Notes on the Politics of Aesthetics
Composed of two interviews, an afterword, and a glossary, Jacques Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics prescribes a uniquely jagged network of art and politics punctuated by unusual spaces and sharp points. This tiny text is only a glimpse of Rancière’s project. His oeuvre includes historical studies of the working class, film, poetry, art, and his own insurgent political philosophy. Proponents of art and culture should be (and have been) thrilled by Rancière’s attention. His focus on aesthetics, in this case, offers a boost to art discourse, dismantling many stale arguments about modernism and the end of art, in favour of his own philosophical framework. Translator Gabriel Rockhill’s glossary has been very useful in deciphering this dense constellation, my account of which will be only a brief fragment within the constraints of this review.
In his text, Rancière immediately outlines what he calls the “distribution of the sensible.” This distribution is composed of the a priori laws which condition what is possible to see and hear, to say and think, to do and make. It is important to stress this point: the distribution of the sensible is literally the condition of possibility for perception, thought, and activity, what it is possible to apprehend by the senses. The sensible is partitioned into various regimes and therefore delimits forms of inclusion and exclusion in a community.
The distribution of the sensible is the field for Rancière’s definition of politics. There is no judiciary, or political party with Rancière’s politics; these forms belong to the police order which attempts to maintain a particular distribution of the sensible. For Rancière, politics is the assertion of the universal political axiom “we are all equal” and is applied by those (people, demos) without a share in the communal distribution of the sensible, those who are supernumerary and unaccounted for within the police order. Their dispute attempts to reconfigure the sensible in order that their claims may be heard and understood. Unfortunately, as Rancière is taken up by art theorists and journalists today, politics is often only understood in terms of a particular representation of the political: images of state law enforcement, activists, gritty typography, or public interventions and institutional critique, etc. Even Claire Bishop’s refutation of certain relational aesthetics via Rancière tends to bind Rancière’s ideas to this particular terrain of thinking politics. The political however, plays on a multiplicity of levels, especially, I would say, on the level of language itself (visual, musical, etc.). In this way, art is an advantageous operator.
For contemporary aesthetics in particular, Rancière defines the “aesthetic regime of art” (beginning at the earliest dismantling of representational hierarchies (Cervantes, Vico) and becoming dominant in the last two centuries), which is founded on a paradox that asserts the singularity of art and frees it from the hierarchy of disciplines, subject matter, and genres and the appropriateness of these forms of expression. However, this freedom destroys any distinction between the arts and other ways of doing and making, eliminating any possibility to locate art’s singularity, evinced, for example, in the application of revolutionary purity to painting as well as furniture. Our notion of aesthetics, according to Rancière, is a jumble where figures as diverse as Hölderlin and Duchamp are swept together with the ban on representation and mechanical reproduction, the Kantian sublime and the Freudian primal scene, the autonomy of painting becomes entangled with the revolutionary quest for new forms of life, etc. Within this commotion, the simple modernist “teleology of historical evolution and rupture” is really only one model, one “desperate attempt to establish a ‘distinctive feature of art’” within the aesthetic regime. Properly understanding this regime is a matter of thinking the complicated link between autonomy and heteronomy between art becoming life and life becoming art.1
While the recent emphasis of activism and the art-life conflation in certain art practices may eschew the idealism of a modernist avant-garde, Rancière admonishes us to continue investigating the conditions that allow artistic choices to be made. I have argued elsewhere that the legitimating force of art potentially mitigates radical politics.2 Perhaps more poignantly, for political art, Rancière introduces an interesting reversal: “The arts only ever lend to projects of domination or emancipation what they are able to lend to them...what they have in common with them: bodily positions and movements, functions of speech, the parcelling out of the visible and the invisible.” In the aesthetic regime, there are no criteria for relating art and politics. “It is up to the various forms of politics to appropriate, for their own proper use, the modes of presentation or the means of establishing explanatory sequences produced by artistic practices rather than the other way around.” Far from reducing the significance of art, this seems to implicate the distribution of the sensible as an important concept for thinking about how works of art work. Furthermore, Rancière maintains that art already effectively makes communities, that art, not unlike knowledge and political statements, creates real effects producing “regimes of sensible intensity.” Agnes Martin once said that the artist’s goal is not to make political statements but to create lasting beauty. Her intimate investigation of vertical and horizontal lines is certainly evidence of her own distribution of the sensible. What interests me about the conceptual tools Rancière provides is that they do not privilege a particular scale. The “visible,” which Martin organized, was subtle; however, in my understanding of Rancière’s terms, Martin’s intimate project would maintain a potential for radicalism that could not be cultivated were it complicit with the political activist spectacles of its day.
I’d like to emphasize again that the aesthetic experience we understand, Rancière’s aesthetic regime, attempts the promise of new modes of art and new forms of life and community. This promise ties art to non-art in a complicated “system of heterologies.” This system is much more complicated than today’s aesthetic ironies, critiques of modernism, artistic activism, and second-hand discourses warrant. In this way Rancière’s text elucidates the field in which cultural production takes place and lays some incredibly rich soil for us to labour over.
- See “The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes,” New Left Review 14 (March/April 2002): 133–51, where Rancière examines the aesthetic regime in detail.
- Eli Bornowsky, “More Notes,” U.E. 1.2 (Summer, 2005): 45.
About the Author
Eli Bornowsky is an artist living and working in Vancouver. His paintings address perception with a formal psychedelia. He is currently represented by Blanket Gallery.