proposed regime of art, the work is liberated from the bond of representation, not in the interest of mere innovation, abstraction and sophistry, but so that art may accommodate, in place of the enervated subjects of classical artistic production – deities and heroes, monarchs and aristocrats, and so on – that emancipatory motif of modern politics: the people.
Hegel, for example, ‘was invested in thinking exactly what art for art’s sake and art as the expression of a society have in common.’ Such a commonality is at its most luminous in the book’s third chapter, in which, against the prejudices of contemporary aesthetes’ aversion to realism, Rancière illustrates that Stendhal’s 1830 realist masterpiece Le Rouge et le Noir is far more aesthetically iconoclastic than is often acknowledged. This can be seen in the narrative’s abolition of ‘the old division, the old hierarchy between two kinds of narrative logic: the noble logic of a chain of actions belonging to the tragic poem, and the vulgar logic of mixed conditions and the cascade of events that made the novel entertaining.’
Among Rancière’s most intriguing examples of a ‘vulgar logic of mixed conditions’ or ‘the prose of the world’ not only influencing but changing the logic of existing ‘noble’ art forms is the arresting appearance, in the poetry of Walt Whitman, of the actuality of a young United States of America. Here ‘the multiplicity of activities distributed in the diverse spaces of a territory’ – in Whitman’s case, ‘sea, mountainous peak, Niagara … the knottiness of seashells, the savage ode of the tempest and the epic song of summer and harvests’ (and so on) – penetrate the poet’s language to express ‘the living poem’ of ‘the immeasurable American people and territory’.
In the book’s sixth chapter, the pioneering modernist Stéphane Mallarmé is mesmerised by the American dancer Loїe Fuller’s singular ‘serpentine dance’, as performed at the Folies Bergère, a place commonly associated with ‘a “vulgar” audience, supposedly aficionados of lascivious poses and steamy semi-nudes’. The 1893 encounter between the poet and Fuller’s dazzling, ethereal performance compelled Mallarmé to pursue a new direction in his work. For Mallarmé,
Loїe Fuller’s dance is not only an art, but an illustration of a new paradigm of art: it is not a dance anymore, but the performance of an unknown art, or rather a new idea of art: a writing of forms determining the very space of its manifestation. This is the art that Mallarmé wants to fix on the written page instead of feelings of ‘ladies and gentlemen’.
Fuller’s inventive use of stage lighting and Mallarmé’s of typesetting are seen as harbingers of the distribution of the most powerful engine of the sensible in the twentieth century: visual technology. Having discussed modern theatre’s discovery of the materiality of the stage and the transformation of architecture as a result of its encounter with the science of sociology, Rancière takes the reader to Hollywood. More precisely, he considers the figure of Charlie Chaplin via the aesthetic theories of the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky. In the projected body of Chaplin (and, by extension, in the form of silent cinema) ‘the exact gestures of popular mime’ foment – as with the Belvedere Torso, Murillo’s painting and Fuller’s dance – ‘the very life of a new art’.
This new art is shown in one of its most vivid and ambitious manifestations in the book’s penultimate chapter in the form of the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s film, A Sixth Part of the World (1926), an epic comprising documentary footage of ‘heterogeneous activities’ across the new Communist nation – ‘from the [horse] breeders in the steppes and the Siberian hunters to the Leipzig fairs, via the ports of the Black Sea or the Atlantic Ocean and the icebreaker that clears the way for ships’ – which ‘will to show the Soviet Union as a real living body’.
In a provocative move, Rancière does not end the book with a formal conclusion. Instead, he considers the emergence of contemporary reportage in the United States in the 1930s as the final instance of an ‘art attuned to all the vibrations of universal life: an art capable both of matching the accelerated rhythms of industry, society and urban life, and of giving infinite resonance to the most ordinary minutes of everyday life.’
Does the fact that the book terminates with this episode suggest that the aesthetic regime of art began to wane with the Second World War? Rancière’s other writings on art certainly consider more recent works. For example, in ‘Problems and Transformations of Critical Art’, from his 2004 book Malaise dans l’esthétique (first published in English as Aesthetics and Its Discontents), he reflects on ‘the diverse kinds of 1960s contestatory art’ – by Wolf Vostell and Krzysztof Wodiczko, among others – as well as the contemporary French artist Bertrand Lavier’s installation La Salle des Martin (1969). In the same book, Rancière also considers the 1978 American television series Holocaust, and Danish director Lars von Trier’s film Dogville (2003). One is therefore tempted to imagine the philosopher planning a sequel to the book under review, in which he will analyse the fusion of the mundane with the artistic from the 1940s to the present day.
One is, however, left wondering if there is not a hint of nostalgia in the lovingly detailed investigations in Aisthesis, a yearning for a time in which art, as with politics, embodied the promise of genuine progress, community and egalitarianism. Do today’s artists engaging with our own instances of sensible ‘non-art’ objects – for example, digital technology, graffiti, fashion, reality television and computer games – produce an art that expresses the living poem of the society, or are these artists simply emulating and propagating late-capitalist ideology by ‘being content with parodying’ ideology, as Rancière puts it in ‘Problems and Transformations of Critical Art’?
Whatever the possibilities for present and future distributions of the sensible, Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art makes an exceptionally strong case for the emergence of a new, at times exhilarating way of producing, perceiving and discussing art in the West from late-eighteenth century onward. This is due not only to his belief in the plausibility of his theory, but to his unflinching use of primary sources and his eschewing the more frivolous and flamboyant postures of self-consciously original European thinkers.
Jacques Rancière, Mute Speech, translated by James Swenson (Columbia University Press, 2011)
Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents, translated by Steven Corcoran (Polity, 2011)
Alison Ross, ‘Equality in the Romantic Art Form: The Hegelian Background to Jacques Rancière’s “Aesthetic Revolution”,’ Jacques Rancière and the Contemporary Scene, edited by Jean-Philippe Deranty and Alison Ross (Continuum, 2012).